Just as Hanoi has become familiar enough to be home – we laugh at the traffic now instead of cursing it — we are leaving. Our first trip out is by train tomorrow morning. We will spend a couple of days in Sapa, a hill town in the north and then come back by overnight train on Thursday. This gives us Friday to load up the bikes and head out of town to Halong Bay very early Saturday morning.
I’m not crazy about the idea of cycling to Halong Bay given what we’ve seen of traffic here but it is a relatively short ride (two days) and if we really hate it we’ll organize a minibus out of there to a starting point on the Ho Chi Minh trail which by all accounts is our best route south. Otherwise we will wend our way back southwest on different highways, bypassing Hanoi, and then find our starting point on the trail (highways, 8 and 15).
The jet lag has worked in our favour in Hanoi as we have been out a number or times in the early morning, discovering that this is in fact the time to cycle out of here when the time comes, and also that the city can be quite lovely without all those motorcycles.. Yesterday morning we were up at 6 and in a café by Hoan Kiem Lake at 6:30. We watched the expats jogging on the road, locals doing tai chi in the park that borders the entire circumference of the lake, and close to the Ngoc Son Temple, a number of elderly women doing aerobics of a sort to Vietnamese pop music.
The temple sits on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake and dates back to the 15th century. Its central figure is an emperor who beat back the Chinese at some earlier point in history. The island houses the temple and altar as well as a platform with a pagoda style roof and some very lovely bonsai in large clay pots placed amongst benches with views of the temple, the lake and Hanoi. At 7 am on a Sunday the temple was quiet and the only throng of tourists to disrupt our peace was a delegation flanking a foreign dignitary (he spoke English but we didn’t recognize him) in the temple. Ian and I were sitting on a bench as he came by and other than his security detail placing themselves discreetly between him and Ian and I, they were not much of a disruption.
Our timing wasn’t as stellar for the Temple of Literature which we took in on Saturday. This is a beautiful historical site that was Vietnam’s original university and which honours Confucius and other scholars through Vietnamese history. As luck would have it, hundreds of young Hanoi students were celebrating their graduation while we were there and the temple complex which would normally be a quiet haven was run over with them photographing each other. However, they were excited and happy and the girls were dressed in the traditional ao dai so we went with the flow and snapped pictures of them and the temple. It was nice to see a temple dedicated to learning and to see a group of people celebrating their academic efforts – maintaining a link to over 1000 years of Vietnam’s history that is not war related.
We spent Friday afternoon walking along the lake to a neighborhood where we could find a bookstore that sells maps. As we tried to decide between a road atlas and a large detailed fold out map of Hanoi we met a local motorcycle guide who convinced us to avoid Highway 1 along the coast and take the Ho Chi Minh trail south to DaNong. (Our current plan then is to then cut across Vietnam to Laos on Highway 9, entering Laos at Savanahket).
We left the bookstore to tour the surrounding neighborhood which includes the French Opera House and a number of other colonial buildings that house French restaurants. The Opera House was even better than I remembered it from my trip in 97. It is operating as an opera house and has been restored and maintained – it is really beautiful.
Across the street is the Hanoi Stock Exchange and kitty corner to that, a large Gucci boutique. I had to stop for a moment at the intersection and think about what that meant.
With all the American election talk and the Romney supporters fear of Obama the socialist, I had to ask myself if I really understand what the terms capitalism and communism mean in 2012. I found myself looking at the Hanoi Stock Exchange sign, and marveling at the irony of a stock exchange in a communist country. Capitalism is evolving. There is no such thing as capitalism unfettered by government — government is a necessary evil. And once we get over that, we need to understand that we need a government that is concerned about the middle class as that is where the stability and innovation a modern country needs to prosper comes from. Before he was a politician Mitt ran a business that made its money shutting down American companies using ethically questionable consulting practices (using leveraged buyouts that ultimately put the debt back onto the company being purchased and in some cases bankrupting the purchased company resulting in thousands of lost jobs while Mitt made billions). He also represents a lunatic not so fringe minority of Americans that cling to the past, and fundamentalist religious beliefs that threaten to spill over into a secular and diverse society, taking away hard-earned rights from ethnic minorities, women and gays. Sigh. Let’s hope that racism and the ridiculous fear of socialism don’t lead Americans to vote for the wrong guy.
One last and much lighter note – it was time for a cut and colour and so I took a deep breath and marched into a salon and did my best to use sign language to make a deal. So I have my new Vietnam look, the product of my lack of ability to speak Vietnamese. My hair is now a deep brunette and has been thinned in such a way that I expect it to look like an absolute bush within 4 weeks. Ahh. Will see what they can do about it in Laos.