Hanoi, Vietnam

The night bus left Hue at 5pm on Friday and rolled into Hanoi at 7am on Saturday.  After checking into a great little hotel recommended by my friend Tenley, who lived in Hanoi for years, I went right out to reacquaint myself with the city.  It didn’t take long to remember why I like Hanoi more than Saigon – the traffic, heat and humidity are not much different, but Hanoi has more style.  It feels less frantic and more authentic.  The Hoan Kiem Lake gives the old town area a calm, scenic focal point.  Hanoi is clearly growing and changing fast, but it seems to have so much character that it’s not getting ahead of itself.

Even so, my first order of business in Hanoi was to figure out how soon I could make the jump to Sapa.  There was space available on the night train Sunday so I grabbed it, knowing that I’ll have more time in Hanoi between Sapa and Halong Bay and then again before crossing over to Laos.  With my train ticket set, I e-mailed my favorite hotel in Sapa and booked a room for four nights, then I turned my attention back to Hanoi and took a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake.

I only made it halfway around the lake before a student named Duc introduced himself and asked if I’d help him practice English.  Duc said he’s in his third year of a four-year University program, focusing on English but also studying Chinese.  He grew up in a small village about 100km outside of Hanoi and his goal is to become a high-school English teacher.

 

Duc

 
“Is it easy to find people who will help you practice English?” I asked Duc.  I assumed it was, given that there are so many tourists in Hanoi.  But Duc said no, because he sees very few Americans and British.  He said the countries that send the most tourists to Hanoi are Korea, France, and China, with the USA hardly cracking the top 10.  And when Duc finds an American or a Brit they often don’t want to talk.  (I showed Duc why the Lonely Planet guidebook – extremely popular with Western travelers – might be partially responsible:  in the Hanoi section it warns that people who claim to be English students might be trying to run a scam of some kind.  Duc said very matter-of-factly that there are definitely some shady characters in Hanoi and it pays to be careful, but the vast majority of people who say they want to practice English, really, in fact, just want to practice English.)

While I was talking with Duc we noticed a woman in traditional dress posing for a professional photographer, and I sneaked in a few shots for myself.

 

Model in Hanoi

 

Model Reviewing Her Photos

 
Duc and I agreed to meet the next day at the entrance to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, and I went to my hotel for a dose of air conditioning before heading back out to take some photos around sunset.

 

Turtle Tower Blue Hour

 

Bridge to Ngoc Son Temple

 

Shore of Hoan Kiem Lake at Night

 

Ngoc Son Temple at Night

 

Hanoi Street at Night

 
Still groggy from the 14-hour bus ride the night before, I almost let myself sleep in Sunday morning but instead sucked it up and forced myself out for sunrise photos around Hoan Kiem Lake.

 

Hanoi Street Portrait – Grandfather

 

Man with Fan in Hanoi

 
Have I mentioned that it’s hot and humid in Vietnam?  Even before the sun rose I started sweating, just standing still taking photos.  So by the time I walked all the way from Hoan Kiem Lake to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, in direct sunlight, wearing pants instead of shorts (on the understanding that shorts weren’t allowed in the mausoleum, which didn’t seem to be true), I was so drenched I looked like I’d been standing in the rain.  To make things even more comfortable, the place was mobbed.  Apparently the crowds on Sunday are especially bad because many families in the surrounding countryside use the day off to make a pilgrimage to see Uncle Ho.

As you get closer to the mausoleum, essentially the most sacred ground in the country, the number of restrictions multiplies and the officials grow increasingly tense.  At one point I walked somewhere I wasn’t supposed to and a soldier ran at me blowing a whistle – thankfully not one of the soldiers brandishing an AK-47.  In the chaos I couldn’t find Duc, so I just got in line with the rest of the sweating masses.  Two couples started talking to me in line and I put my foot in my mouth even quicker than usual.  Based on their accent I asked if they were from Australia.  They all broke eye contact and looked uncomfortable.  “We’re from New Zealand,” said one of the husbands coldly.

The line moved at a decent pace but it still took a solid hour just to get to the outskirts of the mausoleum.  Near the door to the building the guards made sure we were walking in proper formation and weren’t speaking loudly.  I’m not sure how much of the elation I felt when I finally entered the building was due to the presence of the honored President and how much was due to fact that the place had the most effective air conditioning I’d felt anywhere in the entire country.  In the room with Ho Chi Minh’s body there were at least eight guards, four standing on the ground at every corner of the glass case, and four guards grabbing people and pushing them forward to keep the line moving.

 

Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

 

Crowd Leaving Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum

 
I finally ran into Duc on the way out of the mausoleum and we took the bus back to Hoan Kiem Lake for lunch  As we walked from the bus to the restaurant, Duc suddenly turned and hid his face.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.

“My girlfriend just drove by on her motorbike.”

“So what?”

“I told her I was going to visit my parents in my village this weekend.”  Turns out Duc had a date with a second girlfriend the night before and used the out-of-town lie as his cover.

“How many girlfriends do you have?” I asked.

“Three,” he said with a smile.  “One main girlfriend and two others.”

“That’s a dangerous game.”

“Yes, very dangerous,” he agreed.  Duc was clearly a smooth operator.  He warmed up to the topic and asked me, “Do you think it’s easy to flirt with girls?”

“You’re talking to the wrong guy, Duc.  I’m terrible.”

“For me it is very easy to flirt with Vietnamese girls,” he said.  I asked him how he met his girlfriends.  He said his second girlfriend was a student at a high school near his university and he happened to see her walking home one day.  He though she was beautiful, so he started following her.  She noticed him and walked faster, so he matched her pace.  Then she started running, so he started running.  Eventually she made it home and ran inside, and her parents came out and scared Duc away.

A week later he happened to see her again and he asked her why she ran away.  “I was frightened of you,” she said, and they both had a good laugh.

“And that’s how you flirted with her?”

“Yes,” Duc said.  “Very successful.”  Duc then said the only problem he’s had with the ladies is in the kissing department.  Before he met his main girlfriend, which was just a few months ago, he’d never kissed a girl before and he wasn’t sure how to go about it.  So, of course, he turned to the trusty Internet, where he found a six-step plan that he quickly put into practice with his main girlfriend.

Duc’s Six Step Plan for How to Kiss Your Girlfriend

  1. Take her someplace where there aren’t other people around.
  2. Stroke her hair.
  3. Softly touch her hand.
  4. Kiss her hair, neck, and/or the side of her face.
  5. Back off a little and stare into her eyes.
  6. If the reaction is good, move in for the kiss.

Apparently the six steps worked like a charm with his main girlfriend and it has been smooth sailing ever since.  Duc continued to instruct me in the finer points of flirting until I had to say goodbye so I could catch the night train to Sapa.