Saturday, December 13, 2008

Hanoi, day 1

We have arrived in the bustling capital of the country and we are staying in the Old Quarter. The streets are brimming with life and business as everywhere else. The immediate point of reference is Saigon and everything seems a bit more frenetic in the streets and a bit less sensitive. (Maybe we've lost our touch crossing the streets during our time in the smaller cities.) Still when some guy near runs over Nadine while trying to get his motorbike onto the sidewalk, it can't all be a matter of our reflexes or radar going awry.

The Cyclo drivers badger us to take a one hour ride and we have not quite mastered the appropriate gesture to discourage them. Throughout the trip we've had multiple requests from individual drivers, all of whom must have read some report about the diminished attention spans of TV-addled Westerners or the like. They add to the colour of the streets. Today we've also had the street vendors offer Nadine their bamboo brace to pose with their load for a picture. We've waved them off as well and I've been a bit more cautious about aiming my camera at someone who will turn around and knock me up for a buck or two. That would get bloody expensive the way I shoot.

We made our way to the Hoa Lo Prison or "Hanoi Hilton" as John McCain and other POW pilots called it. I've had an urge to see the movie of the same name, but it was interesting to take in the artifacts. The prison was originally used by the French colonials for the first half of the century before they Vietnamese managed to unload them. The atrocities the French committed were contrasted with an exhibit on the Americans which showed the POWs uniformly smiling and relatively content for the 26 seconds or fractions of seconds of the 6-7 years that the Americans were kept. An interesting visit.

The highlight of the day and yesterday for that matter was visiting a couple of restuarants that are run to give, in most cases, street kids a chance to train in the restaurant industry to get a job. The restaurant we visited in Hue was a smaller operation than this one in Hanoi. Tonight we went to a place that was five levels and is developing a strong international reputation for its work. We were there relatively early and had a chance to get to know the students a bit, where they came from and how they are progressing. Our waiter tonight came to Hanoi when he was about 7 years old and he started off doing the Dickens routine - shining shoes and the like and has been at the restaurant, named KOTO, for a little over a year. He is halfway through his two year program. There were five wait staff on our floor of the restaurant and we got to talk to them a bit, help them with their English and get a few pics as well.

There are quite a few more CD/DVD shops here than there appeared to be in Saigon - probably a matter of what neighbourhoods we got to. Another intriguing thing here is that there are clearly identifiable neighbourhoods that are a bit more upscale with the merchandise that they sell. There is the inundation of places with the Uncle Ho and Tintin in Vietnam T-shirts for sale and the like but there are a lot more boutiques that cater to more discriminating customers. While booking our trip to Ha Long Bay, Nadine stumbled upon (thanks to her 6th sense) a place that caters to her pottery habit. She'll head back there on Tuesday night to load up.