Thursday, October 11, 2012

Hello Hanoi

It was always going to be difficult to come to terms with being back in Melbourne after a year on the road travelling Australia. And so it proved to be. "Have you settled back in?" and "Is everything back to normal now?" seemed to have been the predominant questions from well wishing friends and family. Categorically for me the answer was no on both counts. Nothing is as it was before. Kimi has made sure of that. Dealing with a new baby, now a toddler with burgeoning personality, guaranteed that nothing could ever be the same. We struggled. Well certainly Tori and I did. And still have been. Tori has hated the Melbourne winter. She'd rather be somewhere else. Pretty much anywhere else, but if asked to narrow it down, she'd point to the southern Queensland hinterland village of Maleny. A place of stunning natural beauty and significantly warmer climate. I, meanwhile, have been wrestling with my changed working situation. The daily commute to town from Warrandyte and the immense personal fallout that accompanied the end of my association with the company I formerly represented in Asia-Pacific. The latter one affected me more than I thought it would. Like a long term love affair that turns sour. Filled with bitterness and loss. The change in the actual work side has been a blessing. That had got to a stage where it was boring me senseless and they were getting far too corporatey and procedural for me. It has only been the damage of friendship that has been of any consequence. At times that wreaked havoc with my psyche. I bounced between rage and depression. The angst of the situation only recently calming to rest in my mind with the passage of time. And my working in the city these last few months has meant that I am hardly seeing Tori and the kids at all, after spending pretty much all of every day together last year. This has been especially difficult for Tori. Me off at work, Jazz and Finn at school and just her alone at home with Kimi. It was with this as a back drop that I booked us all on a five week trip to Vietnam. Something to look forward to. Something out of the ordinary. Something akin to life on the road. Five weeks of unplanned adventure in a foreign land.

We flew into Hanoi with three nights accommodation booked in a well recommended hotel, in the old part of the city. In the days when it was only Tori and I, we would just rock up to a new place and then look for accommodation when we got there. Apart from a few occasions, such as when we ended up in the very dodgy Tenderloin (aka the loin) of San Francisco, or a sleazy hotel that was more often paid for by the hour than by the night in Vegas, or when we drove around the entire state of Victoria in a weekend searching for somewhere that had a vacancy and ended up in Underbool, this method has served us well and led us to a load of interesting places. Especially when we were unable to find any accommodation at all and instead ended up staying in the homes of random strangers we met during the search, as had happened to us in Jordan and Turkey. With two pre-teen kids and an infant in tow, I wasn't quite up for the search on arrival method, especially after a fifteen hour journey and was happy to see that one of the blokes carrying the name signs at the airport arrivals hall was there waiting for me. Three nights seemed like it would be a good intro to the country and enough time to gather our bearings and work out where we actually wanted to go next. I've always liked unplanned travel. An open itinerary with the freedom to move on when you fancy, or to change direction based on the advice of a fellow traveller met during a chance, fleeting encounter in a bar. And who knows how it will be travelling in Vietnam with a 15 month old boy. Worst case scenario if it gets too difficult, we can just fly somewhere for a few weeks and laze on a beach. But I'm hoping for more than that.

As always, we arrived at our destination at night. Totally exhausted from a long journey and longing just for a clean bed to pass out on. But there had been casualties along the way. Kimi's sleeping companion Monkey Monkey and Finn's special blanket were both missing in action, last seen at Hanoi airport. We were all on edge and three days of booked accommodation all of a sudden seemed like nothing. What are we going to do then? How is this all going to work with a toddler? Should we have brought antimalarial medicine for travelling to remote areas? What can we eat and what should we avoid? What if one of the kids gets really sick? Even though Vietnam is well touristed now and hardly off the beaten trail, it is a country that we have no idea about and is sure to have its dangers. Will Kimi run off and be cleaned up by a rampant Hanoi motorcycle?

Like it usually does, the following day brought calm as the previous night's anxiety subsided and the excitement of being in a new and vibrant place kicked in. And what a vibrance Hanoi has. It is a city with a throbbing rhythm. One that is easy to pick up and assimilate into. The streets are a bustling seemingly chaotic whirr of motor bikes, taxis, cyclos and street vendors all moving in time, but somehow also at their own pace. People had warned me about the perils of crossing the road in Hanoi, making it seem like you were the poor unfortunate frog who inevitably got smooshed in Frogger. But in fact crossing the road is something akin to osmosis. A scattered mass of pedestrians somehow moves through the stream of traffic with no vehicles actually stopping or slowing down in any way. Somehow the entities pass through each other to continue unscathed on their way on the other side. The safety harness for Kimi had been bought following the warnings that if he ran out into this traffic, he was a goner. But the harness is still in Melbourne. And we'd been told that the stroller would be impossible in the old Hanoi streets. There is certainly no room for a stroller, or in fact even a pedestrian, on the inaccurately described "footpath". That's too full of parked motor cycles and scooters and people congregated on small blue stools chowing down on the local street food or downing glasses of the local bia hoi. So the stroller has just become another vehicle on the road and in fact a faster and more robust vehicle than some. We all stroll out there on the road along behind, moving at our own pace like a family of ducks, with the bikes cruising around us with a honk of their horn. In fact there is the continued sound of horns from every vehicle that possesses one, forming together to create the Hanoi street symphony. The street vendors move along at their own particular pace with a kind of bouncing gait. Bobbing up and down rhythmically while balancing a long pole over the shoulder, a basket at either end filled with their their wares. Their heads are resplendently adorned with the classic conical hats particular to this region. And their baskets carry all sorts of items from juicy pineapples, mangoes or bananas, to local vegetables or herbs or flowers, to crabs or other assorted shellfish, to socks and undies, to wicker baskets or feather dusters or the aforementioned conical hats, or indeed seemingly any item that somebody may potentially need to buy. The cyclos are mostly stationery vehicles soliciting tourists to purchase a one hour ride around the city. I'm still not sure how they feel they can fit five people and a stroller into that small carriage at the front of the bike, but it hasn't stopped every one of them asking. And there is a constant barrage of people trying to sell you things. T-shirts, Vietnamese hats with a red star, sweet sugar coated doughnuts on a stick, postcards, silver bracelets, a decorated paper fan. People in Hanoi seem to be doing fine, but its all relative and clearly the tourists who have the financial ability to travel there are laden with cash and ripe for the picking. Prices of course are inflated to the max, whatever the item. No sale is complete without a good haggle, which of course I've embraced wholeheartedly. It's all part of the game. I love the banter with the locals during these exchanges. The feigned look of shock at the price I've offered, as if I've just insulted them with my offer. The insistence that the price they've just put forward is their last and they couldn't possibly budge, acting as if their family won't eat for the next month if they were to go any lower. ("Won't take a penny less or strike me dead"). If a vendor agrees too quickly to the price I have offered, I realise that I've come in way too high and have just been played for a sucker. It's likely just for a dollar or two, so it's not the money that causes the grumbling feeling in my head. It's the feeling of having lost the game. Checkmate! In one exchange I was taken down by a man with no legs. He said he'd lost them from a bomb. That could certainly be true, with a large number of Vietnamese people still killed or maimed every year by unexploded ordinance dropped by the Americans more than 35 years ago. Or maybe that just seems like a more sympathetic story for a tourist target than having lost his legs in a motorcycle accident on the Hanoi streets, which is also a possible, but less exotic, truth. But regardless of the cause, one thing that was undeniable was that the man had no legs. I bought from him a copy of the book The Sorrow of War, which is a highly acclaimed tale of the American war by a North Vietnamese Army vet. The cover was pristine, but on unwrapping the clear cellophane covering I discovered that the pages inside were all photocopied. And poorly photocopied at that. I'd certainly paid a premium for a shonky book. But the words are legible and I guess it was just the words I was after, so in the end I was happy enough (though still grumbling slightly in my head) that I had an interesting read in my hands and had helped out a bloke who didn't really have too many other employment options.

Of course a major highlight of being in north Vietnam is the regular consumption of pho for breakfast. Finn is keeping a tally of how many bowls we manage to polish off on the journey. He's confident that we'll easily top 50 in the first few weeks. And all of the other great food at other times of the day, many of which have been staples over the years down Victoria Street in Richmond. And having spent many years occupied by the french, at least one good thing to come out of colonialism for the Vietnamese, or certainly the rest of us, is the french contribution to the local food. Banana crepes seem to be on the menu in every restaurant. Slowly but surely we are reaching in to the street food scene, but it's still difficult as a softy westerner not to wonder on the hygiene of the food preparation, and whether or not some dodgy bacteria on a plate will cause the next few days to be spent with one eye constantly toward the toilet. And often it's difficult to actually work out what the food concoction is that is on offer and a leap of faith is required. One that, having settled in, I am feeling much more confident about making.

Hanoi is a great place for our adventure to begin. The people are so friendly and welcoming. Even the people who are trying to rip you off do it with a smile. Restaurant staff have often played with Kimi to allow us to eat a meal, without having to chase him all over the restaurant. The trip through Vietnam will undoubtedly be an eye opener for us all. I'm looking forward to learning more about this country and its people. Among other things, I want to learn about the American war from the perspective of the Vietnamese. But this trip is not just about our interaction with a different culture in a different land. It is just as much about us once again travelling together as a family.

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