Our trip began auspiciously when our guide Trung (“call me T”) said that our overnight trip in Halong Bay had changed. “You have two options,” he said. “The first option is an upgrade to a four star luxury ship.” I can’t remember what option two was. Four star luxury ship sounded fine. I went to the Agribank Currency Exchange booth in Hanoi Airport and changed US$60 into VND1.25 million. The fact that the Vietnamese currency is called dong could only possibly be improved if they had coins called ding. Even without this improvement the word dong provide hours of fun for people with a juvenile sense of humour: “got dong?”, “I’ve got too much dong”, “I need to break my dong”, etc, etc. The two women inside the glass Agribank capsule dropped US dollars into a money counting machine while dong streamed out of another machine along the bench. Pieces of paper that recorded the transactions drifted about and did and did not end up in plastic in and out trays. I don’t understand maths or money but turning 60 of one thing into 1.2 million of something else seemed a good deal.
The last time I went to Vietnam it was 2002 and Cathy and I were living in Osaka. We went with two friends and I was 29 years old. This time I went with a school group of 21 students and two other teachers, and I was 41. We went to Hanoi, Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh. I now notice that all of these places begin with the letter H which I don’t think means anything but is curious nonetheless. I took about 450 photos, filled a journal with notes, read a few books about the country, and listened to our two Vietnamese guides (Trung and Trung) for probably about twenty hours in total on that journey down the country from north to south over 12 days. It was, in short, an amazing trip with a great group of people, and my brain is bulging with it all.
It all started in Hanoi.
For the students Hanoi’s Old Quarter was an intense introduction to life in Vietnam. The incredible density of people, the lack of crossings, or traffic lights, or road rules of any kind, combined with the fact of the footpaths being blocked with parked scooters and open-air hole-in-the-wall eating joints with diners hunkered down on little plastic bathroom stools, was pretty daunting for the students. Added to all of that was the heat, and the humidity, and the noise of scooters and horns, and the endless unfolding spectacle of street life. The variation in the shops that line the choked streets appears to be endless but they are uniformly tiny and many simply an extension of each families house that spills onto the footpath where the owners sit with their kids and gossip or people watch. Pineapple sellers, lychee sellers, morning glory sellers wander by with their bicycle shops, or paniers and sampans. Trees with broad, green leaves turn some of the roads into leafy tunnels, and through their branches above run thick bands of black cabling from power pole to power pole. Probably the most confronting open air shops are the butchers where meat sits white and pink in buckets or hanging from hooks while the butcher stands at a notched wooden chopping board and brings his cleaver down on some haunch or joint of meat.
We flew into Hanoi in the morning over rice paddies and villages. The villages below us looked like they were sitting on islands that could only be accessed by a single raised road cutting through flooded rice fields that stretched out in all directions. One of the books I read on the trip – Understanding Vietnam, by Neil Jamieson – described the traditional form of these villages:
In northern and central Vietnam… villages were closed and corporate communities with a relatively high degree of autonomy. Not only were most villages separated from each other by an expanse of paddy land, village houses tended to be tightly clustered together within a dense bamboo hedge that totally surrounded them…. Village members were ranked in a strict hierarchy according to named social statuses.
I have no doubt that the hold of the village and the family and the hierarchies within those things still exert a powerful hold on many in Vietnam, but it feels a lot like modern urban Vietnam is also shedding those traditional restrictions and comforts. Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, but feels more like the capital of the north so different is it from Ho Chi Minh. Even in this more conservative, more communist city change has been pressing in.
Hanoi went from being a city of 120,000 in 1943 to a city of 740,000 in 1974. About 7 million people live in the province now; a steady flow of people from the late 80s when the government began its first steps towards reform and the landlocked farmers began to move to the cities to look for work. The oldest part of Hanoi is its original thirty-six streets called the Old Quarter and is about 1000 years old. It is a compelling and intense place.
The Thirty-Six Streets area is one of the most crowded urban districts on earth, with each resident living on only one and a half square metres… half of all of those houses share a kitchen, 95 percent share bathrooms, and all share courtyards and access points. It is often hard to know where the pavement ends and a house or business begins. Commerce spills out from the shop-houses that may just have a small platform where the whole family sleeps. Children watch television in a room that houses three generations, their motorbikes, several businesses and an altar.
(Shadows and Wind, Robert Templar)
We went to buy incense at a shop near our hotel. The front of the ground floor room was filled with incense sticks in long red boxes, or in cellophane bags, while an elderly couple sat in the back of the same room watching television on their vinyl sofa. The woman carried on eating her dinner and watching TV with her feet firmly planted in a foot bath massage. The old man put his dinner to the side and helpfully began to lift incense packs off the shelves for examination and tentative sniffs.
Our first dinner was at a tourist restaurant by the lake where teeming ranks of wait staff demonstrated that a well-organised team is better than a large one. The many staff milled about ineffectually taking half of an order before disappearing and being replaced by someone else. Food came out randomly across our group of 24, the last order arriving as the first to be served paid their bill. Sometimes we could observe a waiter bring out food and take it to the counter where the bills were paid. Often they deposited the meal by the till and started arguing with another waiter. The meal sitting on the counter, now that it was out of the kitchen, seemed to be of no further interest to any of the waiters. Eventually a customer might get up from their table and go and get it themselves while the waiters milled about bickering or dashing off to tag team someone else’s session with a fresh batch of sweaty, bewildered foreigners. Paying the bill confounded everyone and reminded me Douglas Adams’ theory of Bistromatics:
The third and most mysterious piece of non-absoluteness of all lies in the relationship between the number of items on the check, the cost of each item, the number of people at the table and what they are each prepared to pay for…. Numbers written on restaurant checks within the confines of restaurants do not follow the same mathematical laws as numbers written on any other pieces of paper in any other parts of the Universe.
Our problems were compounded by trying to convert improbably large numbers of (snigger) dong, into New Zealand dollars via the intermediary of US dollars and mutually impenetrable accents. Never mind robbing Peter to pay Paul, Peter and Paul were standing on each other’s throats trying to juggle spring rolls and sing the Vietnamese national anthem in pidgin English (if you follow me). Once we had escaped this chaos traversing the Old Quarter traffic in the dark was a doddle.