By PAMELA ROTH, QMI Agency
Crossing the street in Hanoi, Vietnam is like being stuck in the video game Frogger.
“Just go,” said a Canadian friend of mine, who moved to Vietnam about a year ago. “They will go around you.”
Go around you? You must be mad, I thought, as I stand on the edge of the sidewalk in Hanoi’s crowded old quarter, patiently waiting for a break in the sea of scooters. But that break never came. It hardly ever does, which is why you have to just go.
The narrow streets that date back more than a thousand years are a hive of activity despite the cool, overcast weather that blankets the northern city during January, forcing the locals to don scarves and winter jackets, even though the temperatures hover around 15C.
I watch in amazement as bicycles, scooters, and motorbikes — some packed with three or four people wearing surgical masks, slowly make their way through the congested streets that are packed with an array of food vendors and interesting shops that lure wide-eyed travelers inside.
Some people have stacks of boxes strapped high to the back of their scooter as they weave through the maze of traffic at a snail’s pace. One mas had a peach tree on the back of his scooter, which are used to transport almost anything, no matter how big it is.
The sound of horns honking is deafening; the air thick with moisture. The traffic chugs along even slower through the maze of narrow streets when a regular sized vehicle was thrown into the mix, often appearing as tanks driving through a parade.
Miraculously, I did not see any accidents, but I can see why tourists aren’t advised to drive here. It could be a death wish.
The sidewalks offer no escape from the chaos. Here, there’s no such thing as personal space and there’s a new experience around every corner.
On one street corner outside my hotel, a woman is cutting up raw meat with a large butcher knife. Across the street, a woman wearing a conical hat is selling long-stemmed yellow and red flowers from a giant basket — a scene echoed throughout the city. Women carrying heavy loads of fresh pineapple and bananas slung over their shoulders were also a common sight.
And just when I thought the hectic streets didn’t have a rhyme or reason, I discovered there is a method to the madness.
On one street, several men repairing shoes are hunched over their old-fashioned machines in front of their shops. Beside them, vendors sell zippers and other odds and sods to repair clothing.
Rows of jewelry stores lined another street. Around the next turn, there was an assortment of food sitting out in the open that suddenly made my friend question whether eating from street vendors was a good idea.
Roasted duck complete with the head, and raw chicken carcasses — also with the head — lie out in the open on this particular street. Large tubs filled with water keep big fish and other seafood alive for the time being.
The sidewalk is crammed with parked motorbikes and people sitting on blue child-size plastic tables, slurping up Pho — a popular Vietnamese breakfast.
There are also silk shops, numerous stores to buy beautiful hand made bamboo bowls and plates, and art galleries galore. The local art is vibrant, colourful and cheap, making it hard to decide which ones to take to home.
Just when I thought I’d seen it all, around the next turn I find a handful of vendors selling underwear with butt implants in a narrow alley buzzing with activity.
I eventually grow tired of waiting to cross the street, so I finally build up the courage to just go.
Stepping in front of more than a dozen moving scooters made my heart feel like it was going to leap out of my chest, but I managed to cross the street unscathed. I felt like I had just won a marathon. The trick is to cross with a sense of purpose, letting the traffic maneuver around you. Just don’t stop or you’ll likely become frog meat.
Traveling through Vietnam is relatively easy compared to crossing the street.
Domestic flights can be purchased for under $100, and for the more budget conscious travellers, buses and trains run regularly between the country’s major centres.
My adventure in Vietnam was only three weeks, so I covered as much ground as I could.
Using a guidebook and the Internet for research, my best friend and I planned our own tour through the country, starting in Hanoi in the north, then making our way down the eastern coast with stops in Halong Bay, Tam Coc, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Mui Ne and Ho Chi Minh City. Our last stop was the the tropical island of Phu Quoc on Vietnam’s southern tip — a place where we could turn into beach bums soaking up the hot temperatures for a few days before returning back to Canadian winter.
We booked hotels and flights online since we were arriving during Tet (Tet Nguyen Dan)— the Vietnamese New Year.
Tet is the most important festival of the year for the Vietnamese people and marks the arrival of spring based on the Chinese calendar.
Being in Vietnam during Tet is a unique experience, but also a challenging one if you’re not prepared. Many businesses and restaurants shut down for the week-long festivities, causing the bustling streets to become eerily quiet. Travel can be difficult since the whole country is on the move to spend the holidays with family.
But the cultural experience is worth the inconveniences.
During this time, festive red banners that read “Chuc Mung Nam Moi” (Happy New Year) hang above city streets festooned with coloured lights and lanterns. Peach trees, which symbolize life and good fortune, are decorated with colourful mini lights and are on display everywhere like Christmas trees. There’s also a barrage of traditions and superstitions associated with bringing luck in the new year, such as burning old calendars and fake money in medal plates on the street, which I saw on a few occasions in Hanoi. Sweeping is also frowned upon during Tet because one would not want to sweep away good luck.
Outside the cities and towns, dazzling green rice fields are a common site across the entire country, but the landscape in Vietnam is always changing.
One of the best ways to soak in the ever-changing landscape is by train. And that’s exactly what I did for 11 hours from the central coastal city of Danang to the resort city of Nha Trang (aka tourist central) on the hot southeast coast.
I thought train car number ten would be deluxe seating since I paid $30 for a ticket, but I was wrong.
I was expecting to see regular seats when I stepped inside the train car that looked like it had seen better days. Instead, I found what appeared to be small rooms used as sleeping quarters packed full of people.
When we found our designated seats in one of the crowded rooms that contained two bunk beds on top, two beds below (meant to seat three or four people), and a table near the window, there were 11 Vietnamese people already crammed inside the tiny space.
They stare at us curiously, wondering what we were going to do with our gigantic backpacks. We were the only tourists on this train car.
“Is this for real?” I said with a look of confusion splashed across my face. “This can’t be right. How will we ever fit in this for the next 11 hours?”
Somehow, we manage to fit quite comfortably. The next 11 hours turned into a staring match between us and the friendly locals, who laughed at the fact we only brought Ritz crackers to eat. They eventually offer us tea.
As the train chugs along the tracks, we pass several villages along the way with homes made from rusty tin sheets strewn together. White cranes dotted the lush green rice fields surrounded with palm trees and jungle as the odd water buffalo grazes on the side of the tracks.
This is the Vietnam I had pictured before I boarded a plane and flew thousands of kilometres over the Pacific Ocean. It’s pure, unspoiled and absolutely stunning.
Despite the language barrier with our cabin mates on the train, we were able to communicate through gestures and smiles, which they did often. They watched our every move, especially when we played a game of crib. One man looked determined to learn how to play the game.
Who knew that an 11-hour staring match could be so much fun? I still wonder what they were thinking.
This story was posted on Mon, April 16, 2012
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