Vietnam: Hanoi and the Art of Street Crossing

If I had to play word association with the country of Vietnam, the first thing out of my mouth would be, "scooter." There are over 35 million scooters in Vietnam, making up 90 - 95% of all vehicular traffic. Cars number around 2 million and metro lines, zero. All of this equals total anarchy on the streets of Vietnam.

It was a bit jarring leaving the big city sites of Hong Kong with its soaring skyscrapers and cosmopolitan vibe to arrive in Hanoi, Vietnam, to the unfiltered chaos that make up the city streets.

I was anxious to hit the town when my dad and I first landed in Hanoi....until it came time to actually cross the street. I was a long way from pedestrian friendly Santa Monica beach traffic, where you lift one leg above a crosswalk, and everyone around you stops. In Vietnam, you don't lift that leg without a game plan. Without many traffic lights or stop signs, you need a strategy for navigating scooters. My first try including a quick hustle across with my dad at my side, or at least I thought. I got to the other side, looked around and saw him wide-eyed where I left him on the curb. He stood many minutes until a young native asked if he could assist him across the street.

Turns out the best strategy for street crossing is a slow dance where you take baby steps forward with your hand out, while gazing at the oncoming traffic for pockets, holes, weaknesses. You never, and I mean never, take a step backwards. The dance relies on a system and that system is always forward, never back. That was the last time my dad crossed a road with me, but then I got sort of addicted to the game.

Ho Chi Minh lived and worked in Hanoi and is remembered quite fondly - a little differently than here in the US. When hearing about the path Ho Chi Minh took before leading Vietnam, I thought, well, there's a really good guy. How smart of him to live in 30 countries all over the world, including the US and in the South to learn how people were treated and ruled. Ho was not in the US during our finest hour with the KKK and lynching going on in the South. He wasn't a fan of our capitalist system, but did use our Declaration of Independence to base his own independent declaration in Vietnam. The Vietnamese liked him for his unrelenting passion to protect and free them. They called him Uncle Ho, though most will agree he had a ruthless vein running through him. That worked for some, and not so much for others, depending on which side you were on.

Those on the wrong side of the French during their Vietnamese occupation landed in the Hoa Lo Prison, aka the "Hanoi Hilton." It mostly housed political prisoners of war and when the North Vietnamese took over in 1954, US prisoners of war took up residence, including John McCain. The prison is grim, as you would expect, but the depiction of the treatment of the US prisoners made it seem that this was indeed the Hanoi Hilton...and Spa. A video loop played showed US prisoners of war causally outfitted and playing games and described their stay more like guests. Perspective is always interesting.

Vietnam also has its share of temples. Many venture to the Temple of Literature, the site of the first university in Vietnam, to pray for good luck before exams and tests. It was founded in 1070 A.D. and is dedicated to Confucius.

Another interesting stop in Hanoi is a visit to a traditional water puppet show at Thang Long. Puppets usually scare me, but when you put them in water, I don't know what to think. I do think it's interesting to watch for about 10 minutes, but unfortunately the show is 45. The only thing that kept me mesmerized is knowing that there was a crew of nearly a dozen people back stage, up to their waist in water, trying to maneuver lacquered wooden puppets with long bamboo rods, while trying to tell Vietnamese folklore stories. It's not something you see everyday.

One of the best ways to see Hanoi is by "cyclo," if you can't stomach the scooters or crossing the street on foot. A man bikes behind you and does all the work while you can sit back and enjoy places like the Old Quarter, dating back to 15th Century. It's chock ' block with shops, all gathered on thematically related winding streets, aka, flower street, shoe street and so on.

As much as the Vietnamese are in the streets, they're also on the sidewalks eating, preparing food and selling food. Tiny plastic chairs sit outside, making for easy clean up in inclement weather or in case of an emergency run-in with the police as many places aren't legal.

I can't say I had a favorite meal in Hanoi. There were lots of spring rolls and there was white fish in delicate sauces, my staple vegetable morning glory and many a dish wrapped in banana leaf. The flavors were all subtle when I thought a light fish could use a little punch. Luckily garlic laced the morning glory, otherwise, I'd say the Vietnamese keep their spice on the streets and play it much more tame in the kitchen.

We're heading to the coast next, on an overnight boat trip in Ha Long Bay.