Letters From Vietnam: To Kansas City From Abroad
25th October 2018
After an underwhelming initial impression, the city of Hanoi has really hit its mark on me. The people seemed uninviting but now I think that’s the wrong interpretation. Coming from Thailand, where locals are so in-your-business and genuine about interaction with tourists, I was expecting more of the same here. However, the Vietnamese couldn’t be more different.
They’re quiet and to themselves but I haven’t quite got a grip on the culture other than that. Perhaps they resent us and with good reason. Or perhaps their culture is just more introverted. I want to take this month to figure out for myself what feelings are left over from our mistreatment of the war.
It’s a lot cooler in Hanoi than it was in Bangkok. Probably due to being six-hundred miles north and only several dozen miles away from the South China Sea. It’s a welcomed change because Bangkok was almost unbearable with its pollution and suffocating humidity.
There are western tourists all over Hanoi. Despite the potential hostility, they flood the tourist quarters. There are Asian tourists, too, though they’re more difficult to recognize as such. Generally, it seems like all tourists are doing the same thing here – which is wandering around slowly and without direction. There doesn’t seem to be the same tourist agenda here as around the rest of the world.
Drivers in Hanoi, on the other hand, seem to have differing agendas. Some creep by on motorbikes very cautiously and with their head on a swivel. You would think these people are tourists, though I have a hard time believing there are so many tourists on the road. Others won’t stop for anything – not even a red light.
On the road in Hanoi, which is the second largest city in Vietnam, a car horn is a necessary tool. Not for safety, it’s more-so used in a way that says, “Look at me. I got a new horn and I know how to use it.” Everyone uses theirs like an instrument.
Sidewalks are mostly used for parked motorbikes. As a pedestrian, you are reduced to walking what shoulders of the road you can find and hoping the motorbiker whizzing by uses his horn in time for you to jump out of the way into a street puddle before they run you over.
Much like sidewalks aren’t for walking in Hanoi, railroad tracks aren’t for trains. Or, at least, it’s not their main purpose. The railways of Hanoi have become photo trails for tourists and shortcuts for locals. I didn’t see a train pass through all day. However, I did see dozens of people with cameras, sitting on the rails, posing for a new profile picture.
There are rows of homes that sit on each side of the tracks not more than a few feet from the rails. These homes create a narrow alley where the train rolls through when it does roll through. A friend told me that some of the homes near the tracks have removable roofs so that when the train comes through and blows its horn, it doesn’t rip their roof off. They’re built that close to the tracks.
It’s easy to see Vietnamese life through the windows of these homes and plenty of tourists become Peeping Toms on their way through. I, too, struggled to keep my eyes out of their lives although I know it is wrong. There’s a high level of human interest in how the other side of the world lives.
More and more, I’m realizing it doesn’t matter where I am or who I’m with. If I’m able to go on a walk and get a few unique photos and some writing inspiration for the night, I’ve had a good day. And there’s no shortage of either of those things on the railways of Hanoi.
This is also true of Hanoi’s Old Quarter; a few blocks of madness, but the madness is attractive. With unlimited food options, souvenir shops, and dozens of massage parlors, the Old Quarter is undoubtedly tailored to tourists nowadays. However, it is still a central crossing route in local’s everyday life which brings about an authentic feel that you don’t normally find on those kinds of tourist drags.
While I was walking through, I noticed a Vietnamese man receiving a haircut in a seat plumped in the center of a sidewalk. Just a single seat with a single barber. There was a single mirror, small and dirty, that hung from the concrete wall in front of the seat. The barber was a man who took it upon himself to become an entrepreneur of the city, not limiting himself with excuses.
I respected that and was in need of a haircut, so I thought to wait my turn. I took a seat on the stairs next to the makeshift sidewalk shop. As soon as I did, the barber stopped cutting his only customer’s hair and stared at me. He wouldn’t take his eyes off me until I spoke.
“How much?” I asked using a scissor hands-type charades motion.
He thought about the question and almost asked his customer who also only spoke Vietnamese.
“Eight-thousand Dong,” he said, finally.
Eight-thousand Dong, which may sound like a lot, is actually equivalent to less than $0.40. Of course, I had to take the opportunity. I waited my turn and when it came time, took a seat in front of the mirror.
Tourists who passed stared and smiled at me. The barber began to cut my hair, but as soon as he did, he stopped and disappeared into the building in front of us. He was gone for several minutes and I began to wonder if he was coming back.
Five minutes passed, but when he finally returned, he brought with him an English-speaking local so that he could understand how I wanted the cut done. I was prepared to let him cut it however he felt necessary, but I liked his idea more. And it ended up being a pretty damn good cut if I don’t say so myself.
I handed him a 50,000 Dong bill and was going to let him keep the change even though it’s not commonplace to tip in Vietnam. I could afford to tip a $0.40 haircut with an extra dollar and a half.
“No, eight-thousand,” the man said.
I extended the bill further, “Yes, it’s okay. You can keep it.”
“No, eight-thousand,” he said again. Either he didn’t want my tip or he actually meant eighty-thousand.
I grabbed an extra 30,000 Dong from my wallet and cautiously held it out. He gladly and quickly snatched it from my fingers and slid the wad in his shirt pocket. Still, a sidewalk haircut for less than four dollars in the middle of Vietnam – I’ll take it.
I had a wonderful first day in Vietnam and it completely alleviated all concerns of my initial impression the night before. I hope with time comes a better understanding for this culture. It has greatly intrigued me.