Don’t Stop and Never Run

24 08 2011

Part III: Dead in the Road

A real life speakeasy!

An hour southeast from the airport we were headed into the famous French Quarter of Hanoi, known for the beautiful landscapes surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake, museums, architectural charm with modern convenience. The closer we got to our destination, the more frequently I held my breath as motor bikes weaved between trucks and cars sharing a narrow dirt road. Our cab driver’s foot was  sporadic and aggressive, but I had no choice but to trust that he had braved these uneven roads many nights before and lived. Then, just as I began to convince myself I wasn’t going to die, I saw a man on a motor bike not twenty feet from my back seat window, fly and land face down in the road, his head smashed, his bike sliding alongside him. Our car slowed to a crawl as we passed him and a large crowd of people staring and snapping pictures of the accident on their phones. I looked away immediately, and closing my eyes I told Mike I had changed my mind: I don’t want to ride on a motor bike anymore.

Admittedly, I know very little about Vietnamese history, and even less about its modern political and cultural conscience.  Having some experience living in a country that’s divided geographically and ideologically, I should have known that northern Vietnam would be distinct from the south, but like so many things on the trip so far, assumptions were becoming somewhat of a novelty.

For one thing, northern Vietnam seemed less friendly, less oriented toward the tourist. The people wore a hardness locked deep in their stares; down right terrifying when holding a semi-automatic weapon. Oh my God! Why is that guy looking at us? The people of Hanoi seemed far more pressed to make a deal, even if it meant lying. I could literally see the lies falling out from the bookies mouth, ripping me off in broad day light. But when you don’t speak the same language, it’s always a slanted conversation. Spoken English is less frequent in the north. In contrast, I was astonished by how fluent many of the people were in the south.

Hanoi’s main attractions were everything you would expect from a Lonely Planet description, but on the fringes it was clear that the city was desperately impoverished. Children ran around with no shoes on selling cigarettes, the elderly were hunched under ripped tarps to escape the sun, all while motor bikes tore through any sense of calm the city had to offer. This is fucking crazy. It was hot, and even as I strolled around the lake, I could feel the tension of people who were barely getting by; confronted with people who come from far away places to take pictures of  Uncle Ho, a political figure whose legacy is arguably the misery the poor in Vietnam suffer.

I became incredibly self-conscience of this economic inequality one afternoon. Lazily walking down a thin bit of road not consumed with motorists, Mike and I were window shopping and taking in the hectic rhythm these people call home. I think everyone who visits a poor foreign country likes to try their hand at a little friendly bargaining; and prices in Vietnam are considerably adjusted to match how much money the merchant could guess you were carrying, so it’s expected that you counter any offer that seems unreasonable. But I think there is an art to this, because the last thing a foreigner should do while traveling as a guest in someone elses country is disrespect a persons livelihood by teetering business power away from the merchant. Mike was going back and forth with a  woman over the price of a pair of Nike flip-flop sandals. He was pretty sure that the price was too high, and also not convinced that sandals had not previously been worn. He refused her set price and began to walk away. She quickly crumbled and called him back. The currency exchange in Vietnam is substantial and difficult to keep track of, especially if you’re like me, horrible with basic arithmetic. So to calculate the figures he busted out his iPhone 4 and slid open an application that converts Vietnam’s dong into U.S. dollars. He finally agreed to a price, paid the woman and walked away victorious. I had to say something. Don’t do that! I couldn’t help but mention that I thought it was crazy that he use a six hundred-dollar phone to determine if this poor woman was nickel and dime-ing him. I think he ended up paying 9 dollars for the sandals.

Another significant difference between the north and the south is the curfew. At about midnight, everything in Hanoi shut down. Windows barred, doors closed, lights off. This was a striking experience having come from Seoul, where literally the city never sleeps. But just like that, we found ourselves walking in the abandoned streets of the French Quarter, hungry and wishing we had bought beer for our hotel room. But as luck would have it, a friend of Mikes was living in Hanoi, and had contacted him through the hotel. She offered to take us out. Out where?

Ducking down under the mechanical gate that covered the front door and windows, we were suddenly inside a lively bar with several foreigners speaking English, mostly with accents from parts of Europe. A real life speakeasy! The lights were low, the music just above a hum, but it was good music; they served mediocre bar food and most importantly, they had beer. We sat in a party of five on a second story loft overlooking the heavy wood bar. I couldn’t wipe the stupid grin from my face as I became completely swept up in my imagination. I contemplated what would happen should we be discovered. I felt like a pirate, an outlaw, soaking in my imaginary rebellion almost as fast as the second round of cold beers. Mike’s friend was a lovely host, she came with company, none of whom can I recall the names of. Exchanging stories of travel and teaching abroad it was an intimate reminder of why I had moved to Korea in the first place: to meet people who had the balls to do something different, who had something to say about the world we live in. When it was time to leave, we slipped out a trap door with more locks on it than I could count. The streets were dead in static mist, still warm from the afternoon. I wanted to take a shower. It had been another long day.

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