Return to Vietnam

At least this kid will have clean lungs because of the face mask if he survives the motorcycle ride

We made our second (and according to Erez, the last he will ever go on) trip to Vietnam last weekend – this time to Hanoi up in the north. Like our visit to Saigon, it was an interesting experience, in more ways than one.

I hate to harp on this, but I have to start again with the traffic, which was pretty much the same scene as in Saigon with just tons of motorcycles everywhere, hardly any traffic lights (just a lot of traffic circles) and a complete feeling of chaos. There are something like 5 million people in Hanoi and 4 million motorbikes, which means that pretty much everyone who isn’t too young or too old or disabled to be driving one, has one – and all the others are being driven on the front or back of one. (See family of four on bike in photo to the right). Our tour guide on our day trip on Saturday told us that he has a two-year-old daughter who rides on the motorcycle. Moshe inquired about how he and his wife keep her secured on the bike and he said that “she just holds on” – and, as is typical, doesn’t wear a helmet. I am not being judgmental about this situation – I know that people would not be driving themselves or their kids around on motorcycles at all, and certainly not without helmets, if they had a safer, affordable means of transport.

Our trip actually ended with our witnessing a horrific accident right in front of our taxi on the way to the airport when a motorcycle driven by one young man (he may have even been a teenage boy) and carrying another (neither of whom were wearing helmets) ran a red light and smashed into the side of the car in front of us. The two motorcyclists both went flying and one was still lying in the road not moving at the point when our taxi pulled away from the scene. It is amazing that we didn’t get in an accident too, as our taxi driver was swerving all over the highway when his cellphone started to ring and he couldn’t find it. At one point, he actually pulled over to the side of the highway and stopped the car to look for it. Then he placed a call and, while talking, pulled back onto the highway without even looking at oncoming traffic. We have been having PTSD ever since that ride to the airport I think – it was awful.

We did become a little more adept at crossing streets in Hanoi, after we tagged along and crossed a couple of times with locals who looked like they knew what they were doing. Coincidentally, this article, which is all about how scary it is to cross the street in Hanoi, appeared in the Global Edition of the NY Times just a few days after our return from Hanoi. It says that some hotels give out a street crossing tip sheet to their hotel guests with advice such as “Be relaxed and self-confident”, “Never step back”, etc. Our hotel didn’t give us any tips, but they did assign us a butler, who probably would have gone with us to help us cross the streets if it had been within his job description to leave the hotel. He wanted to do pretty much everything else for us. In fact, I was anticipating that he was going to be waiting to help me get into my PJs when we returned back to the hotel room our first night there. Moshe and I both had the feeling all weekend that he reminded us of someone and then Moshe realized that the butler is a Vietnamese James Woods look-alike (accompanying photo of him  doesn’t do the resemblance justice). I looked on Wikipedia to see if maybe James Woods served in Vietnam and could have fathered a child there, but it looks like he just attended MIT and then became an actor.

The Vietnamese James Woods (hard to see the resemblance in this photo but trust me)



And the American James Woods











Here Come the Brides

Our hotel was in the French Quarter of Hanoi, which is a really lovely area. We were wondering starting on our first afternoon there why we kept seeing brides being photographed around our hotel. Erez thought they were models because it all looked very professional (and most of them looked like they could be models). It turns out that this time of year is wedding season in Hanoi because , as was explained to me, it’s not too hot and not too cold. If by “not too hot”, it means that you only sweat 5 buckets into your wedding clothes instead of 10 buckets, maybe it makes sense. Couples do all the photos for their wedding albums in advance of the wedding, so I guess they have time to let the clothes air out or get drycleaned before the actual event – or more likely, the humidity in Hanoi doesn’t make them sweat the way it did us. Since the French Quarter provides a pretty backdrop, they all come to the area where our hotel is to do their photo shoots. It was quite a scene on Sunday morning, as there were just dozens of brides and grooms posing for photos with their professional photographers, interspersed with Vietnamese in more traditional garb as below.

Yes, they actually do wear those conical hats in Vietnam, especially in the rice paddies. Great for sun protection, but hard to fit into your suitcase if you’re thinking of bringing one home.

More about Halong Bay, the Hanoi Hilton, and the water puppet theatre in my next Hanoi post.

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