03.04.2008 - 08.04.2008
I'm typing this (with a chocolate brownie in front of me) in the Hanoi Press Club, where the cafe has a free wifi service that is fast enough to access this website. Other wifis are not so fast. It's forecast to reach 37 degrees today and 38 tomorrow, which makes wandering around town a moist experience.
I haven't taken to Hanoi at all, or more specifically to the Old Quarter, said to be one of the densest collocations of humanity on the planet. It's certainly one of the densest collections of scooters, cars and bicycles. My hotel is in the Old Quarter. It's sucked up all my energy.
I was in a foul mood for my first couple of days back in Hanoi. I was woken up before six by an Orwellian amplified voice, and then by the constant lament of a band; someone opposite the hotel had died at the age of 90. An oboeist accompanied by a single-string zither and a drummer played a strange melody: tonic, third, seventh (at a guess) followed by a few trills, repeated about every twenty seconds or so. He started before 6 am; he was still going at 11 when I left the hotel; he was still going, parked right opposite the hotel, when I returned at 7 pm. I thought that six floors and 102 steps up I was above the noise, but at any altitude I wouldn’t have been above that oboe. He started again before 6 the following day, but then mercifully disappeared.
Right outside my bedroom door they are building something. It looks like an oven but has electrical sockets. Today they are painting the ceiling in my room...
My mood is not improved by the insane traffic, making a walk of a block an adventure (you can’t walk on the pavements because they’re blocked by motorbikes, or by tables, or by people digging up the pavement, so you have to walk where the moving motorbikes are); and the constant pestering by mototaxis “Hello motobai?” "Where you going?" and by other hawkers, 100 times or more a day.
Not to mention ending up with mud all over your trousers any time you take a walk.
There are some decent spots: on Hoàn Kiếm Lake, for example, or here at the Press Club, or in the commercial district. Fortunate, as I may be stuck here for a while. I need to renew my visa, and you can't stay anywhere in Vietnam without a passport.
The World Bank is next door to this cafe. The people having lunch next to me seem to be from that august institution. I feel like going over and talking about credit crunches.
Premiership football is not as obsessively watched here as it is in Thailand, but it is still followed: say 'England' and people respond 'Chelsea, Liverpool, Man U'.
I watched the last 30 mins of Arsenal-Liverpool at Red Beer on Pho Ma May, and the game finished 1-1 although Arsenal were vastly superior. It looked like a classic Premiership match: very fast; both sides trying to win; psycho tackling. The expression on Wenger’s face said ‘season over’, although his subsequent statement did not.
Spring is the time when many Vietnamese visit the Perfume Pagoda, one of the most important Buddhist sites in Vietnam (actually it is a collection of temples). They go during a festival that begins on the sixth day of the first month of the VN lunar calendar, and ends at the end of the third month.
Lots of them go. I have already been warned off going to the Perfume Pagoda because of the crowds. The worse days to visit the Perfume Pagoda, are even days. The less crowded days to visit are the odd days of the lunar month. But which are the odd days of the lunar month? I could just ask someone, I suppose, but that would spoil the fun.
The Vietnamese lunar calendar has months of 30 days. As in the pre-Julian Roman calendar, there are intercalary months so that the lunar year stays in track with the solar year (the calendar is therefore lunisolar). It is based on the timing of
- - the new moon and
- the principal points of the year, which include the solstices and equinoxes, and correspond roughly to zodiacal transits (they divide the ecliptic into equal areas).
Intercalary is an excellent and underused word, which the French have co-opted to mean “divider”.
The Vietnamese lunar calendar is similar to, but not the same as the Chinese. VN New Year (Tết) and Chinese New Year do not always coincide, because it depends on the timing of solstice, and that depends on local time. So the most famous Tết in recent history - 1968 - did not coincide with Chinese New Year, for example.
It took me a long time to find the dates in the Vietnamese calendar for 2008 – the UK Vietnamese Embassy site has the dates for 2002, for example - but here they are.
Today, 8 April, is the third day of the third month of the lunisolar calendar. The odd days are therefore the even days of April. That includes this Thurs and next Monday, Weds and Friday. (Weekends are bad days anyway. That rules out 12 April.)
So I’ll try Thursday. I hope this works. You could say I’m agoraphobic in what I imagine to be the original sense, of hating crowds.
“Acute diarrhoea” is hitting Hanoi. It may be a euphemism for cholera. From the Vietnam News website:
"…The number of known infections totals 279 and 85 have now proved positive to the [vibrio cholera] bacteria, including 44 in Ha Noi. A further 70 patients suffering acute diarrhoea were admitted to the National Contagious and Tropical Disease Institute on Wednesday; another 40 were received at Saint Paul’s Hospital.
"The epidemic follows two outbreaks last October and the Health Ministry has decided that all of the patients will be treated free. Ha Noi Health Department director Le Anh Tuan said the ministry had been asked to vaccinate all the city’s resident against cholera without charge.
"A National Hygiene and Epidemic Institute survey shows that the disease is prevalent where market gardeners use night soil for fertiliser. Most of the patients in the latest outbreak had eaten raw vegetable, said the National Contagious and Tropical Disease Institute’s Dr Nguyen Tuong Van. He urged people not to eat raw vegetables."
I always knew that vegetables were bad for you. I am more at risk from half-cooked nem; I had some last night and they were indeed poisonous.
Lots of dives in Hanoi sell bia hơi, which is freshly-brewed beer. It’s a very light straw colour, with a good head. It’s light and, at worst, tastes of not much. I’ve had some bia hơi that isn’t bad at all: slight fresh-bready, good enough to enjoy. Whether or not it's the greatest beer experience, it is the cheapest: a glass costs VND 3-4,000, or 10-13p.
There is a fashion for forty- and fifty-something western expats in Hanoi to wear their residual hair in a short pig-tail. De gustibus, of course, but it looks sleazy to me.
More than half the population of Vietnam is called Nguyen. Almost every ruler, general, king or poet in its history was called Nguyen. There was a Nguyen era. So the name doesn't really fulfil its function of distinguishing its bearer from other objects. The other two names are needed to do that.