22.04.2008 - 23.04.2008 28 °C
I travelled to Huế overnight by bus. The journey was absolutely vile and I am a wreck. So I am just cruising the town drinking coffees. I’ve got into the habit of drinking cà phê sưa – coffee with milk. Made with condensed milk, it is strong and sweet. A filter is set over the glass, and the dark coffee drips on to the milk. The two layers don’t mix, so it looks like a Guinness upside down. I don’t like it much, but it imparts the necessary drug dose. It’s better iced.
They have power shortages here. There is no power in the mornings, but there is in the evenings. Or maybe it alternates. I didn't understand my instructions.
Anyone who might be European, American or Japanese goes through Hanoi besieged by taxi-thieves, touts, hucksters, hustlers, hawkers, pushers, pimps and parasites. Actually, not the penultimate as far as I know, but I needed a list. So when anyone talks to you, you instantly think “What does s/he want from me?” And you immediately say “No thanks.” It's difficult to be open when 99% of people just want a piece of you.
I have to admit that I'm finding it hard to like the majority of Vietnamese. There have been many exceptions, notably tourists guides like Tinh at Hạ Long Bay, and all the guys at the hotel in Ninh Bình. But there has been too much naked grasping. It's really tedious going through life as a walking wallet.
Sometimes – but not often, sadly – cynicism lets you down. First was when I used a facility on Lake Hoàn Kiếm. As soon as I walked out, a woman spoke to me. “No, thank you,” I said. But she persisted and I lost patience: “I do not want!” I said, voice raised, in Vietnamese. Turned out, of course, that she was the attendant simply trying to levy the standard fee.
Second was when two young women approached me, at roughly the same spot. “Do you have five minutes?” Well, I have a year. They said they were students. But I assumed the five minutes would involve me listening to some story and then parting with my money, so I walked on. But they persisted, and it turned out they simply wanted me to look over an English assignment – they are training to be interpreters and had a rather difficult piece to listen to and translate - and to practise their English. (How did they know I wasn’t French? They didn’t.)
In fact several people have now approached me wanting to practise their English. That’s fine by me, so long as they only want to practise their English; half the time they want a gift as well. Really the only Vietnamese that tourists are likely to talk to other than touts of one sort or another are people wanting to practise their English, and tourist guides, and other tourists.
All of my tourist guides so far in Vietnam have had degrees in English. Here, the skill with the greatest economic value added seems to be languages: English and Chinese. So, many of the smart people are likely to be studying languages.
The Huế hassle has already started. Not only do moto-taxi and cyclo drivers assail you at every corner, but here the human mosquitoes have a different tactic from in Hanoi: they engage you in conversation. Maybe because we are south of the DMZ here, so more English is spoken. “Where you from?” first. Then “How long are you here?” Etc. One cyclo driver followed me for ten blocks. But it’s not really possible to ignore someone who smiles and asks you where you’re from, even if you know it’s only a preliminary to a sell. I just tell them at an early stage that I do not want a xe om or cyclo. And if that doesn't work, I'm within my rights to tell them to eff off.
As is probably clear, I'm fed up with it.
On a much better note, congratulations to Vicki and Hasan, who now have a son, Kamran.
Are you married?
One of the first questions asked of all people in Southeast Asia.
The only proper state for an adult, especially one of my seniority, is to be married. So in Vietnamese, you do not say ‘I am single’. You say, ‘I am not yet married’.
To anyone going to Hanoi I offer the following:
1. Don’t take taxis, unless you telephone for them first. The meters are usually fixed.
2. Take the motorcycle taxis, xe om. 10,000 dong for a journey of a few blocks; more if going more than, say, 2 km.
3. Consider staying outside the Old Quarter. West Lake and its neighbour lake Truc Bach are nice spots. The government quarter east of the station isn’t bad. Just go to the Old Quarter if you want to shop or arrange tours.
4. Go to the Ethnology Museum.
5. Minimise your time in Hanoi.