Thursday, August 30, 2012

[HANOI] An Afternoon Stroll, Part 1

To take a cab or not to take a cab, that was the question. To fall prey to another potential taxi scam would be shameful and so I explored other options. Walking? No. Hostel transfer! The good thing about the accommodation I got in Hanoi is that they offer airport transfer which seemed steep at first but turned out to be just right when compared to published rates on Wikitravel. At least there won't be any hassles. I arranged for that service a few hours before my Jetstar flight left Ho Chi Minh. Oh, Jetstar. They changed the flight schedule twice the week before I left for Saigon. For my flight to Hanoi that night, we were delayed but I was no longer surprised. I guess all low-cost airlines behave like this anyway so what is the point of getting upset. You just get what you pay for.

I was almost asleep by the time the hostel’s sedan fetched me at the airport. I missed the guy waving the paper with my name on it as I navigated through taxi scammers that would try their best to usher you into their cars. No, dudes. I've had my share of that BS. The ride downtown was a long one and took more than half an hour. I was dead on my bed by the time I arrived at the hostel. I am so going to wake up late tomorrow! And as promised, I did.

It was almost 3 PM when I left the next day. Divisoria. That was the first image that came to mind as I exited the hostel and reached the main road. It was narrow and surrounded by stores and stalls that sold everything from souvenirs to bootleg. It would have been Manila for me if not for the ubiquitous motorcycles. While Hanoi’s motorcycle invasion is not as bad as Saigon’s, this doesn't mean that you're done playing patintero at last. No, they are relatively less here, but still plenty. I navigated through the alleys with the help of the downtown map the hostel provided. After a few minutes of walking and dodging, I finally saw the lake.

Lakes. Hanoi is addicted to them. Look at your downtown map and you'll see around half a dozen scattered all over the districts. Perhaps this is what lends its charm to this city. The vibe is that of an old town transitioning into a Metropolis as opposed to Saigon’s chaotic setup. You won't really say that they're more laidback here but the abundance of recreational areas in the form of lakes and parks makes you think otherwise. If ever I have to choose, I'd prefer Hanoi over Saigon anytime.

What surprised me the most was the weather. I thought it was going to be cooler to some extent but the sun was still angry all the time and it felt as though I never left Ho Chi Minh, if weather alone was the basis. The humidity made me cut my gallivanting short to seek shelter somewhere I could also dine. And so I dropped all efforts to get a good shot of the Opera House under the blazing sun and sought refuge in a café which served seafood fried rice. Fried rice!!! Oh well, since I planned to do nothing in Hanoi other than walk, fine dining was the way to go. Besides, I don't know where they hid all the fast food chains. I didn't see a single KFC or what have you in that area. The choice was between the air-conditioned café and the open-air eatery. In this weather? It was a no-brainer.

I couldn't help but think that Hanoi and Saigon sort of copied each other. They both have an opera house next to where all the signature brands are housed. If in Saigon they had them in a hotel next to the city hall, here they have them in a building opposite the opera house. A few cartwheels away and you reach two museums on opposite sides of the road, but since they close at four in the afternoon, I no longer had the chance to find out what to see inside. The façade of both museums wasn't that bad. And so I just took a photo and walked once again.

What followed was an activity that most people would find boring. That map I had indicated two bookstores within the vicinity. Damn it. When I travel abroad I always tend to end up inside a bookstore where considerable amounts of both time and money would eventually be spent. The same thing happened here, at Savina. More than a million dong for books, I just couldn't help it. This is what I love about Vietnamese bookstores: their French literature collection is readily available! For Savina, they also have those hard to find German grammar books from Hueber that would cost you a lot if bought online because of the reptiles at Customs. And then they have those Mandarin readers from Beijing University Press. Heaven, I tell you. Heaven! And then it was almost sundown when I got out.

Searching for the other bookstore (Bookworm) drained me of all the time I had left for the day. It had me walking numerous blocks with the map eventually leading me to some sort of low cost housing area not that different from telenovela settings where the father is bed-ridden, the mother does laundry to support the family, and the youngest kid with a plastic of pancit at hand would find her one day as cold as the cement where she lies unconscious. Sorry, I have a hyperactive imagination. You see, this walking thing is a grand hobby of mine and it always brings me into some sort of trance where I don't really care what happens around me. It is a surprise that I haven't been dragged by a truck or in this case a gang of motorcycles because of this trance thing. I guess it is my body’s way of adapting to the situation, by sending all the energy and force to my legs, away from my senses.

Anyway, to cut the story short, Bookworm moved to another location. An old lady who was observing me informed me. She motioned me with one hand to approach her and then she asked, “Bookworm?” I answered in the affirmative. She went inside her house after telling me “Carte de Visite”. Ooh, French speaking, I like! Anyway, I thought it was another scam so I tried to run away. Fortunately, her intentions were pure, she handed me the bookstore’s business card and then I left after saying “Merci”. As the bookstore’s new location seemed a bit too far, not to mention it was getting dark, I decided to just find a KFC, eat dinner, and head back to the hostel. A few minutes were spent on the lake which was still bustling with people at night, some of them exercising, some engaging in public displays of affection, some getting drunk. I love that lake and I am still wondering why I never visited it again the next day. Anyway, end of Day 1. Day 2 involves more walking.

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