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Hanoi Reflections 19 February 2009

Posted by uggclogs in Life.
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Originally posted on 19 February 2009 (edited)

Lunch in Hanoi

City life in Vietnam is very different from city life that I am used to.  Still, people watching brings incredible pleasure, and this is the tale of my lunch break in Hanoi.  I had the pleasure of having an hour to kill while waiting for my motorbike to be fixed, and watching the world go by, I found inner peace in the midst of the crazy.

Sitting with my iced condense-milk Vietnamese coffee in front of me in an area slightly out of the centre of Hanoi, the first thing that struck me was the lack of foreigners.  Normally, foreigners can be seen either wandering around with maps in hand and backpack strapped on (read: tourists), or zipping past on motorbikes, helmets precariously perched on top of heads whose skulls are clearly a few sizes too big for the piece of plastic being passed off as a safety device (read: expat).  This little street, however, is not near any tourism hotspots, which made the time I spent there all the more interesting. Even so, the affluence of the area was clearly visible, with the trendy café I was sitting at testament number one.

Many of the locals around me in the café and on the street owned expensive motorbikes, wore clothes, haircuts and handbags of the latest fashions, and mobile phones had to be surgically removed from their hands.  I saw a (relatively) high proportion of heavy-set Vietnamese, often a good indication of level of income.  Many drove around without helmets, even though the law in Vietnam requires them.  Laughter from young Vietnamese from the local high school filled the air.  Yet the backdrop was French style buildings and street vendors and little old ladies in peasant clothing walking along the street contemplating the westerner at the café.  Modern Vietnam.

Across the street from me at the corner, sat an old grandmother behind a large vat for cooking.  Steam rose from it as she stirred the contents with cooking chopsticks.  She was chatting to a woman, possibly her daughter, who sat next to her with a toothpick hanging from of the corner of her mouth.  The younger one of the two was wearing an orange blouse and black trousers.  The older one was wearing sandals, black trousers and a purple button-up shirt.  She was greying from the forehead, causing silver streaks to infiltrate the mop of hair that was pulled back tightly into a knot at her neck.  Her face was full of wrinkles, her mouth collapsed inwards onto her toothless gums.  When not talking, she moved her lips, as if she was sucking on something, displaying the multitude of wrinkles around her mouth.

An ancient Honda cub pulled up next to the stall, and a lady with a girl of about 8 stepped off.  The elderly lady said something to the newcomer, who took her place, and crossed the street towards me and disappeared out of view into a side street.  I wish I had my camera with me at that moment, as the steaming stall with the two ladies and the girl left behind would have captured the street scene perfectly.

A little further along the street, and directly opposite to me was another stall, and another little old lady who was running it.  This stall had customers, three young people and an older man.  The old man was dressed in Vietnamese army gear, giving the impression of a veteran from one of the many wars Vietnam has fought over the past forty-odd years.  He had a small face with sharp features, displaying no expression, and his eyes were wandering over the scene in front of him, observing life go by just like me.  I would sometimes meet his eyes across the road, knowing full well that he was probably wondering about me sitting where I sat as much as I was wondering about him.  He sat there for a while, until he put on a military helmet, mounted his Honda, and drove off.

The other youths at the stall had been playing cards, and I am not sure why, but all of a sudden, one of them made a huge ruccus, stood up with the cards and flung them into the air. Jacks, Aces and fives rained down all over the street scene, and their game was clearly finished. They continued to be loud; laughing and hooting.  A sudden commotion down the street made the two boys jump up and run towards it.  I could not see what had happened, but the whole street turned to look.  Shopkeepers stepped out on the pavement, the workmen changing the sign on a building and the people peddling wares in the street were all gazing in one direction.  I wondered whether there had been an accident, but I had not heard anything.  A few minutes later, everything returned to normal, as if nothing had happened, and the boys returned to their seats.

Young children were all around me – little girls with two buns on their heads like Mickey Mouse, small school children with their red communist-era scarves and uniforms, even younger children in the arms of their grandparents or parents, being carried around or running up and down the pavement after balls.  The café next door had a television on, and it was showing a children’s programme, filling the air with kids singing.

An expensive car drove into the street, and recognising the diplomatic plates in an instant, I wondered which embassy it was from.  It stopped at the end of the street, and the only other westerner I was to see during lunch stepped out, wove to her driver, and walked into a side street.  I made the assumption that she was a spouse, as the flag indicating an ambassador was not displayed on the car.

All of a sudden, a surprising sound – a security guard hit a large drum, which was just in my line of sight inside a courtyard.  Instantly, I understood why when all the high school students around me paid their bills and ran back to school.  Why have a school bell when you can have a school drum, right?

A man in his thirties arrived and sat two metres away from me, holding a toddler in his arms.  The little girl was playing with a balloon, but stopped dead in her tracks when she spotted me.  Stiff with fear, the man and the lady at the food stall followed her gaze and realised it was the Tay – the Westerner.  They laughed and tried to make the girl smile back at me, but there were only two large, round eyes staring at me.  Her mother came along, and all of a sudden a gush of wind pulled the balloon out of her tiny hands, and it passed straight by my feet.  I managed to stop it, and picked it up.  The mother smiled at me when she retrieved the balloon, but there were no smiles to be had from the little girl, even though she smiled at everyone else.  It must be weird to see your first foreigner.

In typical Vietnamese fashion, the father, thinking it must be time for a toilet break, pulled down the pants of the little girl, and held her naked bottom above the gutter, while he hisses in her ear to simulate the sound of running water, in the hope that it would make her pee.  It seemed to have no effect on the little girl, though, who was clearly not ready to relieve herself.  Pants came back up, and no extra water was flowing in the gutter.  I paid for my coffee and walked away in the sunshine, thinking that this is a scene I would gladly revisit the next time my motorbike is in the shop.

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