“Eat here,” this teenage punk said as he shoved the menu against my face. I’m not being hyperbolic. He pressed the sticky plastic pages against my nose and cheeks and forehead. I ripped the menu out of his hand and thought three things: Tear the book in half, throw the menu among the chicken bones and napkins swimming in the gutter, or shove the menu back in his face. But as a guest in someone else’s country, I decided on the taking the high road. I fucking hate the high road.
Of the half dozen “hosts” attempting to have me sit at their street market restaurant, all of them had blocked my path and touched me in some way (and not in the emotional sense).
I had only been in Hanoi for three hours and after exploring some of the best things to do in Hanoi, this was quickly becoming the most aggravating city that I had ever visited.
Hassles at the Hanoi Airport
Earlier, at the airport, after waiting in a hot, sealed minivan for twenty minutes so our driver could attempt to stuff it with additional passengers, Marissa and I had colluded with a pair of Danes and decided to split a cab. We started our walkout. That’s when the driver, who had spent his time sunning on the passenger pick-up platform, laughing at us with his driver buddies, gave in.
Crossing the Streets in Hanoi
The van ride was, however, the last restful moment. Once we got to Hanoi, all the relaxing we did in Laos was erased. Crossing the city streets was like walking through a gunfight and hoping that everyone is taking very good aim not to hit you. Most streets had no stop signs or traffic signals, and unlike most places in the world, Hanoi traffic was a steady stream of motorbikes. There were no gaps in the traffic pattern. So you just walked. You walked and held a line and the motorbikes and cars were supposed to know not to hit you or each other as they zig zagged across the road and charged blindly into intersections from four directions all at once. By the time you crossed a few streets, your body, having been so flooded with adrenaline, felt like it’s just been through a marathon. (I’ve run a marathon before and I was more tired after a day in Hanoi and felt a lot worse than I had after my race.) And then, once you reached the sidewalk, you’re stuck walking in the streets anyway because every sidewalk was inundated with parked motorbikes or miniature blue tables and chairs of the transient street kitchens. And if you happened to find a stretch of barren sidewalk, the touts chased you into the street, begging you to purchase their terrible baked goods, drinks, fruits, etc.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
On our first full day in Hanoi, Marissa and I woke early to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The line to see the revered, dead, former leader was long, filled mostly with locals eager to pay their respects. Ho is like a god in Vietnam, occupying every denomination of Vietnamese currency and a pricey chunk of real estate, which includes his former home, museum, and mausoleum.
Standing in the sweltering heat and amid the antsy crowd, everyone pushed to move nowhere. A woman in a long red dress and a traditional hat that the rice paddy farmers wear kept prodding people on the line and physically pushing people to leave the area. She was shoving kids in front of their mothers. The mothers said nothing as if this frightening lady’s behavior was acceptable. Then she pushed me.
“Don’t touch me, lady,” I told her as she went down the line roughing up other visitors.
Every minute, an umbrella spoke would jab me in the head. The girl behind me, then the guy behind me, then the old woman behind me, then the old man behind me (the line kept shifting about like a blob) would step on my heel or press up against me the way horny young boys at a club do as they try to grind with some girl. Like that girl I had to bump them off. Each time the line moved an inch, people pushed to move a foot more.
During one spasmodic movement, I had been standing behind my wife and being a half-second too slow to step forward, a man from behind me filled the empty space between Marissa and I, pressing his groin against her and his ass against me. I wrapped my hand around his torso and pushed him back the way we used to get around defenders in water polo. He didn’t say anything as if this were all very natural. Just a part of Hanoi culture.
We finally passed through metal detectors and got into a calmer, single-file line. My shirt was drenched in sweat–my sweat, other people’s sweat. Two Dutch guys who had cut the entire line and skipped out on the metal detector fell in behind us. One of the white-suited military men started to yell at them, but they somehow convinced him that they hadn’t done anything wrong. I hated and envied them. I guess they could read the former of my two feelings in my face and tried to assuage my hatred of them through polite conversation. (They were nice guys.)
As we approached the doors to Ho’s marble mausoleum, another soldier shushed us. So I took out my notepad and began to write. A third soldier smacked my hand. No writing his finger wagged. Inside, we came across more librarian-soldiers telling people to quiet down. Finally, we arrived in the cool, dark room, to see the sallow-faced, gray-fingered Ho who lay supine and had his head propped up on a pillow. But the viewing only lasted for forty seconds as the men in white put their hands on everyone to move them along. The rest of the morning was more Ho, more lines, and more Hanoiance.
“We need to leave Hanoi,” I said to my wife, so we went to book a trip to Ha Long Bay. The travel agent told us to wait for a bit and then spent two hours with a couple while I stewed in my anger for the city. (Wait for the next post when you’ll read about how our Ha Long Bay trip was a complete disaster.)
What’s the most annoying city you’ve ever visited?