Saturday, December 24, 2016

Nam nam nam

I had reason to wander further east than I ever have before recently, spending a day in the city of Hanoi in Vietnam, which seems like a thing to blog about. So I will.

The first thing the weary traveler here experiences, especially if using the services of a taxi, is Hanoi traffic.


I use the term traffic because Chaotic Machine Based Nightmare System isn't as succinct, and whatever it actually is doesn't fall into an easily describable category.

It's like a shoal, or a number of shoals who's individuals are made up of large metal fish that come together for a few minutes to go in the same direction, whilst other shoals cross them at a tangent until their transient goals no longer align, and their individuals join alternative shoals doing something else, all at between fifteen and thirty-five miles per hour.

By far the most numerous (and presumably the most vulnerable) of these fish are the mopeds, who have no concept of personal space, let alone any concerns about occupying the same area at the same time as, for instance, a seven ton bus.

As a passenger making conversational asides to the taxi driver, my speech went like this:

"Having a busy OHMYGOD day then? I think the hotel is on JESUSTHATWASCLOSE Le Duan street. Have you been doing this HOWARETHEYSTILLALIVE job long?"

Hanoi, and Vietnam in general, is supposed to have a very high death rate due to it's roads, (maybe 20,000 a year according to the WHO), but I didn't actually see any accidents, and not even that many dents in the vehicles (at least on those with sides). After concluding that you can't wince at every near-miss when the entire road is in a permanent state of near-miss, I sort of relaxed, unclenching my fingers from the roof grab handle and my buttocks from their steely grip on the faux leather beneath, allowed my heart rate to reduce to less than 140 and enjoyed the ride.

Roads clear. Let's go!
Once the cool, utterly unflappable and calmly confident driver had dropped me off at the hotel, I decided to broach the subject of the traffic, presuming that he would find it normal, perhaps laugh a little at the wimpy sensibilities of the western visitor. On the contrary. A look of exasperation crossed his features.

"This traffic crazy!" He opened his arms to encompass the surrounding vehicular maelstrom. "Always crazy, always like this! Traffic crazy!" Shaking his head, he got back in his fish and joined the next available shoal with barely a ripple.

A burger and a side of onion rings please.
Hanoi! Capital of Vietnam, home to eight million people half of whom are on mopeds at any one moment. A sprawling mix of vibrant modernity, urban decay and traditional pragmatism, with tranquil temples segueing into glass fronted office blocks. One of them was a temple to literature and I envisaged a library but based on the philosophies of Eastern religions. All good, but a late fine might be carried over into your next life. Think about that next time you see a library official charging a cockroach because he didn't return "How To Thwart Karma" on time.

Plenty of room up top
Space, like in any modern city, is obviously at a premium, and in Hanoi they have taken advantage of some relatively horizontal areas for development on top of other buildings, where folk have constructed everything from sheds to walled gardens, utility rooms to miniature apartments. The only difference between this and London is that they don't charge a million quid for one.

There is a catch to the development, and it's that pollution is a little out of control. 2016 was officially a particularly poor year for air quality in Hanoi, and you could feel it on the back of your throat after a few hours. In the distance, tower blocks only in the middle distance faded to blurry invisibility like graphics from a 2002 arcade game because of a mixture of smoke and fog, called fmoke.

I'm glad the pollution is over there, not here.

But it doesn't detract from the sheer industriousness of the place. The pavements are often unpassable due to folk working, and you have to step (warily) into the road to avoid motorbike repair workshops, knife sharpeners, impromptu restaurants and manufacturing of all types. You avert your eyes from the man arc welding as you step over the cold end of his metal beam, and smile politely at the attentive but not pushy vendors selling unidentifiable fried carbohydrates. I love unidentifiable fried carbohydrates, me. The stuff that appealed to me included an open fronted shop simply selling powdered dyes for paint, which you just don't get at B&Q:
Where folk come to dye.

Oh these tangled webs we weave . . .
Most of these endeavors are obviously private enterprise, but there was some evidence that the pragmatic mindset and disdain for health & safety constraints had infiltrated the municipal mindset as well, especially when looking at the electricity supplies around the standard Hanoi lamp post.

Like the Grimm brothers' fabled magic porridge pot, it's a never ending source of supply but better because instead of oats to feed everybody forever, this dishes out electrons by the bucketful. And presumably involves less scurvy too.

Scuse me, do you sell massive trees?
Parts of Hanoi, you find as you meander around, are more tranquil and relatively traffic free, with open air markets lining narrow streets, shoppers perusing them in no great rush, large trees spreading out across the tarmac seemingly oblivious to any pollution. I regretfully declined an unidentifiable fried carbohydrate and some chicken feet, which taste exactly like you'd expect chicken feet to taste, and kept on strolling.

Despite the lack of available living space, there was the occasional abandoned premises, taken over by vines and pioneer weed species. Makes you wonder if, like in the UK, some places are kept fallow despite their being a desperate social need, in order for property prices to rise and a profit to be made. Cynical capitalism can be quite eerie :

Pass the hoover

Talking of money, the currency of Vietnam is the dong.

No, I've got nothing, either

There are about 28 thousand of them to the pound, so you should stock up really, although I didn't because I was only there for a day.

One place I did want to visit was the Hanoi Botanical Gardens, which is a walled area of parkland to the west of the city. I walked that way for about an hour, being offered lifts by moped taxis who thought it the height of hilarity that I would want to walk anywhere in Hanoi for pleasure, until I came to the Gardens. A be-uniformed lady directed me to another be-uniformed lady sitting at a desk outside, eating some chicken feet. This was apparently where you paid an admission fee. Unfortunately I didn't have any local currency, and explained this to her, presuming I wouldn't be allowed in.

"Oh, no problem, you can go in free!" she shouted politely. I offered her a Euro, which was worth about twenty times the price of admission, but she just laughed, took pity on a man with no dong and allowed him to enter.

Oh, there you go.

Water: Nature's beer.
I had about forty minutes there, and they were modestly pleasant, with colourful trees, black squirrels scampering about and pretty lakes, all well tended. Apparently there are some forlorn monkeys in cages which aren't the garden's crowning glory, but I didn't see these so can't judge.

Of course, it's often the small differences that are the most engaging when visiting somewhere new. On my way back, I was rather taken by these birds foraging around the base of a tree on the side of a busy street. Despite their pigeon-sized stature, it's only when you get closer you realise they're chickens. Look at 'em! Tiny chickens!

Just having a quiet night out.
That evening, on my only night in the mysterious East, I went to a bar on a standard week night in Hanoi, and the place was heaving! The bars, able to seat perhaps twenty people inside if they were friendly and had high tolerances when it came to body odour, had simply placed tiny stools out on the pavement, spilling past the gutters and into the road itself, and most of them were occupied. You'd raise a hand and a lady in a sponsored trouser suit would take your order, promptly bringing you a set of beers and your change with marked efficiency. Occasionally, the police would pass and scoot everyone back towards the buildings, but like an amorphous semi-sentient liquid, we gradually oozed our way to our original positions. It was all good-natured and unthreatening, and I struck up conversations with visitors from Malaysia, Australia, the US and Japan, and they all seemed to be having a damn good time.

Too soon, after a night out that cost less than a few Costa coffees and a bit of a kip, I was on my way back to Blighty.

So what did I learn about Hanoi?

That it's as mad and built up and varied as any city you can think of, that it would definitely be worth coming back, especially to visit the rural areas that you can see tantalisingly close through the haze, with those iconic green clad hills just asking to be explored.

Maybe next time.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

I Like The Way You Walk It

Occasionally, a combination of hurly and burly from modern living, sometimes in conjunction with hustle and a spot of bustle, lead me to feel the negative pressures of social existence.

I'm not good in shopping malls.

Usually, I notice the subtle signs of mental discombobulation early on, such as a sensation of pressure on the shoulders, low mood, imitating a snarling moose and shouting "I'll eat your radiator!" at buses that get too close. On a positive note these barely visible signals allow me to take steps to ameliorate the effects of such stressors, using the time honoured technique of going for a walk.

For me, nothing resets whatever it is I have instead of a soul like a walk in some woods. For this reason, I found myself wandering through a forested area a few miles from my home, on a very wet and cold November day, togged up in full winter gear and touting the contemporary miracle that is a thermal mug full of coffee. It's quite near the local city-ette and so usually very popular with all sorts of visitors from dog-owners to Nordic walkers to people who just seem to sit in their cars with other people from other cars presumably to pursue some common interest about car interiors, but today all was quiet.

Unfortunately, heavy rains and saturated grounds had contrived to turn these particular woods into a quagmire, so instead of the sense filling, wide eyed experience I was expecting as I strode through autumnal glades, I spent a couple of hours mud-skiing down brown slopes, shlopping through oozing marsh and wading in boggy rivulets, my focus kept on the few feet of sloshing swamp in front of me where there used to be a path.

At one point, my trusty boots (Peter Storms, £50, eight years ago) decided that now was a good time to relinquish their grip on planet Earth, and I glided effortlessly into some brambles and nettles with a frictionless efficiency that would have been the envy of material scientists the world over.

It was great!

Admittedly, it was not the ultimate in relaxing perambulations, but it was invigorating. The inevitable falls resulted in generally soft, squishy and pain-free landings, and there was no-one there to witness me plonking myself down on my arse, which means woods are a safe haven from schadenfreude. Unless the squirrels are pointing and laughing. Even stopping to remove a thorn with my handy Swiss Army tweezers gave me a sense of completed satisfaction.

And it was scenic. From the utterly glorious explosions of amber that decorated the trees, to the flowing streamlets shoving dead leaves aside in neat aisles of wet vegetation. I was particularly taken with the dripping moss and tenacious mushrooms that clung to the wooden limbs all around. Soft things doing well in a hard world.

I would've taken more pictures but it was, you know, wet.

Turns out you don't need a balmy Summer's afternoon to fully appreciate the woods.

And breathe . . .