Thursday, May 10, 2007

After 11 hours on a plane from Stockholm to Kuala Lumpur, a couple of hours in the airport there and then two and a half hours on another plane to Hanoi, we arrived in Vietnam, a bit tired, a bit tense from anticipation and the uncertainty of how to navigate a new culture. But then C. the fashion photographer got held up at passport control: It turns out that while Swedes don't need a visa if they stay less than 15 days, Italians are a whole different ball of wax.

So they deported him back to Kuala Lumpur. And we all decided we may as well go with him. So we raced through the airport, upstairs to the departures hall, getting our boarding passes and luggage rechecked, running back through the outgoing passport control and onto the same plane that we had come in on, all faces turned to us, everyone a bit suspicious.

Two days later, after haggling with airlines and the Vietnamese embassy in Kuala Lumpur, we got on another plane and finally all made it through passport control, making our way out into the charming and noisy city that is Hanoi, its streets lined with trees and tall skinny houses that seemed to be one single narrow room stacked on top of another, and another, and another.

It took about five tries to learn the art of crossing the street, since the thousands upon thousands of honking scooters (bearing everything from whole families to double beds to four live grown pigs tightly bound in a little cage) stop for nothing, not even traffic lights. You simply have to take a breath and then a step out and slowly but surely and without stopping, walk across the street, scooters flowing all around you. It's like stepping into a river, only far scarier. But eventually you get the hang of it.

In the old town, it seems, there is a street for everything: shoes, spices, mirrors, paint and brushes, live fish (ugly spiny black sea cucumbers, a monstrous slimy mollusc in its shell, sea horses and most disturbing, a cage of little grey lizards) even tin boxes which are fashioned right on the sidewalk, hammered and bent and soldered into shape, a street with a racket to rival Vulcan.

Then there is the French quarter, much more orderly, with Louis Vuitton and expensive restaurants (well, expensive for Vietnam).

All in all, It seemed the Vietnamese were quite keen on selling things. Rather odd for a place called the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

About the only thing to remind one that this is actually the Socialist Republic of Vietnam are the speakers on trees, light poles, the sides of buildings, through which morning announcements are made - from my hotel, I listened as the whole city was announced to and I watched as an old woman on a terrace high up in a building several blocks away did her morning exercises. There is something vaguely Orwellian about public announcements, Orwellian and also something grade schoolish, reminding me of how the principal would make the morning announcements, and we would all pledge allegiance to the flag (have you ever tried to explain the whole pledge-allegiance-to-the-flag thing to a non-American? It leaves a very bad taste in the mouth somehow and sounds, well, kind of Orwellian. Do schoolchildren still pledge allegiance to the flag? I certainly hope not.)

There's more to this tale: three days in a junk, a week in a fancy-schmancy hotel, and a total of eight plane rides. But I'll get around to that later.

The Swedish word for the day is visum. It means visa.

- by Francis S.

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