Saturday, January 25, 2014

Vietnam 2014 – Day 19 – Hanoi, my final exam

After 2,000 km in the motorcycle I figured I could call myself an advanced beginner. Little did I know that Vietnam had decided to promote me to advanced level, and that today I had to present my final exam. I had but 100 km to go from Hai Phong to Hanoi, but in that short distance I was presented with every complication the examination board had to through at me. The setting was a major highway, with thundering cargo trucks and every vehicle imaginable on the road (a sign clearly stated that carts and tractors were not allowed, but such a sign is like a red cloth waved in front of an angry bull. Let’s begin with a light drizzle, just enough to blur visibility and make the highway really slippery. Then we will throw in a few weaving bicycles, slow moving carts and tractors. Then we will introduce all sorts of vehicles doing u-turns right on front of you. Finally, let’s add the ubiquitous scooter going against the direction of traffic. Honestly, it felt like I was in a videogame, where everything that can go wrong will. But I did it! I swerved around all obstacles, cut in front of an 18-wheeler to avoid hitting a little old lady, dropped my speed to zero to avoid an oncoming car, and then accelerated to 100 km per hour in under 30 seconds to avoid the incoming rush of across-the-highway traffic.

Once I got to Hanoi proper I crossed the river using a railroad bridge, jumped a red light, wove myself through a prong of scooters that resembled angry piranhas, and even went against the flow of traffic on a major thoroughfare! By the time I got to my hotel I had left a path of scared Vietnamese on my path, who will probably will need a few million dong of therapy before they can forget crossing paths with El Diablo.

Emboldened by my success I crossed the city (again!) To go to the excellent Museum of Ethnology of the peoples of Vietnam. The country has 46 different cultural groups, who speak languages from five different groups, which makes for a pretty mix. Amazingly all of them get along just fine (though the Viet, with 86% of the total population, are clearly top dogs). The museum is pretty far from city center, but it has very fine grounds. The main museum has displays on each of the 46 ethnic groups, with fine displays on costumes, handcrafts, and living styles. A separate building host the Museum of Southeast Asia, which has beautiful art pieces from Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

The best part, in my humble opinion, are the grounds, which are an oasis of peace in the middle of crazy Hanoi. On them the museum has placed its collection of homes from the different cultural groups. The museum actually went and bought traditional homes, dismantled them, and then brought crews of the original builders to put them together again. They also had a water theater, where the stage is a pond, and the “actors” are puppets that are manipulated from a covered water temple. The result is at the same time funny and impressive. I need to tell my cousin Jaime, the family puppeteer, about this.

Getting back from the museum to downtown was postdoctoral level stuff, since it was around 5 pm and the whole population of Hanoi was on the move. But I did it without mishap, so from now on I will describe myself as a very experienced motorcyclist. I returned the motorbike without a hitch by 6 pm, and Hop, the friendly proprietor of the rental shop (ADV Ride or, invited me to join him and his friends on a beer. They were a delightful group of young Vietnamese, later joined by their three French friends, and all of them made me feel very, very welcome.

So welcome, indeed, that after a couple of beers they decided to go to a Bia Hoi (a brewers) restaurant and they dragged me along. What a delightful way to spend Saturday evening, and my last evening in Hanoi. The beer was good, and the dinner was a real feast, with lettuce wraps filled with cold meats and veggies (and dipped in soy sauce and wasabe), a pork shank baked in cream, breaded frog, and all sorts of side dishes. The only thing missing was slow-roasted dog, because they only serve it on Sundays. Maybe tomorrow.

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