Erenlai - Items filtered by date: Tuesday, 22 January 2013
Tuesday, 22 January 2013 16:38

Getting Hanoi-yed on the Beaten Track

The first mistake I made was choosing Jetstar. After a nine hour delay in Singapore I arrived at Hanoi Airport, at 1am, completely alone and very reassured by signs everywhere warning "Beware of taxi scams!" The second mistake I made was having an address but no phone number for my hotel. After being the parcel in a game of pass the taxi passenger, my third, seemingly mute driver took me towards Hanoi. There is a certain amount of paranoia I always carry with me when first arriving in a new country alone. So when my driver pulled off the highway I thought "Curses! I don't even know how to say Hello in Vietnamese, let alone, please don't rape me!" In fact he was just picking up another driver from under a darkened bridge (an obvious location in which to find him.)

Little was I to know I would fall victim to a different kind of assault, that of the tenacious Vietnamese peddler. "Hey, where you from?", "What's your name?", "How old are you?" are sounds that are just as ubiquitous in Vietnam as the congested chatter of the choked streets. Slouched against motorcycles, reclining in rickshaws, squatting in doorways, balancing baskets, tugging on your arm, solitude is not a valued commodity. Curious, though they may seem, these barrage of questions belie their true intent: commerce. "You want shopping?" Me? No. But tourism has provided them with easy quarry. One who comes ready to fill their bags with communist kitsch and other cheap and pointless bric a brac. They descend upon the streets in privileged packs with packs, mixing dollars with dong.

As I cruised through Halong Bay, limestone cliffs sticking up from the water like moldy, broken teeth, I began to get tourist fatigue. It's great to be a traveler, it's not so great when everyone else is too. Hundreds of boats disturbed the peace of the water, the low hum of their motors creating a discordant chorus. They churned through the water, determined sperm ready to impregnate an egg, or, in this case, converge en masse at the "Amajing cave". This brobdingnagian wonder stretched far back into the cliff, but its beauty was hard to appreciate with conveyer belt tourism in full effect. "Don't stop the train to get off and look, the view from inside is just as good. And, hey!, later we can all swim in petrol infested water, the rainbow swirls sure are purdy!"

I watched a Chinese mother, teeter in her heels, on the edge of our junk, forcing her daughter to take her an album's worth of identical portraits so she could later look back and say she was there. Moments such as these generates an unavoidable self loathing for you and your traveler ilk. You satisfy a desire to see the world, while, at the same time have to share it with other, often ignorant souls, who come to tick a country off the list, shoot an AK-47 and claustrophobically giggle as they try and squeeze into Viet Cong tunnels.

I thought I would find the Vietnamese more congenial. (Because Western faces hold such fond memories for the people of Vietnam surely). But so far my interactions with the locals had amounted to bartering, retail terrorpy*, and a romantic encounter on a train, where a plucky local decided to see if I had anything interesting hiding in my crotch (Just his fingers it would seem,) I had almost given up, and then I met Soom.

I had taken an overnight train to Sapa with the Vietnamese version of the Von Trapp family singers sharing my cabin. Here in the mountains and close to the Chinese border, the H'Mong and Tsao tribes would converge daily, ready to do business. The Vietnamese cat call had found its way to the mountains and in a short trip you could have told 6 different girls, fingers stained indigo, your mini life story, before parting with your money, for some beautiful yet ultimately useless local trinket.

SoomandDuWalking around taking pictures I struck up a conversation with Soom and found myself the next day, trekking through the rain to her village. We passed other groups. Some, like us, braving the rain, others, sequestered away within shiny, silver vans. Most of the indigenous tribes will never see any of the money that tourists pay to go on these air conditioned village visits. As Soom cooked me lunch, I sat outside surrounded by the warped corduroy lines of rice paddies. The frenetic pace of Hanoi and the over-run waters of Halong Bay seemed far away. This was the calm spot in the chaos.

A gloomy hut on the side of a mountain, with no running water and dirt floors was the best place I visited in Vietnam. The lunch, cooked over a smoky fire, was the best meal. And the conversation I had with Soom, was the most genuine and eye opening. Because it was real. And I didn't have to share it with anyone else.

Yet it also made me realise that I wasn't really any better than any of the other tourists that made their way to Vietnam. Although I wanted to connect with the Vietnamese, I really only achieved this with one person, who, in all likelihood, I will never see again. I was a passive traveller. Just passing through, stopping to take some photos and avoiding the calls of the street sellers, who needed my money a lot more than I did. I can see the problems that tourism has brought to the country but in the end I get to escape, hop on my delayed plane and leave. Another backpacker on the travel factory floor, making their way along the assembly line and spat out the other end, just like the rest.

*A fear of being forced into a shopping situation as you make your way along the street.

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All photos by Kayt Bronnimann, visit her photo website:


Professor Bondan Kanumoyoso talks about Batavia, a center of commercial activity set up in 1619 by the Dutch East India Company in modern-day Jakarta, and how the melting pot of cultures it created still has lasting influences today.

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