Walkabout with Hanoi Steve

On the streets are many faces but one refrain: “Help me. Help you. Help me.”

By Steve Burgess 4 Feb 2005 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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A couple of whipped-egg cappuccinos at Café Giang and a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, and I figure I’ve finally got Hanoi sorted. Bad feelings have been accumulating since my arrival three days ago, and I have been struggling to adjust. But perhaps I am finally solving this temple to Ho Chi Minh and capitalism.

Traffic is the first sensual assault here. Vietnamese streets operate sonar-style — blasting the horn is merely the accepted way for every vehicle on the road to constantly announce its position. Rules of the road I will not get into, except to say that a description of ordinary driving here could double as an opening statement from a Canadian prosecutor.

Walking is no picnic either. The sight of a single foreigner on foot in Hanoi is equivalent to the sight of a 10-dollar bill on fire — swift action must be taken, and is. Motorbike, motorbike, pedal cab, shoeshine, bananas, motorbike, books, maps, hey, hey, hey mister. For the tourist in Hanoi peaceful repose is no more possible than for a toasted bagel in an orphanage. Unlike more cheerfully mercantile Bangkok, Hanoi hawkers are relentless. Typical was the guy who dashed into the post office as I waited to mail a parcel. “Please help, I am a student, I haven’t eaten, buy my post cards.”

“Khong, cam oon,” I replied. “No, thank you.”

“Hey, your Vietnamese very good!” he exclaimed. “Good accent! Excellent! Please buy my postcards, please, please, just help me today, I haven’t eaten.”

I bought. Forty-five minutes later, still at the post office counter (there was one beleaguered woman on valiant duty), he popped in again. “Please just help me today, please.”

“Remember me?” I asked. Maybe, maybe not. It didn’t matter. “Just help me today.”

Wishing for normal

What eats away at you is the seeming inability to conduct normal human interaction. Wariness becomes constant. “You’re too soft,” said a European at my hotel.

But who wants to travel to learn to be hard? And yet if you engage with people on the street you soon find that they will not let you go until you have paid for their time. First comes resentment at the harassment; then guilt because the money so obviously means more to them than to you; then you give in but it’s not enough and the guilt and resentment roil into a sickening stew.

Repeat on the next block and the next; run back to your hotel and hide.

But tonight as the lights glimmer on Hoan Kiem Lake I am attacked only by that other Hanoi pressure group, English students seeking conversational practice. (Question number three is always “How old are you?” They ought to take that one out of the phrase book.) After a couple of those great egg-and-coffee concoctions I’m feeling much better. I reach the end of the lake and turn for my hotel.

A map, a kitten, a WC

Or not. Ten minutes later I am clearly lost. I pull out the map, change course, find myself lost again. A lovely young woman sits in front of a store — I show her the map and ask if I’m going in the right direction. Yes, she says. In another 10 minutes I discover her sense of direction is no better than mine.

Farther and farther from my hotel, those whipped-egg cappuccinos are now pressing hard on my bladder. I reverse again, standing on a corner searching for a street sign. At my feet is a kitten. A palm-size kitten, all alone, looking around. Men sit on low stools drinking and smoking, oblivious. A guy sees me standing looking at the helpless kitten and yells something. What he yells is: “Hey! Motorbike?”

Now I see at least one of the signs I seek — WC. A bathroom. Five hundred dong (about four cents) buys me entrance to an unlit stall with a porcelain hole in the ground. It’s dark. When I emerge, it’s as I feared — I’ve pretty much pissed all over my shoe. Plenty on the pant-leg, too.

A motorbike nearly clips me as I amble past a pile of red-hot embers on the sidewalk, remnants of an offering for the dead. I’ve stopped looking at the map. It doesn’t help.

Hanoi is not without its charms. But compensation for its many stresses are sometimes hard to find — there is too much indifferent street food, too many markets full of plastic goods and Vietnamese Twinkies. Repeat visitors tell me the city has changed a lot in only a few years. Bicycles have been replaced by cars and motorbikes, the pace and the noise have intensified.

Even the local hospitality can carry a sting. One day I was invited to sit by a group of men at a low table in a crowded Hanoi side street. A large hot pot bubbled in the middle of the table, from which they plucked morsels to drop into a bowl for me. The offerings were mostly gristle, fat, and connective tissue, although the broth was tasty. One of my dining companions leaned across the table with a grin and asked, “Do you want?”

“Want what?” I replied, before looking down to see the gesture he was making — a fist with the thumb protruding between the middle and index fingers. He may just have been offering me a nice piece of thumb — it was probably in that hot pot somewhere — but it looked a trifle more lewd. Whatever offer was intended I declined and eventually they bid me adieu, refusing my money. At the time, I was very grateful. Six hours later I was in the hotel bathroom with their hospitality spraying out of every orifice but my ears.

Home for soaps

Tonight I am beginning to wonder if I will ever see that hotel room again when at last I find my neighbourhood. On the final two blocks I am like a moving McDonald’s drive-through window — girls on motorbikes are lined up like the lunch hour rush, at least five of them cruising up one after another. “Motorbike? Boom-boom? Very good!”

In my hotel lobby a soap opera, possibly Korean, is on the tube. It’s dubbed in Vietnamese and, as is usually the case here, all the characters have been dubbed by the same woman. Hollywood productions featuring young detectives, femmes fatale, bearded mechanics, precocious children — all dubbed by the same woman. It’s particularly entertaining in the love scenes.

I go wash my pants.

Steve Burgess, who is sending letters from Asia, still tries to fulfil his obligations to The Tyee as an occasional television critic.

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