Postcard from the Edge of a Cacophony

Part 1 of 2

Upon entering Vietnam, most of the senses experience overload, not least of which is hearing, a veritable cacophony of sound assails you as you leave the airport. Taxi drivers, street sellers and hotel touts shout for your attention. But this is not all. The main noise starts at 5:30am (sunrise) with loud music accompanying aerobic workouts at the lake side. Hundreds of people play badminton and swing swords (although not at the same time) and exchange news and gossip until 7:00, when all mysteriously disappear – leaving a few notes left hanging in the air. From then on the traffic noise really gets going. This is not just the roar of the car engines, but the literally thousands of motor scooters that constantly beep at each other to establish right of way. This incessant noise never stops, regardless of where you are.

Even in the remotest areas of the country, you are additionally bombarded with cries of “you buy from me – I have big size for you”. Noise pollution and indirectly insulting foreign visitors is big in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese people are incredibly resourceful, which is reflected in daily life and is highlighted in the country’s museum. For example during the Vietnamese “Police Action” (the US never got round to classifying it as a war) every “advantage” the US forces has was turned against them. The larger sized Americans were trapped in the underground tunnels (the Vietnamese could run through them bent at the waist). The plethora of US bombs dropped provided raw materials (metal and explosives) for the Vietnamese to make horrific weapons and traps. While the Americans were left with soggy uniforms and boots, the locals ditched their uniforms and used old US tires to make sandals, so feet dried quickly. US bombing runs, supposedly killers, compacted the earth and strengthened the underground tunnel network. The list goes on and on. No wonder the US resorted to pouring 72 million liters of agent orange on the country, the horrendous side effects (birth defects) is still being felt.

The Vietnamese are a proud race and it shows in the blatant propaganda. Funnily though, chickens and ducks seem to play a big when towing the party line. A film at the underground Cu Chi tunnels near Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) starts off informing us about the “US antagonists bombing and killing many innocent women, children, ducks and chickens”. At the “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp in HCMC (aka Saigon) a pamphlet sent back to the families of the detainees show them making friends with the chickens and ducks as well. This poultry fascination may well have something to do with the huge number of eggs consumed. We will not go in to the eating of dogs though.

After HCMC the next stop was Hanoi, with its fascinating old town – each street is home to a cluster of shops selling identical produce. It is interesting to walk down Hang Mam Street to find 8 shops all selling pickled fish, or Hang Manh for bamboo screens and my favourite, Hang Loc for the comb localities. After a good walk in the old town, we unwound with a display of water puppets, although after an hour of misunderstanding, a good drowning would have brightened proceedings.

Hanoi was also a launch point for 2 tours, one train journey almost to the Chinese boarder and to the breath-taking (figuratively and, due to the altitude, literally) mountains and rice terraces of Sapa. Here the inclement weather and mud made walking on the edge of the paddies quite treacherous (OK, I admit it, I fell in). The other trip was a cruise in Ha Long bay and out to Cat Ba Island with its 3,000 neighboring islands, floating villages and caves. This was some of the most stunning scenery I have ever seen.

Vietnam is a fascinating place and the economy will go far due to the friendly, hard working and noisy population (50% of which is under 30). It is also internationally poised as most of the people have a good smattering of English (with a few glaring mistakes, such as the medical questionnaire, you will out on entering the country, which asks if you are suffering from “oblivion”).

However, they do need to shake off the government controlled thing. Limits on 2 children per house, curbs on Internet sites and censorship of books is holding them back. Personally, I think a decent metro system in the major towns would go a long way (pun intended) – strange these have not been built yet – they have already proved themselves good tunnelers.

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