Monday, April 22, 2013

Hai Phong to Ha Noi

Hai Phong, a port city of Vietnam, is one of the many harbours that the Me Kong river bestows upon Vietnam. The only Vietnam that I have seen is in the war movies, all of them made in USA. Hollywood, true to its cachet does capture authentic landscapes, as I was reminded of those films the moment I saw the sleepy elephant like hillocks, all verdant and covered with haze- almost symbolic of the pall of war this country has witnessed. The scene changed dramatically as we approached the port terminal. What appeared from a distance as fashionable women walking along the concrete slabs of the port- a place one usually associates with stevedores, turned out to be hired hands for sweeping the area. The dainty women in their high heels and colourful attire, sweeping the wharf off dirt, was quite a unique sight. It soon dawned on me that for every man on the street nearby, there was another woman as well. In some parts of the town, it seemed that women outnumbered men. In my bus ride across the town, I came across street side barbers who were women. It was a coincidence, when a few days later, I ran into a news article in Tokyo times, that spoke of the role that women in some countries like Vietnam had played in bringing their nation up. The streets are lined up with Karoke bars and there are couple of large Night clubs in Hai Phong which play mostly Vietnamese music and a bit of English music. The dance floors are gargantuan by Mumbai standards, and with live music and performances being part of the deal, it was a unique experience. The youth of the city prefer the street corners to such clubs though. They congregate in small groups and sit on tiny stools and consume Vietnamese herbal tea and munch on nuts. This unique hang out is all pervasive in the streets and goes on till midnight. The ride to the capital city of Ha Noi(pronounced Haa Nôi) was not very unlike an Indian bus journey. It presented a visage of the interiors and the people who lived beyond the urban areas. But the 80 Km ride was generally along a highway, which although not too wide, did not have any red lights to slow us down. The driver maintained speeds of under 60KPh even when the roads were empty as the law forbade him speeds in excess. It appeared that the police were ruthless on over speeders as even in the return journey in night, it was excruciating to see the driver not cross the 40 km mark in an empty highway. Ha Noi is the quaint capital town of the Country with many reasonably tall buildings, several eateries and a gentle buzz that’s almost soothes you. Many shops in Vietnam have the houses extending to the rear on a floor above. These shops are a continuation of the houses and at times, one has to call out the shopkeeper, usually a woman, who’s probably preoccupied with tending to her household work. The people of Vietnam have had very less exposure to tourists, much less to Indians, as it has remained a closed nation and has not advertised itself as a tourist destination. The people therefore are warm and friendly most times and sometimes quizzical on seeing brown Indian faces. The prejudice that one finds against Indians in other tourist centres was pleasantly missing here. After having a beer in the restaurant in central Ha Noi, and walking the bylanes for a while, I soothed my tired body with a refreshing massage. The prices are cheap by Indian standards and the cleanliness and ambience is 3 star. Most people in Ha Noi, mind you the capital city, do not understand English and hence having an interpreter is a must. Sometimes you’d wish you didn’t have to repeat yourselves thrice in super slow mode, before the interpreter understood you. In my stay in Vietnam, I came across a small Indian expatriate community who are a business community and deal with import-export of Marble stones. The interesting part is that they import marbles to Rajasthan from Vietnam. The road route from Hai Phong to Hanoi is replete with numerous water inlets along the coast. The magnitude of the role the river plays in life of Vietnamese is apparent. The bountiful water resource and the alluvial soil is a heady cocktail which provides coastal Vietnam with a healthy combination of succulent veggies and sea food alike. The large variety of fruits and vegetables that colours the streets in myriad hues of bright red and green spoke of the clean conditions those vegetables grew in. A trip to northern Vietnam is not complete without a vist to the UN recognised heritage site called Ha Long bay. This bay is natural extension of the elephant like hillocks’ landscape I mentioned earlier, into the sea. And when the landscape extends into the sea, it forms numerous steep green hillocks that project out of water unlike anywhere else in the world. The ticket on a boat trip in the bay is affordable like most other things here. We did finally see tourists of several countries ranging from Camera toting, bunched old men from Korea to carefree young back packers from Australia, here. The famous Dragon caves are a part of the tour. The boat crew were very cordial and sold Beer and pearls in-house on the boat. I bought a few pearls, which the girl claimed were original, on the way back, after having bought counterfeit from the shops set up along the cave trek. My advice; stick to the shop onboard. The trip to Vietnam was heart warming, with cordial hosts and pristine culture that is unique in many ways. The memories that I shall cherish include, a little girl’s astonishment on seeing brown skinned Indians for the 1st time in her life, the Grandmotherly affection from the Soup seller in Ha Noi, the Photo card seller who sprinted across the road from one customer to another, the ATM sentry who kept on smiling when my card was stuck inside, instead of helping me and the really sweet young Guide who took us to Ha Long Bay.

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