12/07/2007

A swarm of mopeds around the Tortoise Tower

It is the heat that has dominated my first few days in Vietnam. I may have a claim to be an ‘old Asia hand’, due to my periods working in the region – but working puts one under somewhat different conditions to being tourist. When working, I have had the advantage of air conditioned rooms, air conditioned offices, and air conditioned transport between the two. One can also learn about the country from your local work colleagues, many of whom will speak good English. In Thailand and Malaysia, the English language press is in a good condition, and the current state of political debate is there to see, admittedly with some self-censorship. The Vietnam news, the English language paper here is definitively the medium of a state run news agency, and appears to contain government statements, rather than comment on them. The nearest I have seen to debate so far is an interview with the police chief in Ho Chi Minh city, over the difficulties in enforcing a more stringent law on crash helmets.

So my ventures out from the room so far have been short in nature, as I try to acclimatise in days to temperatures that reach the high thirties in the middle of the day (about 100° F). On my first day, I only had a short time in the hotel room before heading to the match. On day 2, I needed to go to the Indonesian embassy to sort out a visa. It turned out this was not far from my hotel – I still started out by taxi, but from the embassy I had to find a place to get a visa photo taken. The photo was to take two hours to print, and I would then have another hour to kill before the embassy re-opened. So I took a walk, sticking where possible to the shady side of the street. A central feature of Hanoi is a number of lakes that provide some respite from the traffic. The most popular is Haon Kiem lake in the old quarter of the city. This has two small islands in the middle. One, inaccessible to most has a dull grey building called the tortoise tower. The other has a bridge for the public and a small temple, busy with tourists and locals during the lunch hour. It seems there are two types of local wanting to talk to visitors – those after your money, and those after a little of your time. At almost every corner you will be offered a ride on a moped (they are a type of taxi), these rely mainly on local custom and accept a ‘no’ answer. The other services on offer are a type of rickshaw, and postcards, maps and books. The vendors of both of these are more persistent. I have never understood why, when they can have seen me refuse the offer from one of their rivals, they think that they can have more success. Postcard sellers appear to be the most persistent. They carry a small knapsack with postcards, plus maps and a few books, (the Lonely Planet guide book, tales of the Vietnam war or Graham Greene’s Quiet American). If the seller if a school age child, and they start to tell you they have not sold anything for two days, and therefore have not ate, then one has to steal oneself while saying no. Still, I feel confident in the belief that most tales are trained to tell these tales, and they are not true. Strangely, children selling postcards seem to be among the best speakers of English in the Country. I have been approached by a few students from local universities trying to practise their English on me. Unfortunately, once we have got past the formalities, (name, age, profession, numbers of wives and children), they seem to have little they can say. So as yet, I have not been able to find out what they think about the government, their opinion on Vietnam’s latest football result, or being forced to wear a crash helmet. A similar case occurred with a group of five business men enjoying a meal in a brewpub’s restaurant outlet. Seeing me drinking alone (I was watching China’s rudimentary disposal of the Malaysian threat in their opening game), they called me over to their table. Again, the conversation followed the standard pattern, but could go no further. Photographs were taken (with my camera), which my new found friends, (whose names apparently included Von, Fon and Son) wanted copied of. But they were reluctant to give me an e-mail address, and one wanted me to ride somewhere on the back of his motorbike (without a helmet, and with his computer bag balanced on front as well). When I was reluctant to do this, he called a postcard girl to translate – we then crossed the road to a photo shop where the photos were printed within five minutes, so everyone ended up happy. (I noticed the business man tipped the girl for her translation – and with more money than I would have given her for postcards).

Motor bikes, scooters, mopeds are the dominant features of Hanoi’s streets. The number of four wheeled vehicles on the streets is relatively small, and there are very few private cars. The bikes swarm around these like bees, weaving in and out and sounding their horns continuously in warning whenever they come close to each other. Traffic lights act like a faulty valve – they restrict the flow of traffic but they do not actually stop it, while a green man on a crossing is a signal to risk life and limb, rather than a sign that you have right of way and other traffic may stop. The bikes and cars will still be entering the road as you cross, but they will at least try to avoid you. The best advice, which I sometimes struggle to put into practice, is to almost ignore the traffic and stride purposefully across the road.

From my experience so far, I have tried to sort out a spotters guide to two wheels in Hanoi. This is not about engine size, even in a country whose law has three separate categories (50 cc or under, 50-125 cc and 125-250 cc, more powerful bikes being rather rare). No what matters is what goes on the bike. People, most obviously, in many shapes and sizes. One or two people on a bike is nothing to comment on – occasionally, the second person is a foreigner a bit more brave than me. The single office girl is a notable, if common spot – all prim and proper on the way too and from the office, on a bike which will weigh at least twice as much as the girl, and inevitably wearing high heels. Three on a bike is not uncommon, I think same sex groups, mainly teenagers are most common. After all, sharing a bike with your boyfriend does demand a certain amount of intimacy, which is not becoming in Asian society. Family groups are also common. One child can be fitted between a parent and the front of the bike, or can cling on from behind. If both parents are on the bike, the child can still be up front, or can fill in the middle of the sandwich. Two parents and two children is also common, one up front, and one in the ‘sandwich filler’ position. The child in front can work the horn, while the one in the middle can engage in activities such as reading a book. The see three children with parents is rare, and worthy of a spotter’s badge. As for headgear, almost anything goes – with the obvious exception that crash helmets are a rarity. At the moment, helmets are compulsory only on certain roads, which is a somewhat impractical law. In December, they are going to be a city wide requirement for Ho Chi Minh City – but that again will mean little until the authorities can persuade a substantial majority to obey the laws.

With a full day available, the hotel booked a tour for me to Halong Bay. The price quoted seemed a good price for a full days tour with lunch, but as I later discovered, I could have saved about 40% by buying the same your outside. I was picked up at the hotel by a 16 seat minibus, which then took over three hours to get us to the boat trip. The trip meant the viewing of some spectacular scenery and at least a sea breeze to counteract the heat and humidity. Early in the tour, we stopped for a couple of caves which required climbing up rather a large number of steps, but which were certainly worth the effort. A side trip (paying extra) put us on a small boat, of questionable stability, to sail through another cave. This turned out to be a small gap in the rocks, where one had to keep one’s head down to avoid being hit, opening out into a lagoon with rocks at least 100 metres high on every side, including above our entry cave. The nearby ‘fishing village’ consisted of houses built on a series of floating pontoons, and a school built in similar style. Sadly we did not dock against any of the houses.

Meanwhile, the football has been carrying on in both Malaysia and Indonesia, and for that matter in Venezuela as well, although I have not often been able to get to a television at the right time. On the way to Halong, we had a stop en-route, which just happened to coincide with the penalty shoot out of the Brazil-Uruguay game in the Copa America. Just how far off the line can a goalkeeper get without a re-take being ordered? I could have seen the entire second semi-final from my hotel room, but this would have meant getting up early and missing breakfast. I also seem to have direct broadcasts from the FIFA’s under-20 tournament in Canada and matches in the South African League. Sadly, I have to leave the hotel to see broadcasts from the Asian Cup.

In Indonesia, the home team continued the run of successes for the host nations, (and failures for Arabic ones) with Indonesia beating the Bahrain by 2-1. I missed most of this, but it appeared to be a close battle. Not so the later match between Malaysia and China. Here the home side were swept away by the visitors. I watched this from a bar (as mentioned earlier), and while I could not fail to be impressed by the Chinese, the Malaysians looked to be the poor relations of the tournament – so the real tests are still to come. When South Korea entered the field, they repeated the Japanese pattern of taking a lead, but allowing their opponents to get back into the game, and this was the fourth, out of the first round of eight games to end up level at 1-1. The other match saw Iran and Uzbekistan playing in Malaysia. Again the game appeared to be tightly contested, but the Iranians justified their position as group favourites with a 2-1 win.

So after everyone has played again, the story is one of the host nations. Pre competition analysts tended to agree that there was little hope of getting more than one through to the knock out rounds, and that all four were underdogs – but with the exception of Malaysia, all have started well. By comparison, the visitors from the Arabian Gulf have all faired poorly, this is a sextet of teams, arranged in three pairs to meet on the last day of group games, and none have a win under their belts. Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be content with their results – having all drawn with teams expected to win their groups, while Iraq, UAE and Bahrain will be less happy, having been stopped by the hosts. For Japan, South Korea and Japan, the opening results may not be as good as expected, but they can all live with this, if they improve. Having both won in Group C, China and Iran will look forward to their meeting on Sunday.