After we came back in from Ha Long Bay, we took a minibus down to Ha Noi and checked into the Victory Hotel. From the instant we got into Ha Noi, it was easy to see just how busy this city really is. The first thing that strikes you in Ha Noi is the huge amount of traffic. The second is the noise. Everyone beeps their horns for everything. It’s apparent that the chaos is exacerbated by the fact that largely, there are no traffic lights. There are 6 million people living in Ha Noi and there are 4 million motorbikes. Pure bedlam! When crossing the street, you just pick your path, pick your moment and go. It’s like frogger. If you hesitate, you won’t make it.
We started by grabbing lunch at a cafe near our hotel that Catherine Deneuve frequented when she made the movie Indochine. There were pictures of her on the wall and the cafe had a decidedly French feel. After lunch, I headed over to the Embassy of the Union of Myanmar to get a visa. I’ve decided that I’ll head to Yangon for the last three days of the trip. After getting the run around for a while and being told that I couldn’t get a visa there and then that I could, but not in one day, and then I could.
After the initial run around, she was very nice and had a good sense of humor. She joked about my passport photo. Apparently, they use smaller photos in Myanmar, so she joked that everything is big in America.
She took my passport and gave it to another smaller, angrier woman who leafed through it very skeptically. She looked at me for a bit and then left the room. That’s when the serious questions started. Why do you want to go to Myanmar? What will you do there? How long will you stay? What do you do for work? Lots more questions about work. Had to sweeten the story a bit and leave out the political organizing bit and stick to the line. I spread railroads across America. That worked.
After a bit, the shorter women came back and handed me my passport and said “We don’t find anything suspicious about you yet.” I had to stifle my laughter and joked to her that she wouldn’t. The taller women told me that I should come back tomorrow to pick it up.
After the embassy, I headed over to the old quarter to walk around and do some shopping. Ha Noi’s Old Quarter, a.k.a. “The 36 Streets” is a combination of market, street life and housing. According to some estimates a staggering half a million people pass through the quarter a day. Traditionally it has been a place where family-based craft guilds established their presence in Hanoi. These days it’s a little less traditional, but each street still starts with Hang (sell) and then the second word is the main product sold along that street; clothes, electronics, bags, sewing materials, office supplies. You can find whole shops that just sell tape. Every kind of tape imaginable. I even found a few stores just for buttons or zippers. It’s absolutely amazing and incredibly busy. There are thousands or motorbikes whizzing down the streets and people packed along the sidewalks. I’ve never seen anything like it. Just about everyone in our group went nuts for the shopping and some even had to buy extra bags to haul their loot.
Just a few hours walking around is exhausting. I headed over to meet the group for dinner and to go see the world famous Ha Noi water puppets. It was an interesting show, but it smelled terrible in the theater and we sat in the smallest seats in the world. My feet had gone numb half way through the show. We stayed in Ha Noi for 2 nights, mostly shopping and walking around. While Ha Noi was interesting, I don’t think I’d return. Just too hectic, dirty and loud to really relax.