Friday, February 18, 2005

Vietnam, Hanoi

"Each day of travelling gains you plenty of wisdom."
--Vietnamese proverb

* * *

My absolute last impression of Australia was bathroom graffiti in the international airport in Perth:

"U.S. Out of North America NOW!"

* * *

My first encounter with Indonesia was in the city of Denpasar on the island of Bali, and Indonesia all-too-comfortably met my prejudiced image of a modern Islamic society--gloriously clean, polite, calm, secure.

In Jakarta, the capital, I figured there was one scooter or motorcycle for every four-wheeled car on the streets. And every rider was wearing a helmet. A billboard advertising an art exhibition featured only one large image: stylized eyes peering out from a full-face moto helmet.

In Jakarta, I nearly married into a strict Muslim family.

Patrice told me that two religions do not make for a happy marriage, so one of us would have to convert. Super easy, thought I. Unlike her parents, Patrice is a "skip the fasting, go to the feast" kind of Muslim, and converting to agnostic indifference doesn't require an examination nor a ceremony. However, I quickly learned, her parents would not accept her not being a Muslim. Therefore, one of us would have to convert.

In the airport at Jakarta, awaiting the plane to Ho Chi Minh, I saw MTV Asia. Broadcast throughout Asia with most of its content in English, it has the largest audience of any MTV incarnation and one of the largest audiences of any television channel in the world. The last time I had seen MTV Asia was in Ulaanbaatar.

* * *

In Ho Chi Minh City, I figured there were 25 scooters for every four-wheeled car. And nobody was wearing a helmet.

The hostel was full, but the girls told me they had room at one of their other hostels. So the smallest one led me outside and fired up a scooter and told me to get on the back. Okay. So I suspended my moto-safety fanaticism and climbed aboard. Suddenly I was part of the world-infamous Vietnamese scooter traffic.

"If you are afraid, do not do it. If you do it, do not be afraid."
--Mongolian proverb

At the other hostel, the girls told me that they were full, but they would get me a room at the hotel across the street. So the tallest one led me outside to cross the street, which is even more dangerous than riding through the street. Standing on the curb, she held out her hand to me and waited. So, like a small child, I put my hand in hers. Then we literally waded into the traffic. As we finally got to the other curb, she let go of my hand. I raised a foot to place on the curb, saw the scooter in the corner of my eye, stepped back, attempted to yelp a warning, followed the scooter with my eyes as it passed me, and watched it hit the girl. She fell down, stood back up, the scooter sailed off, and then she waved impatiently at me. I stepped up on the curb and we went inside the hotel.

French and Germans overflowing out of the hostels.

Two days on the Reunification Train up to Hanoi. Hanoi seems so familiar: cold weather and Soviet-style disrepair.

There is a Hilton Hotel in Hanoi.

* * *

The Mongol empire extended beyond China and down the coast of Southeast Asia, which is known in our time as Vietnam. It even extended into the islands off Southeast Asia, including the island of Java, on which is located Jakarta.

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