Thursday, 2 July 2015

Hanoi, part II: Paris' crazy younger brother

Hanoi, Vietnam
We wanted to explore the extent of French influence in Hanoi. The French occupied Vietnam between 1862 and 1945, but you can see the effect of this mainly in the north. Many French tourists visit, and tour companies often boast that their tours are available in English or French. (This is in contrast to the south and Ho Chi Minh City, where American tourists flock due to their history with that part of the country.)
All around the Old Quarter, and especially north of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum complex, you can see extravagant French-style villas. Some of these lay abandoned in a state of disrepair, while others have been commandeered for military purposes, though I'm not sure exactly what. We saw guards dressed in green uniforms standing post outside many of them, all with pistols in holsters and their own large fixed umbrella to shield them from the scorching sun. 
In such a motorbike laden city, you need somewhere to purchase one. We spotted this store with an attractive wrought iron gate that looked like the perfect example of the mix of Vietnamese and French sentiments. 
Sometimes the narrow alleyways crammed full of motorbikes reminded me of somewhere in the south of France or even Italy. The difference being the tropical plants and chaotic jumbles of power cabling that would often hang down into the street. Concerning to say the least (especially when puddles lay directly under the frayed wires). 
Vietnamese coffee is another remnant of French influence: a coffee tree was brought over by a French priest and the trade took off from there. As the dairy industry was in primitive stages, tinned sweetened condensed milk was used in place of fresh milk, offsetting the strong drink with a sticky sweetness. When served over ice, Vietnamese coffee is called cà phê sữa đá (though in the north this name is interchangeable with cà phê nâu đá, which we found more people used in Hanoi). There are variations which are served hot or with a layer of egg white floating at the top, but we stuck to the refreshing pick-me-up we had come to love. 
Yannick: What else do you have to say about the coffee?
Necia: Just that you got addicted to it. 
Yannick: [laughs] I think I wanted to get addicted to it ever since I read about it in Lonely Planet. 
He states that he will be purchasing a metal filter to brew Vietnamese coffee of his own once we become not homeless. 
Venturing further from the Old Quarter, we took a stroll through the French Quarter. As you can imagine, the buildings stood out as looking distinctly European. The Hanoi Opera House was built in the early 20th century under French colonisation, and is based off the Palais Garnier, the oldest standing opera house in Paris. I love the odd juxtaposition of French architecture in the middle of a crazy Vietnamese street with a fruit selling bike merchant in the foreground. And I love Hanoi too. 
Saint Joseph's Cathedral was one of the first constructions from the French, with the architectural style resembling Notre Dame de Paris. Completed in 1886, it is the oldest church in Hanoi and every Sunday Catholics congregate and even gather outside in the street when there is no space left inside.
A point of particular interest for me was the Women's Museum. From birth to marriage to faith, war, fashion and death, the museum was extremely well put together and kept me enthralled from start to finish. One thing that stood out was how many rituals they have, especially for marriage and birth. An example is the naming of a newborn, who would often be given a temporary "ugly" name to deter evil spirits from wanting to capture the precious child. On the topic of names, in Vietnamese a wedding gift box is called a wedding "trap" - hilarious, though unintentionally so. 
Also in the museum, a collection of old propaganda posters shows patriotic men and women celebrating the reunification of Vietnam. Don't you wish you were good citizens like them! 
I did find that there was one integral part missing from the museum, even though there was a fashion section: the covering up of Vietnamese women. Just as in Western societies it is fashionable to have tanned skin, in Southeast Asia it is desirable to obtain white skin. In Vietnam this is done though wearing long sleeves pulled down over their hands, hoods covering their head and neck, face masks (also helps with pollution, which gave me a headache the first two days in Hanoi), as well as long trousers or skirts, covered shoes and skin whitening products. It was common for hotels we stayed at to have shower gels with the keyword "whitening", which I stayed well away from. Who knows what sort of harsh chemicals they are subjecting themselves to every day? Once the sun went down, out popped the sun dresses and pretty sandals. To me, this seemed like a drastic way to alter appearances, but when I thought about it, it's no worse than going to the sunbeds (and most likely better for the skin). This doesn't only affect women, and men often wear long sleeves and hats as well. The phenomenon was explained by the younger generation wanting to show that they need not be farmers as their parents were, as darker skin comes with working under the sun all day. 
Needing to escape the heat, we ordered an ice cream fondue from Fanny Icecream. An unfortunate name, but decent ice cream. With the fondue (heated via a small candle), we were served fourteen different flavours and had a lot of fun choosing the flavours.
On weekends, a night market is held in the Old Quarter and it was refreshing to see locals dressed a little more like the tourists that flocked to souvenir stalls with legs and arms bared. My denim shorts had outlived their usefulness and I had a go at haggling for a new pair. It turns out I am terrible at it, and another tourist (whom I did not know) chimed in to help get the price down a further 10,000 dong. I look forward to going back to stores where the price is already set. And in typical Hanoi style, though the streets were closed off to traffic for the market, you'd still be beeped at by the occasional motorcyclist trying to pass you (who then somehow avoided punishment by hopping down off their bikes whenever they saw patrolling police). The highlight of my evening was when a man pulled up beside me and said in a clandestine manner "Hello, marihuana?" I'm sure many backpackers would take him up on the offer, but I shook my head and cracked up as soon as he was out of earshot.