Friday, August 15, 2008

Bubs and the Old Quarter

From Hai Phong we moved on to Vietnam’s capital, Ha Noi. In addition to visiting hospitals with the VCHAP group there, we welcomed our friend Christiaan to the homeland. Better known to many of our readers as Bubs (and frankly, much easier to pronounce by the Vietnamese), Bubs started his 6 week post-bar trip just as we wrapped up our 6 weeks in Vietnam. Not that we blended in well before, but having a 6’4” red-head in our midst certainly increased our profile. To keep everyone from thinking Doannie was our tour guide and to reduce confusion when checking into hotels, Bubs became my baby brother for the week, or as he preferred given our shared birthday - my twin brother (just born 2 years later than me).

Our first goal was to introduce Bubs to the little red stool, an eating venue he took to easily given its minor impact on the budget travelers’ wallet. We also started the search for Vietnam’s cheapest beer, found in one of the many bia hoi houses - 18 cent draft served on lively street corners. Bubs and Doannie certainly deserved a bia hoi after putting up with my marathon shopping sprees. I had saved all souvenir purchasing for the end, and Ha Noi’s Old Quarter lived up to the task at hand. A series of tiny winding streets still full of old French colonial charm, each street was initially home to one type of merchant - silk, wood, paper, etc. The streets retain the names of the original goods on sale but the products are now for a modern clientele - imagine entire street blocks selling only high heels, or knock-off Lacoste and Polo shirts, or sunglasses, or bathroom fixtures. A shopper’s paradise.

In between the working and the shopping, we managed to take in some historical sites as well. We visited the famous Huc bridge and Den Ngoc Son pagoda, the Tortoise tower and the Opera house. A trip to the Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first University and center of Confuscian culture, was a highlight, as was a tour of the infamous Ha Noi “Hilton” where John McCain spent 5 years as a POW. And while Bubs was in Ha Long Bay for the evening Doannie and I attended a dinner party at the home of Dr Kim Ninh, country director of the Asia Foundation in Vietnam. Good thing she happens to be the sister of Doannie’s aunt, because otherwise I don’t think we would have found ourselves at the same dinner table as the SE Asia Correspondent for the New York Times, a freelance writer for the BBC, an up-and-coming reporter for Vietnam’s premier newspaper, and a linguist contributing to the current genocide trials of the Khemer Rouge in Cambodia. Needless to say we were a bit out of our league.

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