Please Stop Hanoi’ing Me!

We were advised to keep moving forward, walking slowly, but steadily and despite any fear never, ever stop until we reached the other side.  It sounded easy enough when we heard these instructions, but as I stood there holding my wife’s hand and watched the hoards of two-wheeled beasts thunder past us, some with two, three and even as many as five heads, I wondered if it would be possible.  Of course, three days later I would walk boldly across the streets of Hanoi without thinking much about it – just walk slowly, but steadily and don’t stop, just as instructed – but standing there that first night Francesca and I were gripped with a combination of awe and fear.  Awe at the sheer number of motor scooters swirling their way through the narrow tree-lined streets of the Old Town and fear that there would be no possible way for us to safely get across.

We stepped gingerly off of the sidewalk – or the sliver of sidewalk that was actually left for pedestrians after the parked scooters and the blue and red low plastic chairs of the street stall restaurants – and inched our way into traffic.  “You look left and I’ll look right” Francesca offered to try to put some form of strategy to this human game of “Frogger”.   What made it even more difficult was that they don’t appear to honor a particular side of the road when they travel.  Officially vehicles are supposed to drive on the right side of the road in Vietnam, but in reality they use whatever piece of road is available to them, right side or left.  In addition, each rider feels it is his or her duty to toot their little scooter horn whenever they as much as see someone (on foot or on wheels) in the road ahead of them which adds an audible annoyance to the visual fright fest.

Notice all the scooters parked on the sidewalk

We managed to make it across that first Hanoi street and we quickly understood the value of the instructions we had been given.  You see, it turns out that if you keep walking at a slow, but steady pace the riders are very adept at maneuvering around you.  However, if out of fear or simply not wanting to die, you should stop to avoid a scooter, they get confused, not knowing if you will stay still, move forward or go back and that’s when accidents happen.  So as frightening as it is to put your trust in the hands of these commuters (and I am not exaggerating here crossing the street in Hanoi is honestly one of the scariest things I have ever done) it is the safest way across.

Amazingly you sometimes see entire families riding on a scooter.  The most we saw was five with a baby and a one or two year old in the lap of the father who was driving and a four or five year old sandwiched between him and the mother who was on the back.  While most of the adults wore helmets almost none of the kids were wearing them.  These parents make Britney Spears look like the mother of the year.

Here is a quick clip of a Hanoi street live

Once you have figured out how to safely cross the street you then have to learn how to navigate around or deflect the head on assault of the street vendors.  And not just the ones who call out from behind their stalls.  I am talking about the mobile ones who follow you for blocks with a persistence I have only seen before on the Discovery Channel’s special on spawning salmon.  You see in Hanoi, “No” doesn’t mean “I’m not interested”.  It means, “Ha! You’re going to have to be more clever than that in enticing me to buy whatever it is you are trying to sell me.”  So they try showing you the same item from a different angle or in a different color or a different item in the same color desperately hoping to hit on something that will strike your fancy.

Now I get that these people are probably hovering near the poverty line and most of the items they are selling cost less than a dollar, but I don’t feel that guilt should induce one to part with his or her money, no matter how little the amount or no matter what the cause.  Plus what would I do with a bag of marbles or a fake jade Buddha?  And I hate talking politics, but isn’t Vietnam still a communist state?  Under that system of government isn’t the house that Uncle Ho built supposed to provide for its people so that they don’t have to go around manically badgering the foreign tourists into purchasing worthless plastic objects?  Ironically, as those of you who have ever been to a communist country before can attest to, they are often the most rabid capitalists you’ll ever see often putting the United States to shame.

The night market in Hanoi

Later in our Vietnam journey Francesca and I would have the opportunity to ask a few Vietnamese people about communism in Vietnam and the consensus seems to be that while Vietnam’s political system is communist, its economic system is decidedly capitalist.  There is no equal distribution of wealth to all citizens.  The government doesn’t take all the profits from a business venture and give some of it to the farmers or give a portion of the farmer’s food to the business man so he can eat.  Yes, the government does take a portion of a businessman’s income and uses it for various community projects like fixing roads, etc., but that’s just taxation and that instrument favors no political system – just look at your IRS tax forms that you’ll be filing out in a month or so.

Franny and I get a delicious Banh My (pronounced Ban Me) sandwich at a street side vendor.   It was good, but strangely not as good as the ones we’ve had in the US.

We thought at least a communist government would provide free education and healthcare to its people, but incredibly this is not the case in Vietnam.  People have to pay for their children’s education from as early as elementary school.  According to one individual we spoke with the government is supposed to pay for education, but they have no money so the people end up having to pay for it.  And health care also costs money.  They pay money from their salaries to get medical benefits.  This is health insurance, not free healthcare.  The one exception used to be the farmers who were exempt from paying taxes since they, in theory, fed the nation, but we were told that now farmers also pay extra to have healthcare.

Francesca and I eat local

Speaking of farmers, their story is a sad one.  Before the communist party took power farmers owned their land, but under the communist regime the government took possession of all the land.  The farmers were allowed to live on it and farm it as before, but under the tenets of communism there was no privately owned land.  What that meant was that if a company needed a large parcel of land  on which to build a new factory and the government deemed it to be in the country’s best interest they could simply remove the farmer or farmers from the land and give it to the company to build on.  Apparently they did give some monetary compensation to the farmers, but certainly not fair value for the land that they had once owned outright.  Further compounding the problem is that the displaced farmers would then move to the cities and use their windfall to build a (relatively) nice house, but given that they had no skills other than farming they could not find jobs and often ended up having to sell their houses and take to the streets.  This is the pay back they get for being the key component of the communist system, the people who fed the nation.

A line of cyclos waiting for their next customer

We were told that the government had hoped that the farmers would use the money to pay for vocational schools whereby the farmers would learn new skills, but that rarely happens.  Farmers are fond of saying that they need only three things to be successful in life; a wife, a buffalo and a house.  Therefore the house was the first thing a farmer bought when he moved to the city.  And now it is these former farmers who are shoving dragon fruit and toy cars in our faces on the streets of Hanoi trying to make ends meet.  On second thought, maybe I should have bought some of their worthless plastic objects.

Hoa Kiem Lake, Hanoi

On a positive note, since the mid 1990s it appears that the Vietnam government has been moving towards a more socialist system.  In fact, in the newspaper I read today it quoted president Nguyen Minh Triet of being committed to moving towards socialism although he was careful to appease the hard liners by adding that they would do so by adapting carefully the ideas of Marx and Lenin to socialism.  Note: The government’s softening of its hard line communist position is due in large part to Triet who is from the South.  Heretofore Vietnam’s leaders have been from the North.

The Hanoi Hilton Hotel and the former “Hanoi Hilton” (prison) where John McCain spent several years during the “American War”.

Francesca and I pondered that theoretical communism probably only works well on a commune.  Where you have a relatively small number of people and it’s possible that everyone can work together for the common good.  We wondered what the magic number of people is where theoretical communism ceases to work.  Whatever that number is, it is less than the population of Vietnam that’s for sure.

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One Response to “Please Stop Hanoi’ing Me!”

  1. That is a great point about citizens in a communist country being the most capitalistic. If everything is great why are people hustling in the streets so hard?

    Capitalism isn’t perfect but communism definitely isn’t the Utopian dream made out to be by leaders of the countries that still use it.

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