Nam and the art of motorcycle dodging
After two days in Hanoi, Welsh has jumped up my "must learn" languages list.
Like Beijing, Hanoi is overrun with the street-sellers from hell. Unlike in Beijing, where huge swarms of young children who can't speak a word of English ram plastic dragons in your nose and expect payment for it, in Vietnam the hawkers are more sophisticated. Their English is fluent, and their modus operandi is to engage you in conversation before trying to force their kipple onto you using emotional blackmail. This is where pretending to be Welsh would work a treat (I suspect the hawkers are sophisticated enough to speak most useful languages fluently, having been fully trained in the pits of hell).
Yesterday we witnessed two traditional Hanoi spectacles, only the first of which is mentioned in the Lonely Planet. That was water-puppetry, an ancient Vietnamese tradition. When ancient traditions were being handed out, the I feel the Japanese were a lot closer to the front of the queue and still bask in the coolness of Ninjas and Samurai. In contrast the water-puppet show we saw was like a less-funny version of Bill and Ben the flowerpot men in a pond. You have to admire the Vietnamese tourist industry. For the puppeteers to stand for an hour in a big green puddle with wet privates wobbling cast-offs from Thunderbirds around on a stick in order to entertain an audience (half of whom were dropping Napalm on them thirty years previously) shows exceptional commitment.
The youth of Hanoi make up for the lack of machismo in their ancient traditions by being magnificently fearless motorbike riders. Faced with speeding armadas of crazed youths who have never even heard of the concept of "stopping distance", crossing the road can be tricky, even for Londoners. I soon developed a technique:
1) Ignore zebra crossings, red and green men, and tooting horns. Everybody else does.
2) Walk very slowly across the road, staring at the motorcycle which is currently on the most accurate collision-course with you, and try to make eye-contact with the pilot. If they don't change course, stop. If they still don't change course or slow down, panic.
Last night the streets were busier than ever, as Vietnam had whipped Laos 8-2 at football. That Accrington Stanley's under-21 B-team's grandmothers could probably have put up a more convincing performance than either team (we caught a few minutes of the match in a bar whilst I sampled the aptly named Red Beer) didn't dampen the spirits of the motorcycle kids. They whooped and cheered and tooted their horns even more than usual (although it would take a sound engineer to tell the difference, as it is a constant tone anyway). Big red flags were waved whilst members of the two-wheeled convoy played the "how many people with huge flags can we fit onto one Vespa" game. An amazing spectacle, and well timed, as it saved my most enduring memory of Hanoi from involving puppets.