Sunday, November 12, 2006

Mopeds and Ancestor Worship in Hanoi

Arbre de TĂȘt dans le trafic. Par Petit Dragon.

The streets of Hanoi aren't dimensioned for cars, and the public transportation system isn't dimensioned for the Vietnamese capital's current two-million population. So everyone drives a moped -- kamikaze style.

They're everywhere, they go fast, they sound like giant mutant wasps (hence the Italian Vespa) and there are rarely less than two people on each vehicle. Oh, and they beep. Our host, charming Swiss stay-at-home dad Patrick, took me for a ride this morning on his own steed, so I've been there and lived. (He's an ace photographer, check out his Vietnamese work.) We checked out the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (the old man wanted to be cremated and popped into the earth on a hillside where people could go to plant trees, but such is of course not the fate of successful revolutionaries), one of the world's few surviving colossal Lenin statues, the elegant colonial architecture of the French quarter, the remains of a B52 bomber shot down about the year I was born and now proudly displayed, the works.

Our hostess is the enchanting Swedish blogger Zornkvinnan (alas, she currently doesn't often grace the intartubes with her writings) who has made friends with my wife. The two ladies met for the first time last night at the airport and seem to be getting along really well. We all had a typical Hanoi lunch at a rootsy sidewalk eatery where the mopeds whizzed past at arm's length. Barbecued minced-pork patties, noodles, fresh liquorish-tasting greens, all dunked in hot broth seasoned with chili, garlic and fish sauce. Heavenly! Then we walked through the drizzle from awning to awning in the Old Quarter's most cramped market alleys, looking at food and napping saleswomen, buying a miniature tea set for my daughter. It's intended for the ancestor cult at the ubiquitous house shrine, though I believe its new owner may be more likely to use it for entertaining her dolls. Let's hope that this entices a few friendly ex-mopedist's spirits to take up residence in our playroom, ensuring health and prosperity.

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