Anyone who has watched bees dart around a disturbed hive, has seen a visual analogy of the motorbike traffic in Hanoi. There are people everywhere, going everywhere, driving everywhere – on the sidewalk, on the wrong side of the road, inside stores. There are no lanes, no traffic signs, no order. Even our Chinese friends from Nanning – who actually spend most of the year in Beijing which has crazy traffic – were in awe of the madness.
As a pedestrian, when you cross the street, you have walk slowly so oncoming traffic has a chance to see you, adjust their path, and decide to go in front of you or behind you – no one stops. The roads were so congested at times that I had to step over the tires of motorbikes in the middle of intersections just to avoid being crushed from behind.
Anyway… Our friends had hoped to stay in the same hotel as us, but were sent to another hotel around the way that had vacancy, so we made plans to meet for dinner at Little Hanoi – a restaurant between our two hotels. Everything was fantastic: crab spring rolls, pho, shrimp with tamarind sauce, banana flower salad, beef wraps, mango salad and a few other treats.
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The next morning we had to find a new hotel because our friend, Shirin, was going to travel with us for a few days and we needed room for her. Fortunately this didn’t take long – we found a hotel a block away that was a better deal and had really helpful staff. So we booked a room for the next evening. Oddly, getting a room for three people is incredibly easy in Vietnam – it’s a standard room choice. Four, however, is not.
We hopped a taxi to the Ethnographic museum, which, altho ridiculously cheap – maybe a dollar – was quite informative and entertaining. I got wrapped up in a video explaining how women make those conical hats you see everywhere here. It’s quite a process and it seems like different women in the village are responsible for certain parts – some make the frames, some the covering. Then there is a big market were all the different parts are for sale, or they can buy already assembled hats
After taking the local bus back to the Old Quarter, we started walking around the lake and out to the Ngoc Son Pagoda, stopping along the way to enjoy some fresh pineapple. Once we finished a lap around the lake, we headed deeper into the Quarter to scope out some tour companies and their offers to the Perfume Pagoda – a day trip that promised a bus ride, being rowed down the river and some hiking. We finally decided on a company and signed up, hoping we’d have enough time in the morning to switch hotels and get a little breakfast as well.
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After dinner, I asked the receptionist where a good barber was, thinking I’d just get my beard trimmed. She led me to this guy in a shop that was about ten feet wide by five feet deep. He had only one chair but a pretty big smile. He handed me a little pink plastic stool and motioned to sit outside while he finished with his current customer. While I was waiting, a man was walking by holding his baby. He saw me, came over and handed me his son. I put him on my knee and he reached up and grabbed beard and was stunned when it didn’t come off. Then his dad crouched down, got out his phone and took a photo of us, picked his kid out of my lap and walked away.
When my turn was up, I got in the chair and tried to explain that I just wanted it trimmed – cleaned up a bit. He leaned me back and got out the clippers and went to town. Being shaved by the clippers was a unique mix of sensory signals: the newly-freed hair was falling on my face like soft dry snow, it sounded like someone down the block had a weed wacker going, and it smelled like my dad’s shed after we changed the mower’s oil.
When he was done, he sat me up and asked if it was ok. It was pretty short, and I was tired of finding parts of my lunch hours later crawling out from the jungle that was my beard. So I asked him to shave my face clean. He said ok. Then leaned the chair back. And at that moment, some of his friends showed up and all surrounded me to watch “whitey” get all cleaned up.
I have never been shaved with a straightedge before and was worried about bleeding like a baby. And I’ll be honest: it hurt. Not as much as I thought, but it wasn’t soothing and I don’t think I’d want it done often. And yes, I had my eyes closed the whole time. Also, having no idea what my role in this should be, I kept turning my head or making faces to tighten the skin as he was clear cutting.
At one point, trying to help, I tightened my cheek by pulling my lips to one side. I felt him stop shaving, then he gently tapped my cheek. I opened my eyes to see him right above me, with his hands raised in position and perfectly still, like a needle just lifted off a record player. He kindly shook his head, which made me smile, which made me smile even more. Then I settled down, closed my eyes, and felt the blade start right where he had left off.
He again raised my chair when he was done. I didn’t even recognize myself, but I was proud that I made it though without bleeding. I paid and gave him a big tip – more like a “thanks for not killing me” payoff. I walked back to the hotel and the receptionists looked up and went all ga ga about how handsome and better I looked. My ego was so inflated that I practically floated up the four flights of stairs to our room. I opened the door and was quickly brought to Earth by the pins of Tina’s hysterical laughing.