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Surviving Hanoi: Dodging motorbikes and keeping track of the zeros

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I walked into the Vietcombank in Hanoi with a hundred U.S. dollars and came out a millionaire. No I didn't rob the place — at an exchange rate of sixteen thousand to one my hundred U.S. bucks became 1.6 million Vietnamese dong.

Finding pocket space for all the bills was only the first challenge posed by my unaccustomed wealth. Figuring out whether I owed someone two thousand or twenty thousand dong was never quite clear and showing any sign of uncertainty was an invitation to get ripped off. Taxi drivers particularly are adept at sliding the decimal point a couple of zeros in their favor.

The next big challenge was getting back to my hotel. This required crossing several main streets flowing curb to curb with motorbikes and other assorted vehicles. In Hanoi the flow of traffic never stops. Waiting for an opening is as futile as standing on the banks of a river and waiting for the water to stop going by — so you just wade in, keep looking upstream, and don't make any sudden moves. At first it's intimidating but miraculously the traffic, like the water in a stream, just flows around you without even a pause.

After the first bewildering day or two we got the hang of the money and traffic and discovered a fascinating city that beckoned to be explored, on foot, in peddle-driven cyclos, and on motorbikes amid the organized chaos of the streets. Perhaps more than any other Vietnamese city Hanoi has embraced the legacy of its long and turbulent colonial history while retaining its traditional Asian culture and fierce national independence.

For more than a thousand years the Vietnamese people waged an on-again-off-again battle against Chinese domination only to be colonized in the mid-1800s by the French. But the struggle for independence continued, first with the Franco-Viet Minh war, followed by the tragic intervention of the United States in what the Vietnamese refer to as the "American War", and finally the ideological struggle between North and South that finally lead to reunification in 1976.

Today Vietnam is one of Asia’s economic tigers and Hanoi, its bustling capital city, throbs with the sights and sounds of a young generation rushing headlong into the future. But Hanoi also acknowledges its past — ancient Chinese pagodas, French colonial houses, the preserved wreckage of an American B52, “Uncle Ho’s” mausoleum. It’s been called a living museum but exploring Hanoi’s teeming streets is no ordinary museum experience.

We spent most of our first day walking, and getting hopelessly lost, in the Old Quarter where street names change every few blocks, where streets disappear into a warren of alleyways, and alleyways disappear among a jumble of markets and courtyards. Located on the banks of the Song Hong (Red River) the Old Quarter is Hanoi’s original commercial district and each of its 36 streets bears the name of the product sold there back in the 13th century — Hang Muoi (salt), Hang Gai (silk), Hang Bo (baskets). We gave up trying to follow our map and just wandered in the general direction of Hoan Kiem Lake. The pastel coloured houses are a practical blend of French colonial elegance and modern Asian economy - narrow to reduce taxes and embellished with elaborate balconies for show - but the street scene is pure Vietnamese.

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