The day before I left Ha Noi was clearly a highlight of my time in Viet Nam. I
took a tour from an unusual organization called "Hanoi Kids" that stands in
opposition to all stereotypes of Vietnamese bad service. The organization is a
club of about 200 university students with highly selective membership. Exams
are set for would-be members and they are interviewed to make sure they have
both a strong knowledge of Vietnamese and specifically Ha Noi culture and
geography and are also personable and likely to interact well with visitors.
Only one out of seventeen applicants is accepted.
I don't normally take tours of any kind, but for my last day in Ha Noi I wanted
to go well off the beaten track, and for this Ha Noi Kids seemed just the right
place to check.
They seemed to know what they were letting themselves in for as they assigned
me Bach, one of the tallest Vietnamese I have encountered, to ensure I was kept
under control! I told him that the plan was to go around by public bus, but it
did not quite work out that way due to slow travel times. After the first bus,
we took a taxi to get quickly to the first place we were visiting, the Ha Noi
Museum. We were going to this museum not to see its contents but to admire an
example of government waste. The building is in the style of an upside-down
pyramid, symbolically projecting itself lower and lower into the ground,
indicative of the waste in its construction, Bach told me. The building
contains a mass of poorly-labelled junk: earthenware pots and the like,
randomly scattered, and not the well-annotated story of Ha Noi one might
There were no other visitors in the vast space... We went next to look at the
Ha Noi city plan in the National Urban Planning Exhibition Center, a building
next door. The exhibition is in Vietnamese only, poorly advertized and, like the
Ha Noi Museum, empty. Bach explained that buildings such as these were
built for opening day ribbon cutting and nobody cared that they were empty thereafter...
We looked at the tall Keangnam apartments from a distance -- and then
went for a peek at Bach's university. We got there by bus and a walk to the
dusty campus whose buildings lack air conditioning. We had a snack and an iced
tea at a student outlet -- quite good, in fact. Plenty of students typing on
There were many terrifying roads to cross as part of the day's excursion.
Vehicles never stop for pedestrians -- pedestrian crossings such as exist are
irrelevant. Vehicles neither go faster nor slower when a pedestrian is sighted:
they just keep going. Bach walked into the street holding his hand up to the
vehicles as if to tell them that some foreign tourist was crossing. This made
no difference. The trick to getting across the road is to keep walking at a
steady speed -- yes, you just walk into the traffic and do what the vehicles
are doing. Both you and they keep going regardless, and somehow or other it all
works out. The one thing to note is that you absolutely must not slow down or
stop, for then you will be hit with certainty...
Next, Bach took me to the West Lake -- I'd asked to see examples of houses of
the well off and we walked round rows of neat villas, a number of them blocked
off by forbidding gates. Lunch was at one of Bach's favourite places that
specializes in dry pho -- pho without the soup. We sat on stools in the street
and had several things that looked somewhat odd but were really very good.
And then I'd requested Bach to take me to see the poorest of the poor. Bach made
his one mistake of the day at this point (for which I have ordered him a free one-way ticket
to Singapore to receive a flogging!) and we ended up at an area where wedding
parties go to be photographed alongside flowers. I told Bach this looked far too nice and I
really wanted to get a whiff of Ha Noi's urban despair.
Took another taxi and got to the Long Bien Bridge. There's a railway line over
the bridge and we went first onto the viaduct that contains the station and
from which it is possible to look directly into the private spaces of some very
poor-class housing. It was intriguing to see how at least some of these
properties had been given order -- possessions organized neatly, flower pots
arranged with a touch of class, indications given that life in this location
had permanence and value. You can see the same thing at the vast Khlong Toei in
We then went in the other direction, in which the railway line crosses the
river. As we approached the river, slums of horrific squalor appeared to the
left. There is a market nearby where most of the people in this housing work.
Its not clear to me why this housing is so much worse than a couple of hundred
feet away. Perhaps it is occupied more briefly by new arrivals who move on as
soon as they can.
Closer to the bridge are market gardens -- a flood of green vegetables as
antidote to the urban chaos nearby.
I'd requested a visit to a shopping center next. On the way, we paused for a
creme caramele that was absolutely French apart from its serving style: the
food comes from a tiny room and is served to diners on low stools in the
street. I craved a cold drink, and Bach indicated a supply of iced lemon tea on
the other side of the road. Everything you'd want in Ha Noi can be found just
by turning your head and searching a bit...
We took a bus to a luxurious shopping center, but I told Bach this wasn't what
I was was after: I wanted something suburban and more ordinary than luxurious.
By this point, however, Bach was in a state of complete exhaustion from his
assignment -- he said he'd been assigned as the only Hanoi Kids member crazy
enough to be able to meet my unusual demands -- but even he had been broken
down by the giddying riding and walking around the city I'd required!
So I told him to put me on a bus to the Mall at Long Bien -- actually the other
side of the Long Bien Bridge. From the bus I texted to ask if he was in an
ambulance yet. "Just got off the ambulance. I'm in the emergency room of Crazy
Hospital," he replied.
In conclusion, Hanoi Kids is justifiably rated as the number one attraction in Hanoi on Tripadvisor. Not only is the concept fantastic, but the delivery is professional in ways that
you will rarely find for any amount of money in Viet Nam. My guide, Bach, was highly
intelligent, brilliantly prepared, confident, and witty -- and even if I did drive him to "Crazy
Hospital," I am sure he will rebound to educate and entertain many after me.
One thing to add: Hanoi Kids ask for nothing. If you have connections to educational or other
opportunities, please feel free to offer advice or any other appropriate assistance. These
wonderful people are the best possible ambassadors for Viet Nam and deserve the brightest
future that can be possible for them.
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