Friday, February 22, 2008

Travel Essay: Hanoi, Vietnam

Ha Long Bay

The two middle-aged Americans sit at a long table along the wall-to-ceiling windows of the small cafe just outside Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Sunburned and happy, they down beers and guffaw loudly at some private joke and wave good-naturedly at passers-by. They beckon two young Asian women hanging around nearby, take their photographs and ask them if they want to go dancing later that night.

Outside, in the gathering dusk, neon-lit shop signs and headlights from a steady stream of cars and buses cast a hazy glow on the still waters of the Hoan Kiem Lake. Noisy motorbikes duel with “cyclos” (similar to cycle rickshaws) and bicycles for valuable real estate on the streets. Young boys hawk cheap editions of popular English titles on pavements.

Pedestrians plunge in, weaving in and out of the traffic to traverse the intersection widened by a large circle in the centre. Women with non las (the pointy, wide-brimmed hats) strapped to their chins sell steaming hot pho (a soup) in one corner, and flowers and fruits out of baskets on bicycles or strung to the ends of long poles balanced on shoulders.

This is our first time in Vietnam, but a sense of déjà vu accompanies every turn of the head. Where have we seen these scenes before?

It doesn’t take us long to realize that the Vietnam War movies defined our sense of the country long before we arrived in its capital. It is perhaps a sign of things to come, but as we stand there on the pavement in the bustling street corner, celluloid past jostles for space with the real-life present.

Hanoi is an alluring combination of the tranquillity of a city with an ancient soul and the vibrancy of an up-and-coming economy. Tree-lined boulevards, serene lakes with arching willow trees, verdant parks, stately monuments and old temples more than compensate for shiny malls, chaotic traffic (Hanoi has slightly more than half of Bangalore’s population but nearly the same number of motorbikes) and dowdy government offices.

Even the crumbling edifices of the Old Quarter, the 2,000-year-old bargain-hunting paradise, exhibit grace and resilience as they cling to the charm of a bygone era.
The rest of the article here and here in pdf version.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Jane Jiang's Song of America

And I am not only black or white—
Am many-colored also,
yellow and dun and red and brown,
I would be green too if I could find a way;

I, too, am America.
My song is the lifeblood of this country;
My sweat still waters the bounty of its fields;
My mind is a gift to the testament of opportunity;
I foresee setback but I am optimistic:
I will find a way.

My heritage carries with me.
I am ever the child of immigrants.
I struggle to merge with those around me.
I am ever the one with two selves, two halves, two souls.
I am struggling to retain my past.
My culture beats warring drums inside me.
Mine is not a simple answer.

I found this poem by chance. The rest is here.

Over the past few weeks, workers have been traipsing in and out of the house as my kitchen and bathrooms have been turned inside out and made new again. Men from Romania, El Salvador, Honduras, Turkey, Moldova and Ethiopia laying stone, trimming wood, fixing cabinets, cutting granite, painting walls. This poem could be their song too.