Tuesday, June 26, 2007

My Neighborhood

Today I went around taking pictures of all the typical sights of the Hoan Kim Lake District, the leafy, cosmopolitan neighborhood where I'm staying.

Houses in Hanoi are puzzling. They're often seven stories high but only ten feet wide. Someone told me that this is because property taxes used to be based on the width of the streetfront. Owners responded by building impossibly narrow houses. The houses below are only three or four stories, which is generally the case in Hoan Kim, although they are just as chaotic as taller buildings all over the city. The first floors house small shops, restaurants, bars, etc and some don't have doors or window. In fact, I've heard that in the 1990s, hardly a single Hanoi shop had windows. Along the whole building there are bewildering arrays of air conditioning units, TV antennas and power chords. The upper floors tend to have balconies and open rooftops. In poorer districts, these are used to dry laundry, which must take days in this humid climate.

Hoan Kim has hundred of indoor restaruants serving every type of local and international food. Menues usually have 150 items ranging from rabbit to turtle to even dog. And on top of all that, a four course dinner at a nice restaurant costs less than $10. But by Vietnamese standards, that's a small fortune to pay for a meal. The rank and file Vietnamese diner eats at sidewalk cafes like this one situated across the street from my hotel. The mostly male patrons sit on short plastic stools, drink local beer and eat food cooked in plain view. I've been wanting to eat at these places, but my companions are wary, mistrusting the food. But I've heard that they're pretty safe as long as there's a "high turnover" of food. In other words, big street cafes like this one are fine but avoid the tiny restaurants with one stove and two customers.

Streets in Hoan Kim are mostly narrow and relatively quiet, but the one-way boulevard which circles the lake is bonkers. Take a look at "Traffic" for an explanation. These pictures were taken in the afternoon, when the streets are more mellow, but the evening is twice as busy.

Street vendors, almost excusively women, sell seasonable fruit and they're all adept at overcharging me for produce. It's probably worth it, because the bananas are very rich and lychie, a fleshy, peelable berry, are a treat as well. Women carry produce, laundry, air conditioners and just about anything else in litters. They can also be used as a marketing ploy. When Lexi declined to buy pinapples from a street vendor, the lady suddenly heaped the litter onto Lexi's shoulder and insisted that she buy something.

Through all hours of the day, no street is complete without a pack of men squatting over a strange board game that looks like a Chinese version of checkers.

Waterpipe is another traditional diversion. They look like bamboo bongs but are presumably used to smoke tobacco. Some smokers become addicted.

The Hoan Kim district surrounds a small artificial lake which includes an island temple pictured below. All along the lakeshore there are shaded benches and walkways which are very crowded with locals and foreigners. The guy in a dragon vest might be an American veteran.

And the Bao Khanh Hotel is right in the middle of all this. It's a comfortable place with a friendly staff and air conditioned rooms, both of which are important for a long stay.

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