Having woken up a bit late and feeling rather jetlagged (or perhaps oxygen deprived), I downed some food and a couple of cups of strong coffee and set off on a 6-hour walk around town. Being rather good with maps, I confidently made the two turns that were supposed to put me onto the street that I needed to follow for a while, in order to get to the mausoleum area. Within the expected timeframe, I reached and crossed the big road that according to the map, separated the Old Quarter from the designated area. However, when I tried to get my bearings, comparing the street names with those on the map, I couldn't find any of them. Undismayed, I decided to walk another several blocks in the supposed direction of the mausoleum. When it became apparent that the further I went, the deeper into the ghetto I got, I decided to get a sanity check, and walked into what looked like a cafe/tee house, attended by two middle aged women. Unfolding the map in front of them, I asked them 'where?' -- I was hopeful that this much English would be understood. Then I pointed at the mausoleum. The women started talking to one another excitedly, moving their fingers all around the map, and the more zigzags they drew across the map with their fingers, the less confident I became that I will get a coherent answer. After about three if not five minutes of this, one of them confidently pointed to a street that was in the complete opposite direction of where I thought I was, indicating that we are here. She then proceeded to show me the best route to take from there to the mausoleum. I was glad I asked!!! Rather than just offer her money for her help, I asked her for a cup of tea -- this was also a little experiment of the kind I often do when abroad, to see local people's mentality and attitude towards foreigners -- as I didn't ask for a price upfront. The value in question was harmless enough that even if she jacked up the price, whether in recognition that I'm obviously not from around there or pricing in the value of the advice given, it wouldn't have made a bit dent in my budget, but data points like these are not only curious but important in figuring out to what extent one needs to watch their back in a given place. To my surprise, the price quoted, 10,000 Dong ($0.48), was maybe only slightly more than what I would have expected.
Soon after that, I had my very first encounter with what I believe was a local scam. I stopped for a few moments to look at the map to make sure that I was where I thought I was, and was approached by a young woman. She asked me in a decent English where I was going, and then gave me some helpful info on the subject. Next thing, she began to tell me that she is a student, and she works for this humanitarian non-profit organization, and began to show me some printed materials. She asked me for a donation, and asking me to put in my name and country of origin into this diary-like booklet already filled with a dozen or so entries, along with the amount of the donation. When she saw me write USA in the country column, she said, 'USA, twenty dollars please'. That was the point when I became almost certain that it's a scam, as $20 is big money here, and no real non-profit would demand you give such rigidly specified amount. I gave her a little bit of money, more for the advice and the well-executed act. It made me wonder, though, whether in a society that works hard for very little money, by world standards (think $8/hour massage), something as outrageous as asking a stranger on the street for $20 is so unexpected that naive foreigners think that it just can't be such a blatant scam.
The mausoleum was closed on Mondays, but that's just as well -- I wasn't going to go out of my way to see a recently mummified dead person, never even been sufficiently curious to see Russia's own in all his gory glory. I walked by the complex, snapped a couple of pictures and moved on to the Temple of Literature. This temple has a huge historic significance as an ancient university, however other than the nicely kept grounds, there is little educational value one can derive from the exhibits.
My next stop was lunch at KOTO restaurant, which is really a non-profit project for street kids and underprivileged youth run by an Australian. The 24-month program provides these kids with hospitality industry vocational skills, English skills and life skills, and the restaurant is the training ground where they hone skills learned in the classroom. I have to say, not only was the food great (best spring rolls I've ever had!) but the service was impeccable, very warm and attentive (I witnessed the waitress kindly wiping the face of a little girl at a table next to mine after she finished feasting on the ice cream). I think this is an amazing example of changing the world through empowerment of those less fortunate, rather than enserfing and corrupting them with handouts. On the subject of handouts -- I noticed that beggars are nearly non-existent here, instead everyone is trying to earn a living. I've been approached all the time by goods peddlers, people offering rides, etc, but only once was I timidly approached by a disabled beggar. That earns the people a lot of respect, in my book.
Next I walked to the Museum of Fine Arts, where the most notable pieces were several statues of extremely emaciated Buddha. Having always thought of Buddha as someone on the chubby side, I was very surprised to see those barely clad statues that resembled concentration camp photos. This goes into my 'to research' list.
I ended the 6-hour walk with a fresh coconut drink (best recovery drink, right?) and a 45-minute foot massage ($6), and got ready for dinner.
Having gone a bit past the touristy area, I got to a street with several sidewalk restaurants. Don't let the term fool you, these ain't Parisian cafes -- these are makeshift restaurants consisting of nothing but a cart with a portable burner for a stove, and the 'tables' and 'chairs' are little plastic stools of the kind you might find parents buying for their not-yet-tall-enough children to put next to the bathroom sink, as stepping stools. While I was apprehensive about ordering seafood under such circumstances, the best place on the block instilled confidence if not with their very own karaoke singer serenading in Vietnamese, then with its nearly-full 'dining room' (i.e. stretch of the sidewalk) filled entirely with Vietnamese, and the still-moving crabs and langoustines that were to become my dinner. The guy in charge first ignored me, probably assuming that I'm another one of those tourists passing by who ask questions but are too afraid to participate, but when I got service, I was very happy with the choice. It was really cool to enjoy this freshest seafood among the locals, feeling sorry for the tourists passing by who were clearly curious, but too afraid. The bill, an equivalent of $24, was steeper than I would have thought, though still a bargain by US standards for the amount of seafood ingested. Curious whether I was charged the tourist price, I later consulted the concierge at my hotel who proved knowledgable and unbiased before, and independently verified that prices charged were in fact market prices (the concierge lamented that here in Hanoi, seafood is about twice the price of Da Nang, where he comes from). Once I got back to the hotel, I topped off the seafood with rambutans (a lychee-like fruit that I discovered several years back, in Costa Rica) I bought on the street during my walk back ($1.40 per kilo). Looking forward to another day here tomorrow!