Monday, April 09, 2007

Easter Vacation #2: In which she almost loses a toe to a cyclist with a conical hat

Life goes on for these shopkeepers amidst the bustle of Hanoi's Old Quarter.

Today, I discover that I love my left big toe. Passionately.

As with most things in life, you take what you have have forgranted until the day it's taken away from you. I learnt my lesson in a split second. I had just left the hotel (along with MIL and D), after my breakfast of Vietnamese champions, beef pho at 7 in the morning. We wave a happy goodbye to Hanoi's most cheerful hotel staff at the Hanoi Elegance Hotel (highly, highly recommended hotel by the way), I smile, step out on to the road, forget that it's left hand drive in Vietnam, and almost get run over by a cyclist wearing a conical hat.

My left big toe feels the heat from the friction of rubber on road. It looks at me accusingly, worse still, considering that I am in my favourite Chatuchak market leather open-toed sandals. I solemnly swear that from this day forward, I will pay more attention to all my appendages.

In celebration of my intact foot, I rifle through the Lonely Planet for good manicure and pedicure places. Tomorrow, oh toe, I will treat you to a sumptious spa to make up for my careless actions.

So back to Hanoi. It's a crazy collision of noise, fecundity, culture, and an overwhelming sense of self. Hanoi has a distinct personality, and she's certainly proud of everything she stands for.

Hanoi and I strike up an immediate kinship. She, like me, is a morning person. Her people are up and about by 7am, shops open, breakfast's served up and people go about their daily lives. After nearly losing my toe, I celebrate my ability to walk and head for an early morning stroll to Hoan Kiem Lake, where many Hanoi residents are already mid-way through their morning exercises.

We make our way to the charming Ngoc Son Temple, situated on an island in the lake. We cross The Huc (Rising Sun) Bridge, built in 1885 into the grounds of the temple. We are there scarcely three minutes when it begins to shower. It's chilly (for Singaporean standards), no more than 20 degrees. The rain is a blessing, as I feel compelled to slow down (the last vestiges of my manic corporate self peters away with each drop of rain), and seek shelter under a pavillion flanked by numerous bonsai. The rain shrouds the lake in an ethereal mist.

Early morning at The Huc Bridge, Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi

After almost an hour, the rain doesn't show signs of letting up. MIL bemoans the fact that she has left her raincoat in the hotel, and I join her, as I think of my polka-dotted umbrella sitting neglected in my suitcase. We buy a couple of blue trash bag raincoats from an incense seller on the grounds of the temple, put them on, and make our way to a cafe to dry off.

For a country that has had to fight for its independence and right to exist time and time again, Hanoi exudes an innate sense of cool and calm. This trait rubs off on its cafe and restaurant culture. Every where we turn in the Old Quarter, more delightful, charming cafes await. Thankfully, my four years of French haven't all escaped me, and I manage to make sense of the menus (Je voudrais un croque monsieur, s'il vous plait. Et apres, pour desserts, un millefeuille au chocolat et the vert, merci beaucoup.)

Entering a Hanoi cafe is like being beamed into a different dimension. You go from bustling, frenetic streets, groggy from the smog from vehicles, through a door into a classy interior. It's like walking into a sepia-toned print, where everything is tinted with a hint of the past.

Traffic in the rain, Old Quarter, Hanoi

It makes me want to curl my hair (oh wait, I've done that!), paint my lips red, wave a tiny cigarillo from one hand and sip an espresso ala Catherine Deneuve. Too bad a) I hate smoking, b) coffee makes me ill, c) I don't own red lipstick.

But then again, this country is feircely anti-colonial and these cafes channel their own hybrid Vietnamese-French ambience. It's like they've taken the best from their indelible colonial heritage, and stamped on it something distinctly Hanoi. And created something that they can call their own.

It makes me think that's what sadly lacking in Singapore - in an ad I read in Tiger Tales (Tiger Airways' in-flight magazine), the Singapore Tourism Board's ad for Uniquely Singapore touts, of all things, The Gap in Vivo City. An island of 4.5 million people, with a burgeoning fashion landscape (just check out the independent labels in Arab St and Erskine Road) and they sell The Gap as Uniquely Singapore. The sad thing is, I'm not sure many people sense the irony in that. I for one, think we need to look at our neighbours and be inspired by their independence of spirit and sensibility.

Uniquely Singapore? Not until we get over our own cultural cringe and can look at ourselves in the mirror and be proud of what we see. So I celebrate my inability to channel Catherine Deneuve, I will instead, revel in my permanent suntan, unfortunate nose (that cannot hold up sunnies) and aversion to make-up. I'll try to get comfortable in my own Singaporean skin and celebrate the red and white.

Vive la Singapour!

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