Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

October 29, 2004 Gray Hanoi

Hanoi is a gray place. In the morning I look out my eighth floor window at gray streets, gray sky, low buildings in muted colors fading to gray in the morning fog. I havenít seen the sun since I have been here, itís lost in a haze mixed of weather, motorcycle exhaust, and warm humidity.

Seven years ago I came to Hanoi and it was a quiet sleepy city filled with bicycles and French colonial architecture and smelling like water and flowers. Now, in a new millennium, it is a rushing busy place packed with motorcycles, construction, hammering, drilling, and buzzing shops. It smells of exhaust and sewage. The flowers are still there, though, in islands in the streets and small urban parks, struggling against the growing chaos around them. The whiff of their perfume comes through once in a while, a faint reminder of the tropical environment and the city that I visited in an earlier millennium.

Hoan Kiem Lake is the jewel of Hanoiís old city. Locals and tourists alike walk around the lake, women practice Tai Chi by its shores, lovers smooch on park benches. On one side of the lake is a sculpture garden with strange creations rising out of the grass. On an island in the lake is a famous temple that dates back to the 15th century, reached by crossing a famous red bridge; both are the subject of paintings and embroidery pictures sold to tourists. The day I visited, dozens of small children were learning to sketch the temple and the gardens by the lake, with big pads on their knees and serious expressions on their faces. At the north end of the lake is a cafť whose tables are on a terrace by the water. It is open all day every day and is always full of Vietnamese and foreigners alike. Itís a rather nice place to sit, buffered from the frantic hordes of motorcycles spinning around the lake on the adjacent street.

Legend has it that there are huge tortoises in Hoan Kiem Lake, and for once legend is right. One was photographed on the shore a few years ago, its shell close to two meters across. Walking around the lake last week, I saw two foreigners on a bench, one wearing a t-shirt reading ďOverseas Americans for Kerry.Ē They were from Alaska, working in Hanoi for the past seven years to educate sex workers on AIDS prevention. They were frustrated with Hanoi and frustrated with their ability to do their work, when the American foreign aid that funds them is driven by a Christian agenda that pushes abstinence as the solution to AIDS. Thatís not very useful advice for sex workers. Like me, they felt their vote didnít count, coming from a Republican-dominated state. A twelve-story building is going up next to their small house, so they live with constant construction noise. The city is increasingly crowded, cluttered, and chaotic.

But they were hopeful. For the first time in seven years, they had just seen a tortoise lift its head out of the water of the lake. Seeing the tortoise is supposed to bring good luck. It was like the whiff of flowers that reminds me of the lovely world that still exists in Hanoi. We expressed our hope that their tortoise would swing the election the right way Ė the left way Ė and things would change in the US as well for the AIDS-ridden sex workers in Hanoi.

Iím going to be here on election day. I have, of course, already voted, though my vote in Virginia will make no difference to the outcome of the election. After 2000, this election is like no other in my lifetime. I donít like watching the news, but sometimes I do anyway. Though it seems impossible, the polls are showing the race closer than it has been, though I donít know how it can get closer than a dead heat. I donít want to be here that day. I want to be in the US, around people who will be living the same elation or despair at the results.

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Unless otherwise indicated all text and photos on this site ©Joy E. Hecht.