Year Of The Cat
Hanoi, where I now find myself, is generally a teaming mass of humanity and motorcycles. To cross the road here is an art in itself. Waiting patiently for a gap in the traffic traffic is just not on unless you are happy to spend your day patiently observing motor scoters and mumbling to any passing tourist who cares to listen about disorderly driving. To cross the road in Hanoi you must plunge in and stride steadily and confidently across, at which point you will begin to understand how Mosses must have felt when he trekked to the the Red Sea.
So venturing out early morning on New Year’s Day was quite a stunning experience. The streets were deserted. Not a soul. Well, hardly a soul. From observing those who had ventured out I quickly learned that giving up smoking is not at all popular as a New Year’s resolution, that Vietnamese people enjoy dressing in their finest for special holidays and that large expensive cameras are very popular.
It is the Year of the Cat here in Vietnam whilst in neighbouring China it is the Year of the Rabbit. Quite why this is I do not know, but it is so.
As afternoon drifts into evening I visit a bar, it is a cosy rustic sort of a place. A young Vietnamese couple come into the bar and, for the want of something more constructive to occupy my mind between sips of beer I candidly observe them. I am impressed by the gentlemanly manner as the delicately featured young man helps the girl onto her chosen stool. Satisfied that the stool is steady and the pretty young thing is safely installed on top of it the gentleman moves his attention to the other stool. As he eyes it up and removes his jacket I become aware that despite his closely cropped hair he has a very narrow waist, hips and petite breasts. He, I conclude, is a she. They look into each others eyes and I remain unswayed from my conviction that they are a couple. The gentlelady takes hold of the bar stool, it wobbles, she circles it and appraises it from another angle. She draws a deep breath, puts one foot on the rung at the bottom and begins her ascent. It is a long and at times hair raising climb during which I come to the conclusion that this bar was designed more with six foot six Europeans in mind that petit Vietnamese Lesbians.
I drain my beer and head out in search of food. Many businesses are closed during New Year, or Tet as it is known here. I admire this, the fact that businesses see that there is more to life than profits and cafe and restaurant owners are prepared to close for a week to allow staff the freedom to visit their families. Although I must confess that anyone in earshot when I first found my favourite street bar closed would have caught me muttering oaths into my beard that revolved around the idle nature of the natives.
I would not consider myself a rebel as such, not in the classic sense, but I have always had a little problem with being told what to do. To be asked to do something for a valid reason is, I feel, quite acceptable, but to be told to do something niggles me, always has. So when a restaurant boy tries to usher me into his establishment as I amble by I continue past him assuming an air designed to convey to him that I am a man of free thought and independent nature and will not be cajoled or bullied into eating where I do not wish to. I pass a whole row of restaurants in this manner only to reach the end of them and find there is nothing else open. Turning I saunter back trying to convey the casual manner of a man who had passed by in order to survey the culinary possibilities available and choose the finest option. I greet one lad in a manner that says ‘well done, you have won my custom’ and take a seat on a very low and rickety plastic stool.
The streets are busier now. A warm glow emitting from open doorways, the naked flames of small open fires kept alight in the lee of lamp posts or in the corner of a building dance whilst intermittently the brilliant flair of oil igniting in a pan glowing red adds an intense burst of light. A soundtrack of the omnipresent motor scoters, and distant music, the confused drone of a multitude of conversations and the clatter of spatulas grating against the steel of woks as food is stir-fried.
I watch a white Porsche As it passes it reveals emerging from a side street an old lady picking up empty cans. She is going round the little pavement restaurants collecting any old drink containers she can find. She takes the cans to a drain where she neatly liberates them from any fluid that may have been left within before crushing them and placing them into her plastic bag. I considered the plight of someone so poor that they spend an evening collecting a few coke cans to make a little money for a little rice. I consider the white Porches and the yellow Aston Martin (yes, yellow!) and silver Bentley I saw earlier. I wonder about the Communist leaders of this country, or any Communist country come to that, and what comments they may have regarding the even distribution of wealth. As I idly mull this over an air of nervousness envelopes me, a feeling that I am being observed, circled. I fear I am caught in the hawk like gaze of the old lady. “Be gone old crone” I want to say, but fear grips me. I become concerned for my vital organs. I once read an article about this, about people going on holiday to exotic lands and waking up with a sore head and a shoddy example of needle craft holding together a gash the length of an American election campaign running down their torso. It must have been true, it was in the Daily Express. Ready to flee I look her in the eye, only I can’t, it is not I she is focused on, it is my beer bottle. Now, this is moving things on to a new level. “My dear woman” I say to her, “you may stand on an Englishman’s foot and he will say ‘sorry’ to you. You can thrash him at cricket and he will thank you, congratulate you and buy you a cup of tea and a scone. By god you can steal his wife and in all likelihood he will bid you treat her kindly take good care of her. But never, ever, take an Englishman’s beer from him. Wars have started over less”. She giggles, she seems to get the point and backs down. The day is mine, and I retire to the safe pass time of watching ladies climb bar stool.