So, I’m walking through the night market in Hanoi. The market starts at 7pm and finishes around 10pm,and runs right along the centre of a long Hanoi boulevard, Hang Dao, until it ends in Hoam Kiem Lake. Particularly fed-up tourists have been known to fling themselves into the lake at the end of a gruelling market-slog, to be willingly devoured by Kim Qui, the golden turtle who is rumoured to still live there.
Or maybe they’re just avoiding the goblet-eyed English language students, who creep up on anybody Western (big, red in the face, sweating buckets) to see if they’d like to ‘answer a few questions’.
I’m looking for exotic presents to bring back to my family in Australia. I’m thinking silk, jade, buffalo horn tie-pins. What’s this? Tee-shirts with logos on them. More tee-shirts with logos on them. Hello Kitty. I heart Hanoi. Jeans which would just about fit an eight year old, watches purporting to be anything but what they are – cheap Chinese name-brand copies. Glittery plastic hairclips, which look improbably good on the locals. Cute little papier-mache cut outs that you burn as an offering to Buddha or your dead grand-uncle. Flouncy dresses for sitting behind your boyfriend on his scooter in the Russian roulette free-for-all otherwise known as Hanoi traffic. Pretend brand-name perfume. More tee-shirts. I guess I could buy a tee-shirt here….if I wore them, which I don’t, and if they were cheaper than they are at home, which they’re not. The Chinese sell the same stock in Hanoi as they do in Paddy’s Markets, Sydney.
My bearded boyfriend dawdles, his eye caught by something striped and gaudy. He has a thing for tigers. If it has a tiger on it, or if it’s black and yellow, he’ll at least think about buying it – even if it’s just a plastic placemat. Waiting for him, I’m suddenly shoved violently to one side as a silver-bunned old lady about as tall as my navel charges through with a cardboard box, cussing bitterly. She looks back at me in disgust as if to say, stupid great white whale-woman, go on and move your gigantic Western arse!
Maybe she remembers the war (in which Australians are probably written up as assiduous US arse-lickers, not even there to represent evil capitalist-imperialist-colonialist enemies of the proletariat on their own account). These Vietnamese grannies don’t mess around. They may be four foot nothing, but they can probably somersault right over your head while delivering a stinging kick to your left ear on the way past. I saw a film on the bus to Haiphong that lasted all of five hours and featured a fourteen year old princess who vanquishes thousands of grown men by martial-arting them one by one (or sometimes three at a time), her feet spinning around like fan blades as her enemies crunch, gurgle and collapse. Five hours, no kidding! If that’s the teenage girls, no wonder the grandmas still pack a punch. The toddlers too. But that’s another story.