Listen to the Sounds

February 9, 2007

How can two neighboring countries be so different?

Is the question that has been running through my head since we stepped off the plane from Vientiane, twelve hours ago.

In Hanoi, Laos seems but a memory slowly being wiped out by the revving of motorbike engines, the jackhammer, the cacophony of horns outside our guesthouse window. Shy stares and timid speech have given way to outright gawking and lots of yelling. Vietnam, or maybe just Hanoi, is all energy. People on the move. Thirty motorbikes coming from right and left and up and down all trying to push their way through the intersection. People don’t speak, they shout. Lao people nudged us out of the way. In Hanoi, even if you’re not in the way, people push.

We’ve already found ourselves the near-victims of two common tourist scams: the “your guesthouse is full so come with me where I’ll show you my own superior lodgings” and “you don’t know the exchange rate so I’ll weasel a few more dollars out of you.” This only in the first hour of arriving. In Laos, we just got overcharged ten cents at a few Internet cafes.

Despite this, I’m excited to be in Vietnam again. The energy here is consuming, which can exhaust after a few hours, but there’s always something to see. Ladies making Vietnamese coffee on the stoop of a shop. The twenty almost-crashes you see at every intersection. A woman in her bamboo conical hat, selling mangoes, starfruit, and pomelos. A motorbike with an enormous orange tree tied to the back weaving hectically through traffic.

I liked Laos. We had few problems with the locals, relaxed, enjoyed its spectacular mountains. But I felt like I didn’t do anything in Laos. I walked three blocks in Hanoi and was ready for a nap.

In our Laos guidebook was a saying that the French coined to describe the people of Indochine: “The Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow.” Despite the gross generalization, part of that statement is definitely true. You couldn’t hear anything – much less the sound of rice growing – above the blaring afternoon traffic of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

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