Hanoi – A Spinning Bustle of Activity

The main shrine at the Temple of Literature.

The main shrine at the Temple of Literature.

We arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam at night, so we didn’t get our first taste of it until we stepped out of our marble-laden, oasis of a hotel in the heart of the old city, onto the dirty, crowded and noisy streets after breakfast that first morning.  It was akin to the scene in “Enchanted” where the Cinderella figure leaves her fairytale land and pops up in the New York sewer system.  We had been warned that the streets would be crazy, but we weren’t fully prepared for the any-which-way-ness of them.  The motorbikes, “cyclos” (a guy on a bicycle – push bike – ferries up to two people around town), cars, and bicycles all shared the road space with not an inch to spare.   Lane demarcations were little more than suggestions and traffic lights merely optional.  There were crosswalks, but they amounted to little more than paint on the street.  Crossing the streets was an exercise in bravery and being purposeful.  Our method was to wait for a reasonable opening, step off the curb and

A view of the street from a second floor restaurant. It doesn't come close to showing the true craziness, though.

A view of the street from a second floor restaurant. It doesn’t come close to showing the true craziness, though.

just GO.  Oh, we weren’t reckless or anything, especially with our kids, but we did have to use a certain amount of faith – and even prayer – to get across streets, and sometimes even down them if they circumstances were dire.  By the end of the day it became entertaining to see how on earth we were going to get from point A to point B safely.  At first the constant honking really bothered our daughter, but then we realized people didn’t use horns to ask people to get out of their way, rather it was the opposite: a gentle honk every few minutes reminded people you were there.  The streets, in most areas of the city, were like nothing we had ever experienced, even in all of our travels.

One skinny building!

One skinny building!

The architecture of the city is also amazing. One guide told us that buildings are taxed according to the amount of street space they take up – so they strive to take up as little street space as possible.  Therefore most buildings are tall – and very skinny.

That being said, the city of Hanoi has a lot to recommend it.  The Temple of Literature, our first stop, was rebuilt from the ancient times when it was home to scholars and priests to study all measures of art, literature, politics and other high ideals.  It’s a stunning courtyard of homage to the past and past scholarship that includes UNESCO protected statues.  Sometimes I stand awestruck before these religious statues and carvings that are older than the country of my birth.

The French Quarter of the city has fancy, old hotels and the local stock exchange building.  While the streets are wide and tree-lined,

The turtles of learning - a UNESCO protected set of statues.

The turtles of learning – a UNESCO protected set of statues.

they are no less crazy.

All over the city, sidewalks were littered with low-slung Ikea-like, child-sized plastic tables and chairs in front of cafes where people sit and eat lunch, snacks, dinner and drinks.  It’s astounding to pick your way through the people as you walk.

The old city, where we were staying, seems like it was lifted straight out of 1975.  The streets are narrow and crowded, with shop after shop hawking wares.  Bargaining is an art form, trying to make both sides pleased with a sale.  Some people are just carrying goods for sale and they approach others, especially

Typical old meets new scene in the city.

Typical old meets new scene in the city.

foreigners, to buy from them.  That bothered both of my kids a lot – they didn’t like turning people – mostly women – down when they asked us to buy from them, and my husband and I might turn our backs if we didn’t want to buy.  Of course, we did buy many things and even went through the weekend night market when we were there on the hunt for bargains, of which we found many, including sneakers for my son and a fun handbag for my daughter.

And we ATE!  The Vietnamese food was simply delicious, and way beyond just the Pho that Americans often think of as Vietnamese.  While we did eat the beef noodle soup, there were also many delectable morsels of pork, chicken, and other noodle dishes to be had.  We ate duck and spring rolls, and drank fresh fruit juice, like mango and watermelon juice, until we practically floated instead of walked.

The hotel where we stayed, as I mentioned, was an oasis from the dirt and grit of the city.  Called the Golden Sun Palace, it is a new,

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall of the museum dedicated to his memory and achievements.

Statue of Ho Chi Minh in the main hall of the museum dedicated to his memory and achievements.

boutique hotel with only 20 rooms right in the bustle of the old city.  Coming in off the streets with the white marble beckoning like a siren song, felt heavenly.  The people were so nice and helpful, and they really did try to please in every way possible.  They were the first to introduce us to the thick, rich Vietnamese coffee and we never looked back.  Either with or without the condensed milk for lightening and thickening, it is delicious in every rich sense.

On our second day in the city we went to Ho Chi Minh’s tomb and museum. I was wearing pretty modest shorts, but they wouldn’t let me in with my knees showing.  I had to buy a wrap and put it around my waist in order to go in.  Respect.  It was all pretty surreal to see a preserved body as well as all of the “information” at the museum.

The beautiful and graceful water puppets.

The beautiful and graceful water puppets.

One of our last stops was the renowned Water Puppet show in the city.  Against a backdrop of

live, traditional music, puppets dance around and through a small pond at the front of the theater, telling traditional Vietnamese stories. It was vibrant and beautiful.

Hanoi is a charming and interesting city if you can get through the pedestrian experience and the interminable grime. I hope to go back there some day.

Japanese Efficiency – In a Parking Lot

parking lot bike manLast week my husband and I went apartment hunting. Our house is being sold and our landlord will not be renewing our lease in June. So we have intermittently been going out with a realtor to see what’s available.

The realtor always drives us to places and makes both of us sit in the back seat, chauffeur-style. It’s formal and not altogether comfortable, but neither my husband nor I have the temerity to mess with custom in this case.  At one high rise building in Nishi Azabu, we went down under the building into the parking lot and the realtor asked the attendant where to park precisely, since he was showing one of the available apartments. Instead of telling us, the guy hopped on a nearby bicycle, and let us down two floors and across the third to find the realtor space.  From the point of view of the rear of the car, it was hysterical to see this little man, probably in his late fifties or early sixties, bearing down, speeding down the ramps and zipping around the corners, ahead of parking lot bike man 2the car.

Parking-bike-man pointed out the spot, bowed deeply as the realtor started turning the car to fit into the space, and then in a flash, he was off again, back up the ramp to his station by the parking entrance.

He was so zippy that the photos are terrible, but they’re the best I could do.  This is Japanese kindness and efficiency all rolled into one neat package – on wheels.

My Bicycle is Illegal in Japan

Yesterday I had a flat tire on my bike so I brought it to the closest shop, pictured here.  It is at the bottom of Sendai Zaka in the Azabu area of Tokyo.  I wasn’t really upset about the tire since I had wanted someone to check out my noisy gears anyway.   They told me they could fix the tire, but that that was all they could do since my bike was “illegal” in Japan.  This was the third time I had been told that I had an illegal bike – the first two were by this and one other bike shop who would not help us put together the bike when it first arrived.  I assumed the problem was the motor, but I was mistaken.

Please bear in mind as you continue reading, that I bought the bike here in Japan from one of Japan’s largest online retailers, a website called Rakuten.  They are Amazon’s main competition in Japan and sell everything from books to clothes to jewelery to food to bikes – all at discount prices.

Bikes, similar to mine, with motors, were in the front of the Le Cyc store.  “Those are bikes just like mine.  Why aren’t those illegal?” I asked, trying to keep the “whine” out of my voice.

The clerk replied simply and clearly: “Those are Japanese bikes.  Yours is made in China.”

It took me a moment to recover my senses.  Under my breath I muttered something that I refuse to put into writing, and walked away from her.  My bike cannot be repaired in Japan because it is a Chinese brand, yet I bought it from a Japanese company. I am so angry I am seeing white. Luckily my repair is very minor, and I think I can do it myself, but that doesn’t change the fact that I am going to have this problem for the rest of the bike’s life.

Suggestions anyone?  Ideas for what to do for maintenance on this bike?  Ideas for how to remedy this terrible societal problem?  I seem to be coming up with nothing.

More on Japanese Pedestrians

Since writing the two posts about the Japanese pedestrians reading too much on the road, and being annoyed by them, I have heard from many people telling me that they have the same problems in their various cities.  I’ve heard from people in New York, Connecticut, Hong Kong, London, and lots of other places.  All were kind; all were empathizing with my issues.  However, I was getting upset because I know there’s something different, worse, here in Tokyo and I couldn’t put my finger on it.  I’ve been in cities all over Asia and in the U.S.  I don’t claim to know a lot about Europe since I’ve only been in London and Paris, but things just feel different here than in other places.  Then, a guy I follow on Twitter commented randomly that foot-traffic in Tokyo would go a lot smoother if people would look somewhere other than at their shoes.

By George, that’s it!!

I quickly wrote back, empathizing.  He wrote to me again, commenting that he’s never seen people so dangerously unaware of their surroundings.  “In the U.S., they’d be mugged, or worse.”

Yes yes yes!!

I am loathe to say that it’s cultural, since I’m not 100% sure and I need to do some research, but it’s absolutely true that when walking, Japanese people look down at their shoes – or at the street.  They do not look up and see what’s around them.  They do not look both ways when crossing a street, and therefore do not teach this rule to their children.  They always assume that others will look out for them.  They don’t see other people or bicycles coming toward them because they don’t look up.  In any other city, these people would be asking for trouble by not keeping their eyes trained around them.

I am constantly reminding my children to “walk forward, look forward” because  I want them to be aware of what’s happening around them.  But apparently this is not part of the Japanese ethos because the kids are unrestrainedly all over the place on the sidewalks and the streets.  You never can tell when they’re going to pop up in front of you or on the side of you, and their movements are wholly unpredictable.

In most places, you can sort of predict what people will do when you walk behind them, but in Japan, it’s impossible to tell if someone is about to take a sharp left turn in front of you; movements are sudden and without warning.  And they’re slow.  My New Yorker friends are so frustrated when they walk in Tokyo – they always wish for a passing lane of pedestrians because the Japanese walk slowly.  This I am sure is cultural – in the Japanese world, you plan your time so you don’t rush and you’re never, ever late.

I do know that most Japanese people avoid eye contact.  If I’m walking or riding my bike and have indicated that I’d like to pass a person, or even if I’m walking or riding toward people, they never never look me in the eye – they barely look at me at all, and never directly at my face.  Sometimes they will turn their head in defiance.  I’m sure it’s not personal, and I am pretty sure it’s not because I’m a foreigner, either.  It’s just not part of the culture to look directly at people.

All of these issues make walking and riding in Tokyo different and seemingly more difficult than walking or riding in other cities.  Combine these issues with the extreme crowds, and it’s a recipe for disaster.  I love Japan – I love Tokyo, but the walking and riding issues are definitely not my favorite part.

Construction, Japanese style

My road is under construction.  It seems that the water and gas pipes under the street are not as earthquake-safe as they could be, and needed to be replaced.  The process has been painful and inconvenient, but I know it’s worth it to be safe.  The other day the road was so torn up in front of my house that I couldn’t get in.  Or, I could sort of get in, but there was no way my bike was making it  – there was no solid road on which to ride; even I had to tiptoe through dirt.  The lady who was “minding” the front of the road (i.e. standing by the do-not-enter sign and being extremely sure that no one really enters) shouted out for someone.  The next thing I knew, a big, burly guy was lumbering toward us.  Seriously, how many big, burly guys have you seen in Tokyo?  They exist and they work construction, unsurprisingly.  Without a second thought, he picked up my bike, ten-pound battery and all, and carried it down the street, depositing it neatly by my house. The whole time this was happening, the minder-lady apologized over and over again for the terrible inconvenience.

Have I mentioned lately that the service in Japan is second to none? 

Crash! Japanese Pedestrians

Yesterday I saw two Japanese people crash right into each other on a busy sidewalk in Meguro.  They were walking towards each other and looking at their phones.  I was following one of them on my bike and I could have predicted the disaster.  Both of them were not walking in a straight line or paying attention to anything around them.  Frankly, they are lucky that they bumped into each other and not a pole or something, which would have done some serious damage.

Not to be mean or anything, but I was almost glad to see it happen.  I had been going along thinking that the problem was me – people didn’t get out of the way for just me, or didn’t pay attention to me personally – either because I’m a woman or because I’m a foreigner.  It turns out that I am completely wrong.  Japanese are not considerate pedestrians with anyone.

The amount of cell phone reading on the Tokyo streets has reached epic proportions.  But there’s more to it than that.  People read and walk – books, newspapers, magazines, you name it, they read and walk.  Because of that, the pace is unpredictable, as is the path, so often people are all over the sidewalk.  It is hard to walk or bike behind people who are reading.

People also walk, or even bike, two or three abreast, both on the road and on the sidewalk so that no one can pass from the opposite direction, either by bike, on foot, or even in a car.  I can’t tell you how many times I have approached groups who do not move and I have to step off the sidewalk to accommodate them.  But all of a sudden, I realized that groups make other Japanese people do this, not just me  Once in a group it seems that the group does not step into single file to accommodate traffic – foot or otherwise – approaching from the opposite direction.

There are big signs, particularly in Meguro, about which side of the sidewalk is for bikes and which side is for pedestrians, but no one pays attention to the signs.  I do my best to stay in the designated areas and to stay to the left, and I cycle – or walk – generally very slowly so as not to cause or be involved in an accident, but I sometimes feel like I’m the only one.

Truly, I thought the problem was me, but it is not.  The two Japanese people I witnessed in the minor accident yesterday were both fine.  They were both knocked of balance for a moment, and out of their respective reveries, but were otherwise unharmed.  They bowed to each other and went on their way – both of them back to their reading.  I guess it’s just the Japanese way, something else at which to shake my head in this quirky country I call home.

To be selfishly honest, though, I’m glad it’s not just me.

Bicycles – Lots and Lots of Bicycles

Bikes as far as the eye can see....

This is only a tiny example of a huge phenomenon in Tokyo – bicycle parking.  People just leave their bikes wherever, locked or unlocked, and they sit for however long completely untouched.  My bike is the second one in in the photo.  I parked the bike and stepped back to take the photo.  Before I could get my camera fully ready, someone slid in between me and my bike and parked his quickly.  He walked away in a quick second, not bothering to lock his bike.  This site is in front of Temple University, where I teach two afternoons a week.  There is a line of bikes that extends down the block, stops for an intervening street, and then continues down the next block.  People are generally polite and don’t park their bikes perpendicularly if the sidewalk is narrow, but this sidewalk is unusually wide for Tokyo, so that’s how they fit in the most bikes. Scads of bikes as far as the eye can see…

The phenomenon is by no means particular to Tokyo – any city that has a big population of cyclist will have random bike parks – but it feels totally un-American.  Americans wouldn’t bunch their bikes together like that and certainly they wouldn’t have 50% or more of them unlocked, like they are here.  I’m not sure where else in the world would have a lack of locks like this.

To be honest, I have never thought much about bike parking before, but now that I’m a cyclist myself, I think about it all the time.  If I take my bike, where will I leave it when I get to my destination?  But as time has gone on, I think about it less and less – there is always somewhere to leave my bike.  I am one of the few who locks mine, but I can’t help my upbringing.

Eyes open, folks.  Beware of randomly parked, clusters of bikes!