Hit and Miss
Hanoi Travel Blog› entry 68 of 115 › view all entries
It's Sunday and I'm sweating my way through the noisy afternoon streets of the Old Quarter, flip flops slapping loud. As usual I'm sticking as close as I can to the side of the narrow road. The pavement is blocked with parked scooters, hawker wares and piles of random crap: fruit skins, plastic bottles, filthy scraps of paper all discarded by passers by and residents alike. The traffic is a little quieter than a weekday but not that much; my head swivels, eyes darting around like crazy to register any scooters, bikes (pedal or motor), cyclos, taxicabs or 4x4s that wish to rush through the space I'm currently occupying.
The solicitous greetings of vendors and moto drivers flock in from all sides, rising above the already high volume of the locals talking talking talking.
Despite the congestion and noise I like Hanoi considerably more than the vast polluted sprawl of Saigon. The chaotic bustle of Hanoi seems more manageable in comparison, smaller scale, with its little side streets where mechanics hammer away or weld scooter or bike parts whilst right across the street the smell of cinnamon and pepper is wafting from sacks brimming with dry spices. Oh yeah, I like it right up to the point I slam the unprotected big toe of my right foot into an iron scooter ramp set against the kerb. I yelp like a scalded puppy, forced into an exaggerated, clown-like step forward, struggling not to fall face first onto the filthy road.
I sneak a look around; plenty of the locals are watching me, laughing. I force a rueful grin as if to say: "What a silly, jolly tourist I am! But at least I don't take myself seriously." I continue on down the side of the street, my wounded toe numb for about 30 seconds as if it's taking its sweet time considering the amount of pain to send out on the nerve pathways leading to the brain. Eventually the toe begins to throb painfully from the impact. A few minutes later I notice an accompanying dull ache further back in the toe and realise I've probably broken it. The same appendage got stomped on whilst playing football last year and I found out that there's nothing the doctors can do - you just have to grin and bear it whilst it heals itself.
I'm still cursing under my breath when my mouth falls open of its own accord and stays that way. In the middle of the road there is a naked Vietnamese boy of about 15 or 16. He is being driven along by a baying pack of other teenagers lead by one tall boy. They are jabbing and slapping at the naked boy, giving him the occasional kick for good measure. He falls to his knees about 10 yards from where I am standing and I see purpling bruises on his legs and back, his head is down, black hair spiked up, naked body pale, utterly incongruous to the normal Sunday steet scene that was playing itself out just moments before.
The leader of the gang slaps the boy around the head, yelling at him in the high volume tonal drawl of the Vietnamese. He grabs a handful of black hair and forces the boy forward, scraping him along the tarmac on his knees until he somehow stumbles back onto his feet. The rest of the gang, about 12 of them, voice loud encouragement and spit curses, acting as vociferous jury in a street-held kangaroo court. They begin to move on and I'm left standing there, utterly gobsmacked by the whole spectacle. I gawp like a peepshow voyeur and vaguely wonder if I should try to step in on the boy's behalf. I decide against it; I've no idea what has caused this punishment and, more importantly, I've no desire to get the shit kicked out of me by a stirred up gang of Vietnamese youths for interfering in something I don't, maybe can't, understand.
The whole group turns a corner, disappearing from view if not earshot. I turn, shake my head and wander on deeper into the Old Quarter. A few more laughing teenagers gallop past me in the opposite direction, heading to watch the unexpected Sunday entertainment. I wonder what the kid did - maybe slept with the wrong girl or got caught on the turf of an opposing gang - who knows? For once I forget the traffic and nearly get run over by a scooter, it skids to a halt behind me, clipping my heels. I jump aside, hold a hand up and apologise to the rider, he nods in acknowledgement and speeds off - no worries; just another near miss in a capital city jam packed with them.