A universal truth: A displaced Minnesotan must find a lake

I’m in Hanoi and have survived the first 24 hours.  I braved my biggest fear: crossing the street.  If you’ve seen pictures or read anything about Vietnam, you probably know that the traffic is 95% motorbikes.  It looks something like this:  Honda Honda Honda Honda Vespa Honda Honda Lead Honda Honda Honda Vespa Honda.  And yes, families of five really do cram onto them.  The father drives, the mother sitting behind him holding the smallest child facing her.  Another child clings to her back while one perces on the seat between the father and the handlebars.  I can’t imagine that they run for the front screaming, “Shotgun!” the way my sisters and I used to (ahem, still) race across the Trader Joe’s parking lot toward the Volvo.

The streets have lanes and occasionally walk/don’t walk signals for pedestrians.  On the bigger boulevards, people seem to moderately obey the lanes.  On the smaller streets, there appear to be fewer laws and more logic.  On the smallest streets, you do whatever you have to in order to avoid hitting the big, sweaty foreigner or the little old lady selling durian or the bike coming toward you.  To cross, you walk slowly, watching the traffic.  They won’t stop for you but they’ll swerve around you.

Walking slowly is necessary in this heat.  The backs of my knees stick to my calves; sweat drips down my back; even my cotton skirt started sticking to my legs.  Undergarments seem like just another sticky, sweaty layer.  I’ve lost count of how many bottles of water I’ve drunk today–in addition to guava juice, pineapple juice and delightful sugarcane juice sipped through a straw from a plastic bag near Hoan Kiem Lake.

Naturally, transplanting from Minneapolis, I had to find a lake.  It’s shaded banks with winding paths, sculptures and benches were paradise after a morning spent exploring the noisy, congested Old Quarter.  I meandered around it all afternoon, stopping to visit the Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple), which sits on a small island in the center of the lake.  It’s crowded with tourists–I heard more English, German, Dutch and French than I did Vietnamese–but Vietnamese come to burn incense for their ancestors and pray to the Buddha.  The temple is dedicated to a war hero, General Tran Hung Dao for his 13th century defeat of the Mongols, the patron saint of physicians, La To, and a scholar named Van Xuong.  In a room to the side, a giant, taxidermied turtle sprawls in a glass case.  Legend has it that there are still massive turtles living in Hoan Kiem and, if you see one, they are a sign of good luck.

Work starts tomorrow so I’m off to bed.  I’ll leave you with some of the first pictures from Hanoi (just to prove that I’m not neglecting the camera on this trip).

Entrance to Ngoc Son Temple (The Jade Mountain Temple) in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Incense burning at Ngoc Son Temple.

It's customary to leave offerings of food and money for the ancestors at the altars in Buddhits temples. Apparently Oreos keep the spirits happy at this small side altar in Ngoc Son.

Lotus (water lily) sculture near Hoan Kiem in Hanoi.

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