Actually, the European and the Chinese influences surprised us for different reasons. First, the Europeans. Those French, eh, just went everywhere - and where they didn't go, the English went. It's amazing how far-reaching European architecture and bakeries have spread in the world. Traveling Asia is like visiting a museum about the Rise and Fall of the European Empire, and the remnants are like ghosts. Secondly, the Chinese. We knew that Vietnam had some kind of Chinese influence, as all the south-east asian countries do, being so close to China and all, but it seems to be more pronounced here than elsewhere. The conical hats, the colour red, the nasal music, the tonal language, the faces, the habit of doing (almost) everything on the sidewalks - even the Vietnam flag is like a close-up of the Chinese flag.
After landing in Hanoi, we left the next morning for Cuc Phuong National Park, some 3 hours from Hanoi. It was beautiful, clean, and quiet: just the way we like it. We birded our little hearts out and snuggled in thick duvets on our bungalow's porch, sipping hot tea that tasted like smoke. There was electricity only from 6-10 at night, and it was gloriously cool - cold even! We wore the same thing everyday, and loved every minute of it, because it was the first time since Tibet that we haven't been sweat-soaked from morning till night. The park is massive, and in it there were a few 1,000-year old trees that you can walk to. The forest around those trees seemed especially magical, and indeed in one we could hear Brown Hornbills calling 45 meters up. They sound like dinosaurs. Ancient birds in an ancient tree.And of course we did a lot of walking in the forest. Love those root-vines that grow like weeds: this one we could sit on like a swing. We learned that these root-vines are from the fig plant, whose airborne seeds land on branches of big trees and shoot their roots out towards the ground, winding themselves around the host tree until eventually the host is suffocated and dies. Parasites even in the 'peaceful' plant world. In a place so full of life, you're reminded of death all the time, as leaves fall to the ground, insects are devoured by birds, and parties of ground creatures take what the canopy has given them and turn it into dirt.
We grudgingly left the forest and headed back to Hanoi on New Year's Eve, where we were greeted with millions of motorcycles - and at least half of that number trying to coax us into accepting a motorcycle-taxi ride. We've seen all sorts of hawkers in our travels, but never have we met taxi-wallahs who just won't take 'no' for an answer like we have here in Vietnam. Not even the second time, or the fifth, or the time when you make direct eye contact, put your hand on his shoulder and utter the word 'no' in the 'I really mean it this time' way. It's amazing. They just keep asking. Like we're going to say 'no' 20 times, but on the 21st time, oh hey, yeah, now that you mention it, we really DO want to go on a motorcycle ride! Thanks for asking!
Once we got over our initial shock of city-life (again), we came to see the beauty of Hanoi. The 'Old Quarter' (cute European area with all the tourist comforts and souvenirs) is at the head of a lake (see the picture) and the air is clean and fresh. The roads in the rest of town remind us of those from China - red banners strung between trees lining the unpainted streets filled with bodies going various directions on various modes of transport all at once. At first, it all seems like chaos, and you fear for your life. But, with practice, you see that there is order to the chaos, and you can descend into it without fear, or at least with a little less fear. One week in Vietnam was not enough to see more than these two places, but at least it gave us an idea about this country - hopefully enough to build more knowledge upon in the future, maybe in concert with a trip down the 1,800 km coastline to the Mekong Delta in the south... so much to see in this world!
Next stop: Australia! Where we'll be for the month of January, so the rate of blogging will drop off significantly. Happy New Year to you all, wherever you are, and keep those emails coming:)