By Poldy Bloom
The following article is an excerpt from a future publication called Lenin Park which will be a journal of an American’s life in Hanoi, Vietnam.
The story I want to tell you is not about Lenin Park. It is about Vietnam and Hanoi and the people of this city and of an old man who came to this world to have one more adventure before going to the check-out counter. But first I should take you on the walk through the park near my home, a walk that I make every morning to cheat the Devil and Death
So I ask you to follow my nose on this jaunt around the Lenin Park Lake. As I half-trot along, I tell myself that by raising my blood pressure, the increased flow will nudge some little flecks of plaque out of the vascular bottlenecks.
Incidentally, there is no statue of Lenin in this park. There used to be one, I am told, but for some reason the city fathers decided he needed better exposure, so they moved him to a little grassy spot next to a very busy street. Maybe people pass by and look at him and recall his romantic social philosophy. Probably not many, though.
I live a half block from the entrance. Almost every morning, at about 6 AM I come out onto the street, wipe the sleep from my eyes, and start my stride. I walk down Tue Tinh Street past a dozen or so street merchants on the sidewalks. The first group sells fish. Some of them lie in basins and are still gasping for air and I feel my own mortality.
In the next short block are the greens peddlers. They have most of the kinds of vegetables we Westerners see in the supermarket. There are little heads of lettuce, and I wonder if they have been disinfected. When I lived in Mexico I had to soak the heads of lettuce in buckets with iodine drops in the water. Next there is meat for sale in wicker panniers. It looks fresh and tempting And the sellers make some effort to discourage the flies in summer. I cross the street and there are only a few motorbikes at that time of the morning so I have no trepidation.
And, here is the entrance to Lenin Park. In front of the big iron gate, is a parking lot for motorbikes. It holds about 50 bikes of people who are visiting the park. There is a guy in charge who shows people where to put their bikes and he gives them a number slip and marks the number on the seat with chalk. I guess he must know many of the people who regularly visit. He charges 1,000 Dong. That’s one-fifteenth of a dollar about 6 cents.
Through the gate. Then onto a pedestrian boulevard with two lanes and grassy divider and concrete benches on both sides, On nice mornings, these are mostly filled with people just sitting and chatting before going to work for the day. I find a bench and I do an exercise someone once told me was important. I put my foot on the seat and my hands on the back of the bench and I lean forward and tug on the muscle that betrayed Achilles. I don’t know if it helps much. But it makes me feel like I am health savvy.
Off the path to the left, is a small concrete square where a couple dozen people are learning tai chi. Sometimes they wave big red fans-very pretty. Once I saw them brandishing swords!
Now, I start my stride. I always smile when I think of what this pace is called. It is a Scandinavian word: fartlek. Americans call it “race walking.” . I stride along as fast as I can, pumping my arms like steam-engine pistons. I don’t know if that does anything positive for the exercise, but I think it makes me look like I am serious about walking. And I don’t want the people I meet on the walkways to think I am a Big Nose tourist.
(We westerners are called that, because most Viets have little noses. But mine is not really big in the world context. Mine is rather nice. It may be the only positive aspect of the face I present to the world.)
I come first to a concrete square that houses three badminton courts. Badminton is big in Hanoi. All over the park there are couples batting the birds back and forth and pedestrians trying to escape being bonked by paddles. The players are no-nonsense athletes. They keep the little plumed ball volleying back and forth across the net for as much as twenty returns. When someone misses he shouts. Oi Doi Oi pronounced “Oy Zoy Oy” it sounds Jewish.It means “Ohmigod!” This court has a beverage counter and plastic chairs for spectators.. They are child-sized. They are used at sidewalk restaurants. Fat Ass Westerners (and most are) can’t get into them. I can barely.
Once past the courts I make a dogleg turn to the left to go to the lake. This is a short stretch. And on the grass next to the walk is a small concrete square with a post. To that post is now chained a handsome shepherd dog. He has a muzzle on.
This is no ordinary dog! I have seen him in action. He plays soccer! I have seen him dribble a ball with his nose avoiding human players and bring the ball to his master, who stands at one side. He should be in a movie! But now he is asleep. His owner is probably playing badminton somewhere close by.
Now is the first of series of “kiddies’ rides.” It’s a merry-go-round with four plastic jet planes on the end of poles radiating out from a center pylon. I have never seen it in action. I don’t think kids have to pay to ride on it. I have never seen any tot on one! They are too modernized. This is dumb kid-stuff!
Next is the big, pay-to-ride elevated railroad track. The rails are about 10 feet in the air. There is a booth which would sell tickets if the ride were open, It never is. And no wonder! It is the dorkiest structure I have ever seen! If there were riders, they would go up a staircase to a small elevated station;. There, the patron would find a train with about ten gaudy cars and an engine with.you are going to think I am kidding.a dragon’s head with a rooster’s comb. It’s a “dragon-chicken” train! The last car has a big rooster tail!
The train, if it ever ran, would travel in an elliptical track that rises and falls woweee!as much a four feet. The ticket kiosk says the price for children is 1,000D (6 cents) and parents would pay 4,000D.(a quarter) The most mystifying thing about this offering is: last summer the whole worthless structure was given a new coat of paint and gussied up! There is a sign that says NHA GA! (Chicken Train) Is there such a thing as a Park Board in Hanoi City Government? Has some group of people actually approved this gaudy debacle?
But there’s more, this is only one of two, yes two, useless trains in the park. The second train has an engine and six cars and a track that goes all around the lake, about 2 kilometers. I once saw it running. There was a guy at the controls of the little imitation pufferbelly engine, no passengers, and it was slowly proceeding down the track. On one other occasion, I saw it in operation. There were about 25 people riding solemnly.
Now, we are at the lake. There is a walkway around its perimeter. I go counter clockwise. I can’ tell you why. I did that the first time and so I always go that direction. At the lakeside there is a beverage stand for coconut milk, and a pile of husks. The path now has two men who have appropriated concrete benches a few meters apart. . They are masseurs. I often see a lady sitting on one bench and the man is behind her squeezing her collar bones. The second bench sometimes has people lying face down on it and the man hovering over them, kneading their backs. Once I saw a man, naked from the waist up, lying there with acupuncture needles in his upper torso and little wires leading to a small box. I have no idea what it costs for their services. Every time I see them plying their trade I am reminded of the signs along the streets which advertise “Thai Massage” I often wonder what kid of treatment that is. Being a man, I wonder the same thing any man would wonder.
Next, along the shore of the lake is a kind of open-air concrete courtyard with six Doric columns on the two sides. Once, a few weeks ago, the place was a beehive of activity. Stands and stages were constructed. Hundreds of chairs were stacked. It was the scene of a Victory Celebration. I missed. it. Now it is the site of a group of women who exercise to rock music blaring from two big speakers. There are about 50 women and girls who do aerobic exercises to “Stayin’ Alive!” by the BeeGees, and other rock songs.
When we pass them we come to a statue of a woman reading a book. She is half- again life size. She has a big pony tail. She is rather pretty. Beyond her, if I wanted to turn left, I could cross a bridge and cut my walk about a quarter kilometer and cross a bridge to the other shore. Or I can make a short jog to the right and head for the Northeastern lobe of the lake, a place I call the Stench Lagoon. This is a pond about of about a half hectare, and it is one of the shameful places of this great city. It is partly covered with floating scum. It has an odor that nauseates the passers-by. It smells like a mixture of hot motor oil and sour milk. A lot of people who walk by hold handkerchiefs to their noses. Why something has not been done about it, I can’t understand.
A month ago, I was elated to find a small floating barge in this area. It had a backhoe on it and some big pumps. I said to myself, well about time! Finally they are going to do something about this atrocity! Several days later, the pond was the same, but the dredge was gone. Once past the malodors, I can breathe again and my walk becomes pleasant.
At this point, we are about half way around. Maybe we have gone a little less than a kilometer. This is a airy, delightful place. A few yards back from the shoreline there is a strange little structure. It is a small, two storey observation post of some kind. A circular brick staircase leads up to the top floor. I have never seen anyone in it. Some day I am going to break my stride and go over and climb up into it.
We are now along the northern edge of the lake. A busy street is just beyond the green iron fency.. On the other side of the street, is the big railroad track. In the mornings, about 6 a.m., the train rattles and whistles on its way to Ho Chih Minh City.
Fishermen like this area. Usually there are several men with long slender fishpoles lacing the water with their lines and hooks. They throw the weight in a long arc out into the water and bring it back in They don’t use reels. They have an oven mitt on their left hands and they wind the fishing line on it as they bring it in. It’s much faster than the little spinning handle on a reel. The fish they catch are seldom more than about 8 inches long some kind of lake trout. Some mornings I see a pile of about a dozen three-inch fish which they didn’t throw back in. A big tree thrusts out over the lake, all bent in that direction. Kids climb on it out over the water. Couples sit on it.
Ahh-h-hh! The Main Entrance to the park! We are now half way around. Here a bridge leads to an island and we can hear loudspeakers with salsa music for aerobic types. There is a high curb here. During summer vacation a lot of teenaged boys sit there and watch the people pass. At first, they all looked at me curiously. But after a few weeks they ignored me. That made me feel at home.
I should point out that not many people pay attention to this Big Nose in their midst. I think most of them now accept that I am a regular. I do have a couple of men who have made eye contact with me and exchanged nods and smiles. One is a short slender fellow of middle age. He once extended his hand and we shook briefly. Now, he greets me with some salutation in fairly decent English. Once I gave him my card which says I am an English Editor and that I have a Masers’ Degree. One day, he held out his arms to be hugged. We do that now whenever we meet. Today, he said, brightly, “A master!” I realized he was referring to my card. He really brightens my morning. I have tried to guess what he does for a living. I have come to the conclusion that he works in a hotel somewhere and is used to seeing Westerners. Frankly, I am a little uncomfortable that he is so affectionate but I hug him anyway. Passers-by look on curiously.
Now, the homeward bound leg of our trip. On this walk there are two ladies who have bathroom scales and a kit-bag with a blood pressure unit. I have no idea what the fee is for the weight and cardio=vascular diagnosis. On this strip of pavement, the Squid Man used to lie, right in the center of the walk so people had to go around him. The reason I call him that (to myself) is that he is a rather young guy, maybe in his 40’s. And the lower part of his body seems quite normal. But something terrible has happened to his arms! They stretch out above his head as if they are reaching for something on the sidewalk. They are long and slender and white and seem to have no bones in them.. He lies on his stomach and his face is pressed into his upper arms, which look like tentacles somehow joined to his head. I wonder if he was a thalidomide baby.
He stopped being here in July. I hope he is all right. I hope he garnered enough money so he can stay home and lie, reaching out, on a comfortable bed somewhere and live his way of life.. Now there is an autistic man in that stretch who sits on the curb and mumbles at people. I always drop off a couple thousand Dong bill. When I look in his hat, I see a lot of Buddha-money bills. Buddha money is small bits, 200 and 500 Dongs. You slip them, folded, into crevices on the altar where he sits.
This morning there are only a few merchants with their wares for sale on the walks. A young man had a tarp down in this stretch and is peddling running suits.
Couples. Elderly men walking hand in hand. Elderly women arm in arm. Young boys with their arms around each others’ waists. Some male-females couples come by. They do not touch. That would be bad taste.
Ahead is Uncle Ho’s tree. I think that’s what it is. There is a sign reading Cay doc bac ho. Ho Chih Minh was called “Uncle (bac) Ho.” It’s a giant tree, not giant as in the American Redwoods, but giant for Asia, several trunks siamesed together and burgeoning out all overhead It’s in a little circle to itself. Two more statues ahead. One, to the left, is two life-size children reading a book. The statue on the right is a studious looking young man holding a strange crosslike structure. Tiger says once told me it represents the bearing of a drawbridge. Probably a salute to Civil Engineering. She only made the trip one time, many months ago.
We are three quarters of the way around. My legs still feel all right. We pass another “ride” This is a little merry-go-round train on a circular track about a half block in diameter. There are cars with horses and carts. Never saw that one working. Kids would find it enormously boring. On the lake shore is a large building with a dock and a pier and dozens of aluminum rowboats. I have never seen one of them in the lake. I wonder if there is still anybody around to rent them out.
The forlorn train ride depot is next. This has the brightly painted locomotive, and. I suspect, a small auto engine. Attached to it is a train of about ten cars, each holding about four people. The track to this line runs all the way around the park near the outside fence. I only saw it in operation once, about a year ago. It was slowly moving on the track with a man sitting in the engine and all the cars empty. The depot is a miniature Asiatic train station, pagoda roof and all. Everything with a new coat of bright paint. Nobody around it.
This is halfway on the home stretch. Off to the right another Tai Chi group. These are young men. They don’t have swords. A small circular park area is next. It has a nice gazebo. No place to sit down. Another small island. This one has no bridge to it. It has some pleasant spots of grass and some trees. Ideal place to picnic, if one used a boat. Nobody ever goes there, as far as I can tell.
We pass now under the shadow of a giant TV tower. This is the city’s TV complex. The tower has some kind of doughnut shaped enclosure about a hundred feet off the ground. I wonder if it is, or was, a restaurant. We are almost home. There is a big plant garden to the right. It is fenced in. It has a lot of plants and a greenhouse. Groundskeepers must work there.
The shoreline flares out into the water. There is a circle off to the right. In the center is a giant palm tree. There is a bench facing the walkway. Last summer, on this bench, every morning, a young man “sat the Lotus.” I haven’t seen him lately. He may come back this summer to sit and contemplate the passersby. Do his knees get locked up? Statue. Young man and girl reading a big book together. The book is the size that is used by astrologers to find auspicious days for marriages. Maybe they are trying to figure out the date for their wedding.
There’s the sleeping soccer dog. He is still there. Looks comfortable. Hope his master hasn’t forgotten him. We’re back to the badminton courts at the entrance. Every once in a while I will find a discarded badminton bird. Apparently, if even one of the feathers gets misplaced it spoils its flight characteristics. I always pick up the discards lying on the grass next to the walkway. I have ten of them now. I tell myself that some day I will get an artistic surge and I will make a diorama of them?maybe sitting on a line. I will entitle the presentation. “Wounded Birds”
Okay, out through the gate.
Author Poldy Bloom writes: I was a kid in Chicago. Most of my adult life was spent in Seattle. I was a morning deejay for almost 25 years, back in the days when radio people were considered somewhat glamorous. I bowed of broadcasting when the “rock jocks” came in and shucked and jived. I bought an old tugboat and converted it into a passenger yacht. I was a skipper in the Puget Sound Region. I wrote some books about how to cruise the inland waters. Then I got bored with life in the San Juans and decided to see the world by teaching the most crotchety language on earth to people of other continents. I taught in China, The Philippines, Hong Kong, Poland, Portugal, Yucatan and finally settled down in San Miguel de Allende for about 8 years. Then my feet got itchy. I now live and teach in this city, Hanoi. I specialize in American English Pronunciation and conversation. I’ll probably be buried at the edge of some rice paddy one of these days.
For more by Poldy Bloom, please visit www.livingthegoodlife.org and click on “Hello, Hanoi.”