Monday, May 21, 2007

Hanoi - A magical city

May 21, 2007 – Hanoi, Vietnam – Monday

Wow!!! What a city!

Where do I begin? Maybe with the lyrics of a song I hum sometimes when I travel, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for…by U2” but it is pretty close to it.

I left Laos last night after being dropped off by another American, Ken Desportes, who is the leaf and blend manager for a tobacco company there in Laos. Great guy who has a couple of children, one being a boy who is about to graduate from an aviation training program in Australia.

After clearing immigration in Laos at their very modern airport, I made my way to the upper deck departure lounge where only a short time later we were being told we could board our flight to Hanoi. I had been under impression I would be flying on a Lao Airlines turboprop but as it turned out, it was a Vietnam Airlines Fokker 70, which is a 2 engine short range jet. Nice equipment I thought as I boarded.

I had barely got seated before safety instructions were being read by the Captain and as the engines were winding up, only a few minutes later we were taxing to the runway. I thought ‘wow’, this guy is a hurry and as we made a fast taxi to the end of the runway and turned into position and the pilot put the throttles forward I looked down at my watch and saw it had only been 6 minutes since we had first cranked the engines until the time we were beginning out takeoff roll!

As we flew down the runway and heavy vibration set into the aircraft which as we lifted off the runway and the gear left the concrete the vibration stopped. I can only assume it was some type of issue with the wheels or tires. As we made a hard bank to the right and headed north to Hanoi I couldn’t help but feel that in a previous life this guy had been a fighter pilot as the way he was flying this plane was not standard procedures for passenger airlines. Oh well I thought, this should be fun.

The flight ended as it began and after a quickly served bologna sandwich, we were informed we were making our descent into Hanoi and to fasten our seatbelts and put our seats in an upright position. I had barely enough time to complete my immigration and customs forms on this very short 50 minute flight but did wonder about the last question……”was I was carrying more than 300 grams of gold?”.

It was shortly after this that after what seemed like a faster than normal approach speed for a terminal area and a straight in approach, we were touching down and once again, the vibration shook the plane as we decelerated at Hanoi’s airport. It held together though and we taxied off the active runway.

On the ground, the de-planned and there was zero lines at the immigration counters as there seemed almost as many officials as passengers. I was the first at a counter and after a bit of scrutiny and what seemed a bit longer than normal process was stamped into the country. So far so good I thought…

The bags took a bit of time to get to the carousel but my bags were the first up the conveyor. Cool! Everything seems to be going as planned and with my rucksack slung over my shoulder I exited the customs area with no even a glance from the single official. The folks past the are were reasonable and other than one young man trying to take me into Hanoi in a new car, (he SWORE it was new or I did not have to pay although why this was important escaped me at the moment), I found the taxi stand easy enough and for $10, was ‘quickly’ being swished away into Hanoi.

I have to smile a bit when I use quickly as it was anything but. Although the car was new enough and appeared quite safe as did the very modern divided highway we entered, this guy insisted at driving at tuk-tuk speed. After about 10 minutes of this I politely asked him why he was going so slow and he told me it was because this road was very ‘dangerous’. Hmmmmm I thought, dangerous? Compared to what? Thailand’s roads as I smiled to myself.

Anyway. It was obvious that this guy at some time in the not to distant past had been driving motorcycles for a living as he used the technique of applying a bit of power, release, than again, release, again, etc. etc. that is the pattern of someone transitioning from motorbikes to cars in this part of the world.

We did eventually make into the city and what astounded me was just how good the roads were, how few cars there were and how amazingly dark the surrounding homes and buildings were.

Realizing it was a Sunday of course and knowing the value of electicity I could understand this from commercial structures but even appeared the buildings serving as apartments and home were mostly dark with an occasional light here and there.

When I saw a sign that said Hanoi was 26 kilometers ahead I asked him how long it took to get to the old quarter, my destination. His response was 40 minutes. Once again, doing the math quickly in my head and knowing we moving slow I still couldn’t figure out why it should take that much time. As it turned out it didn’t.

As we got closer and closer to out destination, the lights and traffic increased and yes he was right, the motorcycles swirling about seemed a bit dangerous driving in a manner that almost dared you to hit them.

In Thailand the driving style, although insane by western standards, ‘flows’ and gives. I compare driving there to water in a stream that encounters rocks and boulders in it….it simply shifts around them and continues on. Here in Vietnam it initially appears that driving is a ‘macho’ affair where playing chicken is a rite of passage.

The driver, or as his name card later explained, ‘Mr Dung’, told me it was the summer holidays from school and that all the men where now out on motorbikes doing the things men do out of school on their ‘wheels’ on a hot and humid May day.

As I had no clue where I was going to stay, I simply told him to drop me off at St. Joesph’s Cathedral in the Old City. I think the word ‘cathedral’ tripped him up and when I said ‘church’ and added ‘Hoan Kiem Lake’, that got immediate recognition and we were fine after that.

As desired, in front of a nice hotel on Church Street we stopped where I paid my $10 and immediately a porter leaded from the very nice and upscale hotel from across the street and made an effort to drab my bags. No, no, no I quickly explained and grabed my bag from him and proceeded down the street a few meters to the square where the very tired looking catholic church stood.

Standing here at the square and as I scanned my surroundings, I saw a couple of obvious backpackers coming my way, each with a thick guide book. I asked the young ladies if they knew an inexpensive but clean guest house near us and after looking in their books pointed me down one of the 4 streets that were options at that point.

As I made my way down the street, on the first street to the left I saw several lighted signs indicating either a ‘hotel’ or ‘hostel’. One caught my eye saying it was a ‘backpacker’s hotel. Perfect I thought.

As I entered the establishment I was immediately surrounded by smiling faces. Asking once again if the folks seated on the couch thought it was a good place to stay, they quickly indicated with beeming smiles it was ‘wonderful’.

OK. Sold. And after asking the really sweet and super friendly young girl behind the counter if they had any rooms/bunks, she proceeded to tell me my options. I chose a bunk in one of their ‘dorms’ that has turned out to be super clean and super comfortable.

The place I had stumbled into, once again by dumb luck, is apparently one the better low end places to stay and is run by a couple of really nice Australians. Their place, the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, I discovered is one of the highes rated places in Hanoi to stay and I sit here and type these journal notes, and for those that might read them, it is the place to stay if you want great accommodations and a more than reasonable rate.

I immediately ran into 2 super nice guys in my dorm who were Norwegian and German. The German as it turned out was from the same state in Germany where I had been living and as are most of the folks in Baden-Wurtenberg, super friendly. They asked me to tag along with them as outside and around the city a party was being thrown for Ho Chi Minh’s birthday, founder and father of what is today Vietnam. Sort of a Vietnam version of Mao Tse Tung.

The next several hours were spent strolling around the lake and watching the evening festivities. Dancers and singers everywhere. Beautiful shows with 1000’s of smiling families watching the productions. Everywhere I looked and at everyone I looked at, my smile was returned with a warm and genuine smile and even an occasional ‘hello’ from a child on the back of this motorbike or that. Wow! This is really wonderful I thoughts, and as an American maybe a bit more than I deserved considering what the past and what we did to this amazingly beautiful city.

We ended up having a couple of beers at a lake side café during which we were forced to move under cover due to a very hard evening downpour. Our conversations were brisk and frank as anyone might suspect between a German and an American and having the required fencing about politics, history, travel, culture, etc., we established that we were all on the same wavelengths in our search for knowledge.

But as an American, you sure have to have some thick skin and take quite a few shots before you can get to this point. I don’t think it would be too pleasant as a 23 year old backpacker traveling the world after having just exited the US military from Iraq. Probably similar, but even harder than coming back from Vietnam in 1968.

The day ended with me on the top bunk in a dorm bed waking up in the morning after a really nice sleep. Sort of amazed how quiet it had been considering that there was probably 8 or so souls in the room, including a young Canadian lass on the top bunk across from me. The morning came and as usual I was up at 6AM and out the door after a quick shower, camera in hand and ready for what await me.

Strolling down the street heading for the lake I had walked around from last night, I was quickly encountering the morning routines of Hanoi’s locals, which appeared to be various forms of exercise from fast walking and stretching to ‘jazzerecise’. Everywhere, hounderds were out in the very early Sunday morning hours exercising their minds and bodies.

I continued taking photos of this and that and started to widen my area from the lake where I also discovered what was apparently the embassy district of the city as well as the high end shopping areas. Strolling past the Chinese, German and Italian embassies I was taken aback by a gold sign on one of the walls indicating this was the ‘Embassy of Palestine”. Palestine? Since when was Palestine a country? I guess here in ‘communist’ Vietnam it was apparently.

Later that morning I returned to the hostel and had a fantastic breakfast in which I had a very long conversation with a Swedish couple who were taking three weeks traveling about SE Asia combining their holiday with health research as part of their medical studies. They were really fun to talk to and after a bit discovered they were starting new careers as he had been an engineer and she a pharmacist. We were joking that in Sweden it makes more sense to go to school for ever instead of working as the government pays for as long as your grades are good. After suggesting a few routes in and out of the countries they were traveling to, we parted and I was once again walking down the street with Julian, my German friend.

It seemed this morning he had plans to head for the war museum and being German, he always had everything planned. I just smiled and said I would be happy to join him and we soon got into a pretty interesting discussion about language and culture, although we got side tracked on who established the German owned company ‘DHL’. He insisted it had always been German and even gave me the German words for what DHL meant. I was rather surprised (shocked actually) at this new information as I seem to have remembered a different version of who owned and who had started DHL but given his unshakeable and absolute belief in the correctness of his knowledge, I let it go....

We continued into the war museum after he pointed out the massive complex that was now the German embassy but at one time had been the East German (DDR) Embassy. It was quite impressive to say the least and maybe even as big as the Chinese embassy compound. I noticed that there was also an embassy for the EU here as well.

We entered the museum as you would suspect, not many things could be found there as an American that left you with any comfort level although I can honestly say these people seem to more interested in making money now than war and politics. But honestly, aren't most people really concerned with their families and education and health?

The museum as you might suspect had the exhibits and photos of great deeds and events of the heros of their war, with the French, the Americans and even the Chinese in 1979 (there was a war with China even after the end of the 'American War' as it is called here).

Julian seemed to be fascinated with the carnage that was on display and kept referring to it as 'art'. He was also quick to point out how the posters, banners and awards from the DDR's participation in that war and also stated that over 200,000 Vietnamese spoke fluent German as the best and the brightest from Vietnam were sent to the DDR during the war years to learn how to better fight the Americans. Hmmmmm I thought....seems my young friend here has a bit of a 'liberal' streak to him and thought it quite funny that folks here referred to him and his beard as 'Karl Marx'. In spite of what might be perceived as the lack of 'politically correctness' of many comments, it flowed off like water on a duck's back, as now, it just comes with being an American.

At lunch our fencing continued and he said I was probably one of those American 'conspiracy theorist' as well and believed in UFOs. Bingo! He was right on both points and that led to another hour and a half conversation in 2 different restaurants!

But deep down inside me I was smiling as I knew his English was improving by the minute and somewhere he had picked up an Aussie twang. As he had stated his future goal was to be a member of the German foreign service, I indulged him and his intellectual challenges. It was actually great fun and he had a super bright mind.

We headed back to the guesthouse and after a shower I joined the folks for the Sunday afternoon 'kegger' of free beer and BBQ. That also turned out to be a highlight of the trip so far in Hanoi and got engaged in several wide ranging topics with a wide variety of people from everywhere in the world.

With a Canadian lady I talked politics and surfing. With the Aussie owners we talked business and history and in one hour from a 25 year old Aussie music student, I learned more about heavy metal and hard rock than I could ever imagine learning elsewhere. It was great!

If you want to have some fun in Hanoi, check out the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel .

"Beer, so much more than a breakfast drink!"