Sunday, June 1, 2008

Vietnam Trip (Part I)

Arrival in Hanoi and trip to Ha Long Bay

This is the first chance I've had to report in since arriving in Hanoi the night of April 21. Mike has kept me very busy and I've been having a blast. On a scale of 10, this trip is already a 9.8, or better.

So much has happened that I wanted to write about that I finally have started carrying around a notecard and pen. I am jotting down keywords so that I can share the happenings with you. I only started doing this today when I realized I had been composing letters to you in my head which I would probably forget before they could be written down.

I'm going to start at my arrival and hopefully the chronological order will help me remember all (well, maybe just most---nah, nah, some) of the things which have happened.

I left Taiwan on Vietnam Air. Good planes, Aussie pilots, very well run. Only let down was the very standard "airline food". Arrived at Hanoi just at last light. Got out of the airport with Mr. Minh, who Mike had sent to pick me up. On the highway--it was not the Likelike! One lane each way. Scattered motorcycles (small) and bicycles. Not much light. Within minutes I had my first memorable experience. I was kinda chuckling at seeing a small truck with live pigs stacked in the back like bags of rice. But I was blown away a couple of minutes later when a motor cycle went by with two full grown pigs (alive) tied on like saddle bags!

Got to town in about 35-40 minutes. Began to notice the amount of horn blowing and chaos. Intersections? No problem. Just multiple flows passing through each other. No one stops. No one gets excited. More on the traffic later.

Arrived at Mike's Hotel, the Phu Gia. I thought it was called "Foo Ghia" but shortly found out it is pronounced "Foo Za" Since that rhymes with Rock Za (a noted Hawaiian nitespot), it became the first Vietnamese I mastered.

Mike was waiting for me. We carried my bags up to his 5th floor penthouse---well, at least it's a room on the roof. Actually, rather nice but not large or luxurious. Great view of the lake in the center of town and 360 deg of the skyline. Just a couple of highrises starting to emerge. Mostly, 5 floors is a lot in Hanoi.

I gave Mike his bag load of goodies. I was excited--it was like watching someone open Xmas presents.

Then we went out for some dinner. Had my first chance to practice street crossing without flinching or showing any panic. Noticed that some of the power and phone lines were hanging so low I had to duck them. Mike says that discussing the concept of "temporary wiring" was beyond the comprehension of his English class.

First dinner was at a low table totally local place. Tables are very low--to the ground. I swear they use furniture for playhouses. Doesn't fit either of the large haole Vanns very well. Good tasting food was eaten with trepidation.

I'll have to get this over right away....

Every meal brings intestinal anxiety to the fore for me. I don't think it matters where you eat--it's all scary. Standard procedure when served is to grab a paper napkin and wipe your glass, bowl and chopsticks. Having seen how things are "washed"--there's no doubt that it's a good idea to wipe first.

Getting to the bottom line...Good news so far. Acidophilus pills, fresh (?) yogurt and low grit Metamucil have staved off any health problems so far. Fingers crossed XXXXX!

Next Morning: Sunrise on the park in the lake. Tai Chi, badminton (sp?) and joggers. Not me, but I did see it going on. Also took great interest in the variation of badminton played with the feet instead of racquets. Those guys are really agile. Remedied me of really hot soccer playing.

Oh, I forgot the short walking tour of the Old Town--it's right next door to Mike's hotel. Each street has a specialty, Shoe street, clothing street, Pottery Street---you name it, you get the idea. My favorite place is duck street. Not because we saw any ducks, it was just that the awnings, wires and so forth are too low to stand up while walking.

Back to the next morning. Nice b'fast at Mike's hotel. Two choices, pho and a cold fried egg. Mike tells me they're always out of pho for haoles. Oh well. The hotel is a state-run operation and suffers from the problem of disconnecting service and reward.

Having said about the only negative thing I have to report about the my experiences so far, let me tell you that the Vietnamese we have met and dealt with are the nicest group I have ever come across. They are really friendly and playful. Lots of joking with big Mike and not a single bad vibe at all this trip! Mike and I had to ask directions the other night from a man and his wife. Somehow, the gal ended up pulling both our noses! I dunno what that was about, but we were all laughing like heck and then went on our way. [Note added later: maybe she thought we were water buffaloes. I dunno.]

Back to Tues am: getting around is mostly on bicycle or small motorcycle. We had to go across town on a couple of motorcycle taxis. Unfortunately the motorcycle taxi drivers have a serious macho image to maintain. Fortunately, no one can have a motorcycle larger that 125 cc. Since then, there have been a number of motorcycle rides through all the traffic--even at rush hour. Rather than be scared (a very strong survival instinct), I try to use my Aikido training. Settle awareness to the one spot. Do not resist. Visualize an impenetrable steel cage around my body. I haven't seen any collisions an any type so far. That is at least two orders of magnitude above most things that would be labeled "miracles". Somehow it works. Everyone is out there. Old, young, kids, families--you name it--on bikes and motorcycles. There isthe occasional car, bus, truck blasting through as well. And so it goes and so it works.

We went to Halong Bay yesterday and came back today. A good value at $20 each. Minibus to and from. Took 4-5 hours. Mostly very bumpy road and the seats are size Vietnamese. Even the country roads are full of bicycles and mcycles. The road is mostly a skinny one lane each way. No shoulder. lots of horn blowing and passing when there appears to be NO WAY OUT! Once again, I extended ki energy for protection. Once, I thought we were going to become grille ornaments for a very large truck headed right at us. But at the last minute, we got back to our 1/3 of the road safely. I heard the driver issue a mutter a couple of times and twice he yelled "AAARGHH". That was for bicyclists that nearly became road pizzas. Out of a total of about 9 hours of hiway madness, no deaths, no accidents and no stopping was a pretty good outcome.

There is a hierarchy of rules of the road. Cement trucks are No. 1, followed by busses, cars, big mcylces, small mcycles, bicycles, and then pedestrians. Oh yes, and throw in the cyclos somewhere.

Halong Bay exceeded expectations. Like everything I have seen so far, the infrastructure is primitive, the facilities borderline minimal, the roads congested and the people quite nice. We did a trip yesterday that was fabulous. There are 3,000 islands, and we only saw a fraction. Left on a tour boat in a major thunderstorm. Not windy, but the lightning was awesome. The rain stopped shortly. We went to an island and trekked a pretty neat cave. After we left, we went to another island where the boat driver said he would stop and we could go in small boats to see a sea tunnel if we paid a small increment to the boat (I think it was $1.50). I was reluctant to go because I've seen sea caves aplenty on Molokai. Just then a boatload of returnees passed by and a guy said "Do it. It's great!" We did go and the cave was so-so. A lot like the Molokai ones but the water was very still and less clear. When we got through the cave we looked around and saw that we were total enclosed by vertical cliffs rising easily 1000 feet on all sides! It was like a crater about 400 yards across. Totally enclosed. The only way in was through the tunnel. Never saw anything like that before! It was cloudy and getting late, but Mike and I jumped in for a quick swim. Pleasant temperature--like Hawaii.

Obviously, I was scoping out what it would be like to take the redboat cruising in those waters. It could be awesome and risky. For every rock that sticks up to become an island, how many lurk just below the surface? On the positive side, there was a nice 10-12 kt breeze most of the day.

Right now, there is probably no chance of a foreigner being able to bring a private yacht to Vietnam. But when the time comes, boating on Ha Long Bay is going to be fantastic.

Overnight hotel in Halong was OK; food was OK. We paid extra for the tour with "better foods", but after careful watching, the only difference we saw was one dish of fried shrimp-fritters. Oh well, it was all so cool, I could care less. As a recommendation to future travelers, don't pay for the "better foods".

The villages to/from Halong were all roadside disasters. The countryside is rice paddies and the towns are not so hot. People, kids, bikes, cycles, animals, trucks, etc. all blasting through town on a single skinny road. People trying to sell everything. Much is the same over and over.

I did notice that the villages seemed to have specialties like the streets in Hanoi. One city was coal city, another brick city, there was a city with countless stands selling yellow or white plastic jugs of some kind of sauce (at first I thought it was motor oil). Probably if you're in basket city, you'd have to go somewhere else to buy pottery.

It's weird. I'm not advocating Seven-Elevens, but maybe things would be better with more diversity. Soo, what does this haole know about a 2000 year old culture? Shut up, Doug!

Watching signs: the most popular words were com pho (restaurant), Bia Hoi (tap beer) and motorcycle repair. We also saw a lot of restaurants advertising Thit Cho. Tried some the other night before we saw the puppy dogs in the cages. Anyway, thit cho was great fixed three ways.

First, I had a dog named "Taco", the next one's gonna be "Thit Cho".

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