Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

My Photo
Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Friday, May 13, 2011

China & Vietnam Travel Continued:

Hanoi Demystification Begins

Continuing a series of posts that relate our experiences traveling in China and Vietnam in December, we had just reached Hanoi on the 22nd of December, 2010 (see March 17 post below). Exhausted from our journey by air from China, we made the eerie trip in an old van in the misty night past midnight from the bedlam of the Hanoi airport to our centrally-located hotel, the Luxor.

Next morning we felt recovered and excited to be in a new place. That feeling is harder to conjure these days since, between my wife and me, we’ve covered most of the civilized globe, and a quite a lot of the not-so-civilized places, too. We took our time, intent on getting the kids up and fed, and thus first took notice of our hotel, its staff, and its features.

Turns out there are many decent, and even fine, independent hotels like the Luxor in Hanoi, but we couldn’t have made a better choice, to which I give my wife full credit. The Luxor is not a top hotel, but we were very satisfied on almost every count (the few nits later). We’d book there again without hesitation, not something we say that often.

Our “suites” (rooms 2806 and 2808, should readers want to book) were actually just very large rooms with a kind of divider between the very large beds. The rooms, side by side, each had French doors that opened out onto a small balcony that overlooked the busy street below. Thanks to double doors to the balcony, the incessant street noise was not noticeable, and we slept soundly.

Each room had a spacious bath room with both a Jacuzzi bath and a separate shower. Desktop computers and free Internet service were also provided and included in the room rate. Most surprisingly, the rooms each came with a big, modern flat-screen TV and cable service. Heating and A/C worked fine, too.

The rooms were attractively done in light shades and just enough artwork to be tasteful. High ceilings made the spaces feel open and larger than they were already. We liked the rooms very much on many overt and subtle counts.

Luxury? No, not really. But the suites had that Je ne sais quoi of authentic Southeast Asian comfort that we were after. Maybe because the Luxor is not a chain and not really up to its name, it felt real and not faked the way some true luxury palaces can seem.

The complimentary breakfast in the hotel basement was on par with a luxury hotel in its array of food items. Still, I found most of the choices bland, excepting the fruit, which was delicious and plentiful. The bread was attractive but particularly tasteless. My impression was that the Vietnamese have forgotten how to make French croissants and pastries taste as good as they look.

The dining room staff was friendly to the point of painfully so, almost as if we were honored guests of their families in their homes. Nonetheless, we appreciated the way they genuinely cared for our kids and took pains to get them whatever they desired (if it was on the menu).

All this for $90/night, according to the Luxor website, though it’s hard to tell what we spent on the room alone, since we paid $279 per person for our 3 nights in Hanoi, a luxury HaLong Bay trip (including meals), airport transfers, a welcome bottle of wine, Water Puppet Show tickets, a half day private tour, and all breakfasts at the hotel.

Had it not been for our Italian exchange student, our basic family of four could easily have fit into one of the suites, but as it was, we could spread out and enjoy the extra space. So we did.

Time came to venture out among the Vietnamese people of Hanoi for the first time. I was genuinely excited. At age 18 in 1966 I volunteered to join the army, thinking myself not ready for college but ready for a life adventure.

OK, I was stupid, but as it turned out I didn’t go because the United States Army said my near-sightedness was too extreme. Though corrected then (and now) to 20/20, they refused to take me, even after an encouraging word from Senator Sam Ervin to the Pentagon pointing out the rare nature of my feverish patriotism.

Ironically then, as my generation was drafted to go to Vietnam, I was unable to qualify for the Armed Services and returned to college. I intently followed the war, of course, and always wondered what it would be like to visit Vietnam, especially Hanoi, where Ho Chi Minh ruled with such determination and sense of righteousness.

Infuriatingly self-righteous and doggedly determined, in fact, Uncle Ho never cried “uncle.” He was both despised and at the same time grudgingly admired by thinking Americans, many of whom recognized some of the qualities that define what it is to be an American in him and in the Vietnamese people.

So finally, 45 years after being rejected from a tour of war-era Vietnam, I was about to embark on a more pacific tour of the city that in the 1960s was the heart of the beast, the stolid bastion of communism that even in its poverty won its freedom against the Pentagon’s investment of $30 billion a year in American men and armaments. Surely, I thought, once outside on the sidewalk, I would be spit upon, or at least face angry scorn as the obvious American I am. And I would witness how a true communist economy functions successfully.

Dead wrong, of course. The shock of that first morning in Hanoi was not being in a new and strange place. It was encountering the pervasive friendliness of the Vietnamese people we met and bumped into, of all ages. It was the din of free enterprise that saturates every part of the city, with people selling everything imaginable on the street, from hot food out of a sidewalk wok to huge bundles clothes and shoes from the back of a bicycle to gaudy Christmas toys stacked in front of storefronts to butchered dogs for the stewpot.

I was so frustrated that no one belittled me for being an American, something I thought I deserved since our justifications for the war there were so bogus, that I stopped several older Vietnamese men and women whom I judged to be around my age and asked them if they recalled the war.

One man typified the general responses. He smiled and waved his hand in the air and said, “War long gone. We like America! Now we get rich like you, maybe! You buy something from me?”  No Vietnamese I spoke with older than 40 professed to even recall the war; it was as abstract and impersonal to them as the American Revolutionary War is to us.

What would Uncle Ho say to capitalism triumphing over communism? What happened to the planned economy? The chaotic, seething mass of buying and selling that goes on along the busy streets of Hanoi is certainly not centrally planned. So I decided to pay Ho Chi Minh a visit.

We signed up for a three-hour guided tour of the main sights of the city, including (first and foremost), Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, the grounds of his living quarters, and the Presidential Palace. Coming face to face with Ho will be the story for next time. Truth be told, though dead these many years, he doesn’t look bad!