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.

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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.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Hanoi Charms

In June, 2010, when we began to put together our trip plan to China and decided to visit Vietnam as an extension dipping south from Guangxi Province in China where we were headed anyway, I recall being mildly interested in seeing the country and its capital, Hanoi.  My wife was very excited, and she took the lead on research and booking because of my relative indifference.  So when we actually reached Hanoi I didn't expect much.

That first morning's short tour of the city changed my mind in a hurry. At once I was captivated by the hustle and bustle of the street life and the genuine friendliness of the Vietnamese people.  We were greeted everywhere with smiles and warm exchanges (except by the soldiers inside Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum).  Not yet have the Vietnamese become jaded to tourists, and I hope they never become so.

Our three-hour tour stopped first at Uncle Ho's mausoleum, his modest house, and the old Presidential Palace (now used only for ceremonies) next door.  We made the mandatory walk-through to see Ho's remains, which look remarkably lifelike for a corpse.  Inside the tomb and adjacent to the well-lit, glass-enclosed body, I was harshly admonished by a frowning soldier for whispering to my wife that Ho looked pretty good.  As I passed out of the chamber and back into daylight, I couldn't help but wonder why the three hardest of hard-line original communist leaders, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and Vladimir Lenin, are all pickled and available for viewing, as if to remind those left behind that they're still on guard against Mao's worst nightmare, the Capitalist Roaders who would despoil the purity of communism.  The mere existence of exotic financial derivatives such as credit default swaps is proof of their collective abject failure to hold back the tsunami of the free market.

The grounds and buildings have been maintained well, and the complex is beautiful.  Wandering around after seeing everything, including a look at Ho Chi Minh's beautiful old (mainly Russian) automobiles in the garage adjacent to his residence, we visited the store near his house where all kinds of touristy trinkets were being hawked alongside bottles of Pepsi Cola.  Looking at the gimcracks on offer there, I was again struck by how the old egalitarian Ho would be flabbergasted to realize that the de facto Vietnamese free market economy of the twenty-first century has crept even into his compound.

As a fitting segue from one marketing opportunity to another, the tour next brought us to a factory where all goods were made by folks with physical handicaps.   The quality of the various items for sale was good to excellent, but the prices were high, we left empty-handed.  Next we walked through the Temple of Buddha, a place of beauty and grace, before being taken to the Confucian Center.  We enjoyed the small slice of Vietnamese culture and history, and also the bus ride to and from the various places.  

Because of the severe congestion, travel in central Hanoi by internal combustion-powered vehicle is inevitably slow, albeit not tedious if one is curious and attentive.  My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the pace, and our children even commented on what they were seeing along the streets, but our Italian exchange student promptly took a nap and missed much of the experience.  (More's the pity.  Two days after returning to China, she asked me whether we were still in Vietnam.)

Hanoi traffic is chaotic but fluid, despite the absence of stoplights at all but a tiny number of intersections.  Outside the city center, Hanoi also employs roundabouts, but in the old city, motorbikes, cars, trucks, and the odd bus maintain fluidity of movement without the use of stoplights.  

It's a wonder to behold!  I stopped again and again at inner city intersections to watch in amazement as pedestrians, animals (beasts of burden), bicycles,  motorbikes (everyone owns a motorbike), trucks, and cars found a way through without stopping and without colliding.  All the means of transportation move slowly, at approximately walking speed, but the traffic never really stops like it does in the USA.  Regardless of mode, everyone keeps their vehicle moving going both ways across intersections in a dense parade of cross currents, yet I never saw an accident or even a near-miss.  

No one stops at intersections.  Frequently drivers are on the wrong side of the road, yet traffic flows like a river.  Nor were there traffic cops present, and drivers did not use their horns.  Somehow it all worked, and it's amazing to witness.  I highly recommend it.

After getting out onto the streets to walk to various places of interest (restaurants, a travel agency, the water puppet show, and so on), we became quite adept at becoming part of this stream of humanity.  Effortlessly we moved through the city on foot, never stopping at an intersection.  

In fact we found that's the key:  Never stop or hesitate.  As long as everyone keeps moving, though slowly, everything remains fluid.

Streetscapes are vibrant, with people, food, goods, motorbikes, and animals all competing for space and leaving little room for pedestrians.  Merchants liberally use up the sidewalks, often forcing walkers like us onto the busy street.  Yet, as I have said, vehicles never hit pedestrians; we just became part of the stream.

Hanoi's streets have lots of trees, which provide a nice canopy from the sun and a contrast to the man-made structures.  However, the country's environmental regulations of vehicle exhausts are decades behind ours, and pollution from the millions of motorbikes and other car and truck engines can be sickening.  The bedlam and buzz of human enterprise also generates a lot of trash on the streets.

Altogether, though, our first morning in Hanoi had us charmed before lunch, and we knew we'd want to return.  I don't know how it all works, but it does.

And speaking of lunch, we enjoyed a great meal at Little Hanoi Restaurant (about $22 for five hungry people).  Apparently there are several places by that name in the city (where anything goes relative to intellectual property rights and such), and I don't have the street address.  My wife got us there after she navigated perfectly to the travel agency street using the inadequate-but-directionally-correct tourist map we picked up at the hotel.  

Every street in Hanoi's old city carries common themes for the businesses located there.  There's a street for buying all kinds of bamboo for building construction, another one for motorbike repair, and so on.  On the travel agency street, we stopped at Sunshine Travel to pick up our prepaid train tickets for the international train from Hanoi to Nanning, China in five days.  Though we had dealt with Sunshine only via email to book the tickets, everything was in order and ready for us in their elegant office, formerly a small French hotel (way back when France occupied Vietnam).

After sating ourselves on a delicious lunch, we walked back to the Luxor Hotel, en route growing more expert and confident at interpreting the tourist map's errors, and all took a nap until 4:30 PM.  The evening saw us walking quite a distance to the cathedral (boring, I thought), to dinner at a restaurant so mediocre that I didn't record its name, and then to the water puppet show by the shallow lake in the center of the city.  The water puppet show is, well, about what it sounds like, and quite fascinating for the first five or six minutes, after which I dozed off.  But the kids loved it, and many adults rave about it.  I'd recommend it to adults as a valuable cultural experience with low expectations of wonder and delight.

Luckily we made the early puppet show and were able to head back to the hotel by 7:15 PM.  Everyone was exhausted, and it was good distance to the Luxor.  I suggested a taxi, but none could be found.  So our twelve year old son offered to navigate on foot using the poor map.  To my happy surprise he got us there by 8:05 PM after overcoming the map's errors.  I judged that quite a feat for anyone on their first day in a strange city, especially given the rabbit warren nature of the city's grid.

We'd left an enormous pile of laundry (five people's dirty clothes from almost a week of traveling) to be washed and pressed at the hotel that morning, and it was in our rooms when we returned.  The cost was $22, expensive but well worth it.

We fell into our beds by 9:00 PM, knowing we'd have to get up the next morning at 5:30 for our long bus ride to Halong Bay.  The story of that bus trip and the ensuing two nights aboard our fake junk--really just a luxurious barge--in my next post.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of my strongest impressions during a 2008 VietNam visit remains the genuine kindness of the Vietnamese. My hostel was only 2 blocks from the Cathedral and I stopped to photograph a formal Catholic wedding one evening. The cute flower girls loved seeing their digital photos and brought me candy.

Your reaction to the water puppets matches mine exactly. A young foreigner and I waited for tickets, only to be told the show was now sold out. A pretty guide came over to us and insisted we take two spare tickets as one couple had to leave the tour early. We both wanted to pay, but she just smiled and said to enjoy the show.

Can't wait to hear about Halong Bay - my overnight trip was a highlight during my short 2 week visit.

6/17/2011 4:32 PM  

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