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.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Christmas in Hanoi

Staying at the locally-owned Luxor Hotel in Hanoi, we enjoyed the luxury of very comfortable "suites" for a lot less than we'd have spent in a name-brand joint.  I put "suite" in parentheses because they were really just extra-large rooms with giant bathrooms, but that was quite sufficient for us.  The rooms came with big flat-screen TVs, cable, and desktop computers complete with free Internet, as well as complimentary breakfasts each morning.

Speaking of Internet access, I'd been advised that computers were all slow in Vietnam and that my Blackberry using AT&T service would be spotty.  Instead, I was delighted to discover that I had email coverage through my phone almost everywhere except on HaLong Bay (away from land), and the computer Internet connections at the hotel were just as fast as my TimeWarner RoadRunner service back in Raleigh.

But I digress.  The Luxor, as I said, turned out to be aptly named, and, except for a screw-up with our room assignments upon returning from HaLong Bay, it was a fine experience we'd repeat.  Even better, we got back to Hanoi on Christmas Eve, and the Luxor's General Manager invited all guests to the biggest bash the hotel throws every year, a Christmas Eve dinner party.

We put on our most respectable togs and appeared at 6:00 PM in the basement dining area with curious expectation.  Having spent parts of Christmas seasons in years past in various East Asian countries such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, China, The Philippines, and Japan, my wife and I knew that, whatever festivities were planned, it would not be like a family Christmas back home.  We were right.

A heavily-amped stereo system had been brought in for the occasion, and it was making its manufacturer proud, cranking out heavy staccato bass renditions of traditional American Christmas songs in the weirdest arrangements I'd ever heard anywhere.  The sound was sort of a rap and disco fusion, or seemed to be aiming for that.  To call it music would be a stretch, and even our kids thought it was absurd, but what the hell!  We went with the flow, and lightened the trays of the wait staff offering complimentary brew and wine.

Me, I stayed with beer, fearing the local fermented grape products in such a tropical environment would be no more palatable than the insipid stuff I'd once tried and spat out like poison in Zimbabwe.  Beer is a safe bet, I've found, in any clime, and the Vietnam varieties wet the whistle just fine.  Pretty soon, that is, after a couple of Hanoi brewskies, I was feeling in a more festive mood and began to jive with the incessant chest-pounding beat of "Jingle Bells" juiced up with electronic harmonics.

Meanwhile the dinner buffet was laid out, an impressive treat for the eyes in variety and presentation.  My family and I made our way down the serving line with healthy appetites, swinging our hips to "It Came Upon A Midnight Clear" played rap-like at such a brisk tempo that at first I didn't recognize it.

Even the dulling effects of the alcohol combined with my urgent hunger, however, did not make the food taste good.  It wasn't bad, mind you; it was merely bland and boring on the tongue.  My taste buds had been activated to expect something special based on the signal the eyes had processed through my brain and sent to them.  It was such a letdown that I soon lost interest in finishing what was on my plate.

No matter, I thought, and helped myself to another beer.  The liquid dinner filled me up and kept me jolly, in an appropriately seasonal mood.

As dining waned, a well-dressed, ramrod-straight, middle-aged Vietnamese man made his way through the throng, introducing himself, smiling broadly, and shaking hands.  When he reached us, I realized he was the owner of the Luxor Hotel.  We had a nice chat, and somehow I was able to politely bring up the war.  Why, I asked, was there no hostility towards Americans?  He gave me the same answer I'd heard from virtually everyone: the conflict between the USA and Vietnam happened a long time ago, and Vietnam had moved on.  Everyone now wanted to become prosperous, and maybe even rich.  Businesses, large and small, in Vietnam were flourishing in a relatively free market economy, he said, carefully avoiding use of the word "capitalism" to encapsulate what was happening.

Dressed in a bespoke silk suit tailored to fit him like a glove, set off by a fine white shirt made of high thread count, tightly woven cotton and a perfectly-knotted exquisite silk tie, the owner was the picture of prosperity in contemporary Vietnam.  He was certainly dressed in better wear than anything I have at home (barring my coupla hundred Hermes ties).  I enjoyed seeing the world through the lens of his experience and perspective.

As usual, it was our kids who decided when to leave.  They bored of the music and the food, and we thanked everyone, especially the owner, for their generosity and made for the stairs.  It was barely 8:30 PM, but we were exhausted.  Having fun all day is tiring, especially when soaking in new perceptions of an alien world.

We needed our rest, as Christmas Day would be our last opportunity to be part of the life of Hanoi.  Christmas afternoon we'd be packing our bags to go to the Gia Lam train station across the river where we would catch the overnight sleeper train to Nanning in China.