A FRIENDLY FLIGHT TO NORTH VIETNAM

A number of recent stories have been based in, or inspired by, our visits to Central America. Several readers have requested a bit of variety and suggested such tried and true locales as Canada or England or even a primitive society like South Carolina. To provide a bit of diversity, below is a report from a visit to North Vietnam, a place not always at the top of the list when people ponder the garden spots of the world. I was apprehensive traveling to a place traditionally known here for napalm and mayhem, but I was surprised in several respects. So, if you have not already traveled to southeast Asia, I aim to accomplish one of the following: whet your appetite to do so, or spare you several extremely long plane flights.

This trip came about in 2011 when my wife, Katie, was asked by the State Department to “present” at a five-day conference of International Educators in Borneo, Malaysia. (Itself a long story.) When she told me about this “opportunity” and explained the complex travel arrangements, I said, with a large dollop of facetiousness, “Why don’t you just go to Cambodia and Laos and Vietnam while you’re at it? They’re in the neighborhood.”
I am married to someone who does not recognize, or chooses to ignore, facetiousness, and is excellent at “making things happen.” Within a week, she had scheduled consulting appearances at schools in Hong Kong, Hanoi and Phnom Penh and informed me that I was coming along for a three-week odyssey in the role of “schlepper.”
Never fond of long distance travel, I launched protests on several fronts, hoping that one would stick: “What good will I do there? I can’t sit on an airplane for twenty hours. Someone needs to stay home to collect the mail and newspapers.” She looked at me as only a wife can and shot down my arguments with a response that somehow combined the endearing with the totally unfair: “If you love me, you will go.”
After the Hong Kong and Malaysian legs of the journey, we arrived in Hanoi late one evening via Vietnam Airlines. Too exhausted to register many initial impressions, I awoke the next morning to discover us installed in an elegant, marble-filled boutique hotel in the city’s French District (for a mere $66/night, I might add). Following a gourmet made-to-order breakfast of crepes, served by notably kind and attentive staff, whatever preconceived apprehensions I had of North Vietnam were melting. A taxi arrived to deliver Katie to the school where she was consulting. Alone for the day, I consulted a ten-year-old guidebook I’d borrowed from the library at home which indicated we were in the middle of a neighborhood of architectural wonders. I looked forward to a walk.
Unfortunately, exiting the hotel was like opening the gates of hell: from splendor to filth; from tranquility to clamor. Reputedly, Chinese drivers ignore traffic signals; Costa Ricans use both sides of the road; and Germany’s autobahn lacks speed limits. In my experience, only in Hanoi do they combine all these elements so terrifyingly. To pause to look up at the French-inflected architectural elements is nearly suicidal, as roaring motor-bikes race to and fro, even on the sidewalks, within inches of each other.
I retreated wide-eyed back inside the lobby.
“Is this normal?” I asked the impeccably-dressed clerk, dwarfed behind a vast, imposing counter made of mahogany atop a marble base.
“Oh, yes,” he explained, smiling. “People very busy.”
“What’s with the motor-bikes?” I asked. Brandishing my guidebook, I said: “This has pictures of people on bicycles.”
“Yes, they used to ride bicycles. Now everyone wants motor,” he said. “China makes them very cheap. I will show you how to walk.”
In his pin-striped charcoal suit, he emerged from behind his desk. I felt embarrassed to be dressed in a sweatshirt and sneakers amidst such elegance. He put his arm through mine and led me out the door again.
“Like this,” he said, wading into the street while drivers went around us like we were stones in a river. “Never stop. Never look up.
“But what if they are headed right at me?” I said.
“They usually make necessary change,” he said, unconcerned.
He walked me back and forth across the street several times until I thought I nearly had the hang of it. Still, it is not natural to step off a curb into traffic and assume the drivers will adjust. When I thanked him for his assistance and set off on my own, I wondered for a moment if I would ever see him or Katie again.
At ground level, the French quarter of Hanoi mixed more smells and sounds than I could reasonably enjoy. Besides the traffic, I was especially dismayed by old women frying dumplings over open flames in the middle of sidewalks. After thirty minutes of sneaking glances at French-inflected facades, I decided I’d had enough of the French district and took a taxi to the government section of town where there are broad avenues (good for military parades) and huge bureaucratic buildings surrounded by high walls. A particular “highlight” is Ho Chi Min’s mausoleum. At all of these buildings, it is notable that unsmiling armed guards patrol on foot and no photographs are allowed. Merely taking the camera out of my pocket caused a soldier to run over shaking his arms and head “no, no, no!” The words that came to mind were “austere” and “humorless,” in marked contrast to the pleasantness at the hotel.
The next day, Katie and I went together to see the prison where American POW’s were held, commonly referred to as “The Hanoi Hilton” and the lake in the center of town from which John McCain’s plane was retrieved. A chilly drizzle accompanied us and fit the mood of the sights. The prison was appropriately primitive and filled with low-tech exhibits. For instance, there were photographs of prisoners looking contrite and photographs of guards looking virtuous. Typed 3 x 5 cards, yellow with age, explained what we were seeing. The most interesting aspect was that the prison was in the middle of a busy neighborhood and almost indistinguishable from its surroundings. The prisoners would doubtless have heard the sounds of daily life all around them, for better or worse. A particularly touching collection of photos showed gaunt prisoners surrounding a tiny Christmas tree. It was intended to show humanity; to me, the awful prison for brave men who were shot down while bombing the country where we were guests created cognitive dissonance too great to process. We were speechless when we left.
After the prison, we thought the botanical gardens would be a relief. Instead, while they did allow for a quiet stroll, the gardens were most notable for having no flowers. Yes, it was late October, not springtime, but still, there were no mums, no colors of any sort. The only pizzazz and relief from the dour green of a dreary day were several brides being photographed. They wore white or red gowns. We shivered with empathy to see their exposed shoulders in the autumnal chill.
After a day highlighted by a prison and a flowerless garden, we looked forward to traveling to Halong Bay the next day where we’d scheduled a 36-hour boat trip. On the map, it looked close, but actually required a four-hour ride in a tourist van. At first, we crawled through rush-hour; it is ironic how aggressively capitalist the residents of Hanoi appear decades after fighting so tenaciously to protect their Communist way of life. Little old ladies fanned out amidst bumper-to-bumper traffic moving dust around with brooms.  Others hawked loaves of bread or bottles of water. At first, there was no escaping either the dust or the traffic.  Eventually, on the outskirts of Hanoi, rice paddies appeared beside the road being worked by hand or with the assistance of water buffaloes. It was striking how quickly modernity gave way to a slice-of-life that looks unchanged from centuries earlier. The vivid green of the paddies would have been pretty if there were sunshine, which apparently there is not in Hanoi between mid-October and late April.
After the city was fully left behind, the road proceeded through smaller towns and villages, where the most notable and curious elements were piles of rubble.  It appeared the area was bombed and never repaired. America did destroy much of Hanoi in the early 1970’s, but can we still be to blame?
 It was as though the government piled an allotment of bricks on each property twenty years ago and, in the interim, the piles have begun to fall over.  Very mysterious.  When I asked the driver if he knew what the bricks were for, he just shrugged. The bricks were interrupted occasionally by piles of mud or trash.  In short, it was a very discouraging landscape. To my surprise, ostentatious mansions appeared amidst the shanties and hovels that predominated. When asked, the bus driver shook his head and said: “politicians.”
 In any event, when we finally arrived at Halong Bay, we were somewhat pessimistic about our boat trip.  After all, when the van driver pointed to a beaten-up pier and said “That is where you board your junk” it was not a phrase that inspired confidence. Our concern was further stoked when we overheard the Australian tourist in front of us say to his companions: “Did you hear about the junk that sank last month? Eight blokes were killed.”
   Considering the foregoing, the reader will be nearly as relieved as we were that Halong Bay turned out to be a wonder of the world! Google it to see an inkling of what we saw.  The scenery was out-of-this-world fantastic and memorable.
 A cynic might suggest that some entrepreneur will promote rock-climbing expeditions in a few years and ruin it but, so far, Nature’s original is still pristine. 1,969 separate limestone islands stand like sentinels in the mist. Again, sunshine might have made them even more visible but the mist/gloom enhanced the eerie quality.  Waking up early in our tiny cabin on the second day, we gazed out the port-hole as dawn slowly lit the mini-mountains through which we were sailing. Spectral is the word that came to mind.
Our “junk,” though not to be mistaken for the QE II, was immaculate and the crew strikingly friendly in a subservient sort of way; I will expect to be called “sir” by everyone from this time forth.  They fed us three ample meals each day though the source-animal was sometimes questionable. In fact, as a result of seeing some of the animals available as street food in Southeast Asia, I now focus on fish as a larger percent of my diet than that of most residents of Tahiti.
   We returned in the afternoon to our Hanoi hotel and went out for one final dinner before packing for Cambodia.  The next morning, when our plane topped the clouds, it occurred to us we had not seen blue sky and un-hazy sunshine since North Carolina two weeks earlier.  This lack was cured during our stopover in Laos, of all places. After all, what would be a trip without an hour in Vientienne? Anyway, the air was hot and bright, and the airport was colorful and flowery. Even Stalin’s statue appeared to have a smile.  As I learned at Halong Bay, traveling holds many surprises.

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