Good Morning Vietnam. Hanoi.

10 Dec

It’s 10:04 pm. Everyone is asleep. Train just pulled out of the station. In route to some random village near the Chinese/Laos border.

That’s right. You heard me. I’m on another train. Just when you thought I kicked my train days to the curb, I come crawling back for one more round of bunk beds, dirty pillows and stand-up toilets. It’s addicting.

As much as I make fun of trains, there is something about train travel that gives you sense of place. Sense of purpose. I mean, you are going somewhere… You ride through fields, villages, towns, and cities and peek into people’s lives – what they eat, shows they watch, cigs they smoke, booze they drink, motor-bikes they ride… You witness  inequality and injustice at its best.

Flying  is just a quick up and down in a sheet of metal, glued to a micro-mini chair, reclined at an 85.9% angle.  Plane travel is where you plaster your most proper “eat shit and die look” to beat back those close-talking extroverts, crying babies and drunk men.

Where am I?

Let me back up here. I flew from Bangkok to Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines yesterday evening. I’ve been here for one full day…

Hanoi is the capital cit of Vietnam and the land of French-A-Fied style and 3 million motor-bikes. The French colonized – “occupied” as the Vietnamese like to say – the country off and on from 1873 until the 1950s.

Going to sound bad, but if you were to be “occupied” by anyone during that time, I would choose the French.  I mean, the French have French kisses, French Bread, French Braids……. Need I say more?

Walk the streets of Hanoi today and you’ll come across real, live French bakeries with real, live bread…  French bread sandwiches with pork or fish paste is a common food on the street as are crepes with sugar, honey or whatever you want.  V-nam absorbed the French influence on food, architecture, deign but missed the boat on wine. There is nothing French about fermented rice wine. Nothing.

Adventure what?

On the plane from Thailand to Vietnam, I decided it was time to read more about this thing called “Adventure Touring Through North Vietnam.”  I’m with this group for 12 days and can’t even fathom what we will be doing…

Reread the first paragraph.  Stopped.  I mean, what was I thinking???

Biking between 20 to 30 miles a day, trekking through rice fields, climbing mountains, kayaking for days and staying with villagers in bamboo huts. The huts don’t bother me, it’s the biking… I haven’t ridden a bike since college.   And, I have nothing to wear.  I packed for a 7 month journey around the world, not 12 days of sweating, groaning and moaning…

Ang, from the adventure travel agency, greeted me at the airport. Young. Great smile. Athletic. I’m already sore.

We loaded my luggage into the car and set off for the hotel in Hanoi. He said the two other people in the group canceled because they have VISA problems. Hate that word.

I asked, “Where are they from?” And, replied, “US…” Really? Hmmmm… Anyway, Ang followed up, “Only two foreigners now in group. Me, you and man from Norway.” Yep, Scandinavia is traveling. They are everywhere. I guess they’re getting in one last dose of Vitamin D before day turns to night and green turns to white. I just hope he is not socially slow. Or, the super outdoorsy.

Ang told me about Hanoi in route. A city of six to seven million – mere village to China’s standards. A lot of French influence since they were occupied by them for many years. I added, “what about China influence since they occupied you for a 1,000 years?” Ang, laughed. “Yea, we have A LOT of China influence – too much influence. China will eat us one day…” I laughed too. I think I’m going to like Ang.

Ang is around 25 or 26. The youngest of five. From Halong Bay area in Northern V-nam. He is the only one in his family that went to University. By the way, only 5% of the population goes to University in Vietnam. Go communism!

His brother recently died of lung cancer from working in the coal mines. He was 35. His Dad died too of lung cancer – coal miner. His sister transports V-nam goods to the Chinese border. We call it “import/export” business in US. She has a “retail” store at the market, but Ang said she doesn’t work hard. She only opens the store when she’s happy. I asked, “well how often is she happy…” He said, “Not often.”

We pulled up the hotel.Hidden among vendors selling counterfeit clothes and shoes. Very nice. I’ve return to my roots – a 2.8 star hotel. Liking it. I bet they have real mattresses in Vietnam.

The porter takes my bags up to my room. I told him – “No, no worries. It rolls. I do it…” He did not listen. We go to the room. He drops off my bags and stands there. I have no money. Did not go to ATM. Plus, I do not know tipping customs in this country.

I said, “No money yet. Need to go to ATM. Later?” His mood changed. He swings his body around. Hurls a few words at me. And slams the door. Nice welcome buddy. I think to myself, “great he will tell the cook and they will poison my breakfast. Have an upset stomach for the first 3 days of cycling. I better go to the ATM and fast.” Wait… If I were from Norway or Sweden – or other non tipping countries – what would he do. Not all countries tip. When he asked where I was from – he inferred $$. I hate that. So, I debated to tip or not on principal.

I walked around Hanoi that night. Got lost as usual. Instead of getting lost on the counterfeit  purse row, I scored the barbie and stuff animal street. Two streets that hold zero interests. I had to get out of here. But, how. I have no map. And, neglected to get the hotel card. An older woman carrying about 30 pounds of bananas, pineapples and assorted fruits was trotting down the street wearing her bamboo hat. Stopped to take a picture. She smiled. Trotted over. “I take picture of you?”

The next thing I know, she throws the bamboo rod over my shoulder and grabs my camera and takes a picture. Ahhhh… She’s a pro. I know now it’s my cue to give her a dollar or something. She says, “$200,000 Dong (VND).” First of all, this whole currency thing has thrown me for a loop. I went to the ATM earlier and pulled out $2,000,000 VND. It’s equivalent to $100 US. But, does my bank back home REALLY know that?

I got in a pseudo-fight with the post office lady when buying stamps earlier. She said stamps were $150,000 VND.  At that point, I thought the currency was 20:1. Not, 20,000:1. I was like “No way. Stamps can NOT cost that much in Vietnam.”

We went back and forth about it – neither one of us speaking our language. She got so annoyed with me, she closed the stamp book and told me to leave. Yes, got kicked out of the Vietnamese post office. If only I could do math – The stamps came to $8 US, not $80 US.

Back to old lady with the bananas. I said, “Wait… wait… Let me do calculations. This is like $10 US. NO. NO. Way to much… her happy smiles goes to anger in a second. I don’t care. Not ripping off this tallgirl tonight. I handed her $50,000 VND. We’re talking about a little over $2 and that was too much. She gave me a once over. Forced a grin. Her no teeth flashing at me. Rattled something incoherent. And, trotted off searching for her next tourists victim. I bet she makes more $$ than the street vendors.

I made my way down Barbie street and ended up at the lake. The lake is in the center of Hanoi. Mopeds flying by. Ang told me there was a grocery store near the lake. I was in need of a Gillette razor.

Lost the razor back in China. Seem to be leaving something in each country. So, I’ve been using a swiped razor for the last few weeks. Found out the hard way why a razor is a good investment.

I walked around the lake and found the grocery store. My word, it’s legit. I see named brands. And, they have refrigeration so their milk and yogurt is lukewarm too.  V-nam is beating China in the grocery department… Of course, the grocery gals followed me through each aisle ensuring I don’t steal noodles or packaged meat paste. Headed upstairs to the toiletry/ cosmetics floor. And, guess what, I found a Gillette razor for $15 US dollars.

Sat there for a good 20 mins in silence debating whether or not I was going to buy the stupid thing. I did “pro con pro….” I thought, “$15 US? It goes far and I can use the money for 10 taxis or 5 t-shirts…Do I really need this razor?” Then, went to the other side of $15. I rationalized, “It’s is a good martini at a fancy restaurants or six draft beers at a bad one…” Got mad at myself for wasting time debating the cost of razor. I finally bought the damn thing and my legs have NOT been happier.

The next day, our mini-group met for the first time. Meaning, I met the Norwegian and he met the American he would be spending WAY too much time with. Poor guy. Did not know what was about to hit him. His name is LONG and unpronounceable for the linguistically challenged.

I smiled, shook his hand and thought, I have to figure out how to say his name. I mean, we are going to be spending some quality time together, and I need the name. It took me the entire day until I asked him to spell his name. He did. Torbjørn. And, his name has funky Norwegian letters in it too.

I asked if we could comprise and I could call him, Tour-Burn. He did not mind. You have to feel sorry for him. I did.   And, we just met…

OTHER PICS of HANOI

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