Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Good morning, Vietnam

Wow. It's been 35 years since our last trip to Southeast Asia--way too long. We thought we'd be back much sooner, but life intervened. So now we're back, and it's as great as we remember. Our previous trips had been to Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia; this is our first to Vietnam.

Unlike our time in Italy and Turkey, we've organized this trip with the help of a travel agent--Tonkin Travel in Hanoi. They designed a personal tour for the two of us, much of it with a guide and driver, as well as a couple of internal flights, an overnight boat trip on Halong Bay, hiking to minority villages in mountainous Sapa, an overnight train trip, beach time, and so on. We usually make all our arrangements ourselves, and Vietnam is supposed to be quite easy in that way, but I think this is going to be a great way to see the country with a minimum of hassle. We have 3 1/2 weeks here, and it's going to be action-packed.

We landed in Ho Chi Minh City (HCM) and spent the night there before flying north to Hanoi to truly start the trip. As we were driven to our HCM hotel (the Sanouva), we gaped at the motorcycle mania that surrounded us. They were everywhere! The left lane of the road was mostly occupied by cars or vans, but the right lane or two were full of masses of motorbikes, a slowly moving river of 2-wheeled engines jockeying for position. It requires real cooperation among all those bike riders to avoid a pileup. The city is one gigantic motorbike convention.

The next morning we were back to the airport for our 2-hour flight to Hanoi and the start of our north-to-south trip. It's really interesting to be here, a place that was so important to our generation. The Vietnam War (or, as they call it here, the American War) was not all that long ago, but both the United States and Vietnam have changed so much since then. Remind me, why were we involved? What was the point?

More motorbikes in Hanoi, of course. Helmets are required by law, and almost everybody wears them, but their protective qualities look dubious. Children sometimes sit in front of the driver--not very safe, for sure. Many streets have no stop signs or stoplights, so the ebb and flow is like a motorbike ballet.

After checking in to our hotel, the Imperial, nestled in a lane in the heart of the Old District, we spent the afternoon walking the streets of the district, dodging the ubiquitous motorbikes as best as we could. There are sidewalks, but for the most part they have become motorbike parking lots. And in the few spaces where there are no bikes, there's commerce! Meals being cooked, interesting things being sold, nails being clipped, you name it. So we walked on the edges of the street, enthralled at the life going on around us.

Now that's a street kitchen

Ducks and pig on street barbecue
Homework on the street
Love the blue-eyed, blond manikids
Coca-Cola offering at a shrine
We splurged at dinner, spending $40 at a delicious fusion restaurant, Green Mango (or, as I kept calling it, Green Lantern)--really expensive for Hanoi, but nice (Singapore chicken with coconut rice; spicy Thai green curry; amazing spring rolls). I love Southeast Asian cuisine! Before dinner we ordered margaritas at the bar. The bartender in training, Tuy, had never made them before, but she followed the recipe to perfection and they were great. She was happy to hear she had gotten them right.

A great start to our trip. Tomorrow, a full day of touring Hanoi.

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