We depart lovely Laos for Vietnam, flying on Laos time which means an hour late, and arrive in bustling noisy Hanoi. A long ride from the airport traverses streets lined with factories and then with a series of 4-5 story narrow buildings, many separated by empty lots, like NY brownstones but even narrower. The reason: taxes paid based on frontage, so lots of narrow lots in and around the city.
At first I think I won’t like Hanoi. Almost impossible to process the mélange of images, sights, sounds, smells, a real assault on the senses. Wide boulevards intersected by so many narrow roads, packed with walkers, mopeds, and stuff, lots and lots of stuff. Shopping streets are defined, and often named, specifically by their wares – silks, shoes, blouses, ties, lanterns – rows and rows of stalls of similar wares and again, as in other markets in SE Asia, just so much stuff its mindboggling.
As I am running late, I rush to meet Byron and Gerry at the poolside bar at the Metropole, an old world posh hotel like something out of a Somerset Maugham novel. They look so relaxed and welcome me with open arms – what a thrill it is to meet up with dear friends in a foreign place. Gerry takes us to a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant [Le Vertical] run by a French chef that occupies a whole building. On the entry level is a spice shop, filled with hundreds perhaps thousands of little jars of spices specially mixed, and the air deeply scented. On the second and third level are the dining rooms so that you feel as if you are dining in a private home. The food is rich and beautifully presented, and for a couple of hours I feel as if we are in Paris.
Traffic in Hanoi: I repeat, like NYC or Hong Kong on crack. Makes Rome look like a village. Only a decade ago, everyone was on bikes, now they drive mopeds, some cars, taxis of course and buses. Most motor-bikers where masks, made of colorful fabrics, nearly to the edge of their eyes, making them seem all the more mysterious. Children are frequently wedged between parents, some wearing tiny helmets. Many of the many roads are the equivalent of 4-5 lanes, if there were lanes, and almost no traffic lights. While there are cross walks, pedestrians do not have right of way – this is not California, no one stops. So the good counsel of our tour leader, which I take seriously, is to step off the curb and walk at a steady pace – no sudden stops, no speeding up – so that the traffic can continue around you, which it does. This is not the place for country bumpkins, nor the feint of heart.
I leave the boys to have a day together and enjoy my last day with the tour, although it is a free day and I take off on my own to visit the Temple of Literature, an homage to Confucius, where PhD students where pale blue full length aprons and serve as guides. Down the street I take my life in my hands to cross a crowded boulevard to visit the Museum of Fine Arts, where I am one of only two visitors, as this place is not on the tourist highlights list which favors the prison or Ho Chi Minh’s palace. A quiet place in a large colonial style mansion, most of the collection is interesting but not exciting, until I walk into a room of Buddha porcelain statues painted in the 18th century, so humanistic that I am moved nearly as powerfully as only last year by the Pieta. One particular, whose expression of sadness, likely for the state of the world, even then, is palpable, and I find myself in tears.
I head over to a café for lunch that our tour leader has recommended – one of three run as a non-profit to train street teens in the food trade. Young men and women are dressed in their starched white jackets, proudly preparing food in the open kitchen, while others manage or take orders. The food is excellent and while I there I chat with a woman from Chicago who teaches science at the American school in Jakarta, and previously in other foreign cities, and often takes a long week-end somewhere else, a wonderful way to devote herself to her profession while seeing the world.
People belch loudly and often, likely the sign of a satisfying meal. They crowd the sidewalks at lunch time with their small plastic tables, stored between meals. They can also be seen crouching to pee or eliminate on the sidewalk or in alleys. Vietnam, like the other countries I’ve traveled on this trip, has not had the pleasure of evolving slowly over time, despite their ancient histories. They have been catapulted from primitive to emerging to a modern world. Culture is still tribal but guided by television and Internet and cell phones. Like a toddler who leaps to high school. Will we ever understand a culture in the throes of warp-speed rapid advance.
Our last group activity is the water puppets, a charming operatic performance, and then the farewell dinner at the top of a building overlooking the lake and the lights all around that mark the center of the old city. I have always excused myself after dinner while the younguns of the tour head to the bars, but tonight they insist that I join them and we head to the Funky Buddha, a bar with strobe lighting and DJ and funky cocktails and have a great time together one last time.
Byron and I leave in the morning for Halong Bay where we board our three layer boat to explore the Bay of Tonken for a day and a half. The berths are of higher quality than most of the guest rooms I’ve stayed in, and the meals a feast. In a bedside basket, there are scrolls filled with hand-written bedtime stories. We enjoy the company of a delightful French couple, and also an interesting Australian my age traveling with her two grown children. The boat nearly drifts through this amazing bay of 3,000 islands, glacier formed, once the site of severe military action with the Chinese and now utterly serene. I kayak through caves into lagoons with water the color of jade. A cave is climbed. Some swim off the boat in the late afternoon while I relax on the upper deck with a book. We drop anchor for a totally quiet rest and peer at a sky filled with stars. At last I drink some good wine. The perfect conclusion to this long and amazing journey.
On our last night together back in Hanoi, we walked along the lake, lit so beautifully and surrounded by charming stone sculptures. Groups even at 9:30 PM are doing aerobics or yoga, rollerblading with children, or simply staring at the few stars that penetrate the haze. The markets are active late into the night, hoping for yet another tourist to purchase something, anything, that one purchase that will likely support a family for at least a day.
The next morning I leave at 5 AM to make my flight. Hanoi at day break is a city of shadows, the calm before the everyday storm. The city is still dark, the streets just coming to life. A few motor-bikers have precariously attached to them large plastic bags filled with the wares they will sell that day. At the early morning markets, strings of pin lights point to stalls and they are already crowded. Women are already cooking the traditional morning meal over petro-stoves: noodles in broth topped with a poached egg, although my taxi driver munches on a baguette filled with what looks like ham and cheese. I find myself torn – happy to be heading to the comfort of home, sorry to leave these fascinating lands. The very essence of travel.
For those of you reading, thanks for joining the journey with me.