07 April 2008

Tour of Duty: Vietnam

This will be the first in a brief series of retrospective posts written to catch my readers up on the first half of my two-year sabbatical.

In mid-May, 2006, I arrived in Hanoi after a long flight from EWR via Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian Airlines lives up to its "5 star airline" self-promoting, too. Great service, great food, attractive flight attendants: just like in the advertisements. I had arranged for an airport pick-up--usually I do this at the beginning of a long trip to help ease me into the parallel universe I call Travel Land--and fortunately my driver was there, with sign, to whisk me away to my dormitory bed downtown, so cheap I don't even remember how much it cost.

Hanoi is wonderful. I could tell right away. Sure, every street is a river of motorbikes, but it's a tranquil river, nonetheless, and when you learn the secrets of its flow, crossing the street is not a problem. Central Hanoi is where most travelers hang out. French colonial structures in various conditions of disrepair lend this quarter a quasi-romantic atmosphere lacking in most jumbo Asian cities. Food is everywhere. Cheap, delicious food.

Vietnamese food is so good, describing it daunts my pathetic writing skills. In most places, you're served whatever dishes you order alongside a tray of various seasonings, sauces, pastes, and always a lime or two. It's up to you how salty, spicy, citrusy, or fishy you want to make your meal; clearly, the Vietnamese have finessed eating into an art. My habit was to ineptly dump on a little bit of everything. And the coffee! Well, I'd had Vietnamese coffee many times before visiting its motherland. But! I never had it cold, and that simple difference made all the difference. The fact that it cost, like, 5 cents instead of $3.00 also helped. They give you a glass of ice cubes with a little percolator thingy on top (I bought a percolator thingy as a souvenir, so everyone come to my house for Vietnamese coffee when I get back, please). From the percolator thingy, the coffee, uh, percolates into the glass, which also contains a thick layer of condensed milk (so obviously, this stuff can kill you). You then mix it up, drink, and enter your heavenly bliss. But there are some things on the menu I have to admit avoiding. Vietnamese people eat the following things which I do not eat: dogs, cats, snakes (the heart being especially prized, the blood drunk by couples on dates), chicken embryos, duck placentas, various insects, and, the most horrible of all, durian fruit, which smells like a rotting corpse from 100 feet away. Only the wonderful dragon fruit is capable of compensating for this bane of banes.

Hanoi is a nice place for a stroll. There are several lakes, one of them enormous, and there are pretty little temples everywhere. And ice cream. One of the premier attractions is the Temple of Literature. Of course, I made a beeline for that. I mean, what a novel idea! A Temple dedicated to my greatest love! I shouldn't have gotten too excited, though, because it was just a Confucian academy.

I only spent a few days in Hanoi before taking my first overnight sleeper train ever up to the hill station of Sapa. On the train, I met an enlightened backpacker from Canada who seemed like a nice guy. We were both in the market for a hill tribe trek, so we decided to do it together. Boy, did I get sick of him real fast! The hill tribe trek was good, though. What I wanted to see, I saw: gorgeously green terraced rice fields. We spent the night in a village near a waterfall, and I helped a bit with the rice replanting (tedious work--I can't believe these people spend their lives doing it). One old, bent, sun-wrinkled woman I saw working the fields turned out to be in her thirties. Yikes. On the way back to Sapa town, I took a dive and received my famous Vietnam injury. The exact cirumstances are embarrassing, so I'm going to skip them. Anyway, we rearrived with time to wander around town. Mr. Canada suggested we visit Ba Ca market the next day, which sounded good to me, but for that night, I wanted to avoid him, so I went to the bustling Catholic church. It was strange to see all the traditionally-garbed Montangards inside. These people are Catholic? What odd legacies of colonialism there be. Anyway, it turned out to be a wedding service. When the couple came in, they ended up standing only inches away from me. The groom even handed me (why me?) his camera to take their photo. I obliged. On the way back to my hotel, some cute Vietnamese girls, who the day before were tribally dressed for the tourists' benefit, asked me to take them to a bar to play pool, but I evaded their little trap.

The next day, I went to the market. What can I say? It was a market like any other in the developing world: noise, dirt, fruit, vegetables, cheap clothes, junky toys, miscellanious animal abuse, and loads of annoying souvenir hawkers. Haven't been to one? Go. They're all the same. As part of the market tour, we also got to visit the Vietnam-China border. As you know, I like border towns, so it was exciting for me to gaze across the river to the enormous, kanji-bespeckled Middle Kingdom that stretched, so I thought, into infinity. "Next year!" I shook my fist at China, "I'll be seeing you!"

Then, I went back to Hanoi. To be continued.

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