Hanoi, Rockily

Our first full day in Hanoi dawned with me in much the same state that I’d woken up at 2am in. And again at 3:30am. And again at 5am. A happy camper, I was not. Ready to explore and conquer a new city, I was nowhere close to being. In bed, I was staying.

Miranda went out with my blessings to go in search of food and generally check out our new surroundings. I spent most of the morning asleep. The parts of the morning I did not spend asleep do not bear recounting, so instead I will take this space to shoehorn in a few random observations about Viet Nam that I either never managed to find an obvious place in the narrative for, or which I forgot to relate at the appropriate time:

  • Like most airports, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) International Airport has a large duty-free market immediately adjacent to the baggage claim and arrivals hall. Unlike most such shops, the duty-free in Saigon seems to concentrate largely on…large household appliances? Indeed, the Saigon duty-free was stuffed to the gills with (mostly Korean, but some Japanese) air conditioners, washing machines, televisions and DVD/VCD players. This struck me as incredibly odd, but Miranda explained it handily: it’s so that Vietnamese expatriates (American, Australian and European) coming back to visit can buy appliances for their relatives. (Korean appliances in Vietnam: stupidly cheap by western standards, astonishingly expensive by local ones.)

  • In just about every city in Vietnam, there is a street called Le Loi. This is for pretty much the same reason that there is a Washington street in every city in the USA: Le Loi was the first emperor of the Le dynasty, and what he was famous for was forcibly ejecting Kublai Khan’s invading mongol army from Viet Nam— on three separate occasions. Le Loi’s rule began in 1428. Dozens of other Vietnamese folk heros are venerated for pretty much the exact same reason: kicking out one or another foreign invader. And Roosevelt thought we could just give them back to the French after WW2?

  • Our guide through the Mekong Delta tour was a personable young man from Sinh Cafe Tourism named Mr. Le. He was prone to koans: unprompted on the tour bus, he recited “a riddle” that asked which of your father, your teacher and your king you should save from drowning if you could save only one. (When prompted at the end of the tour for the answer, he got a small smile on his face and averred that there wasn’t one.) He wore a shirt with a Polo logo on the breast…and a Diesel logo on the collar.

  • I spend a lot of time in this chapter grousing about the meter cabs in Hanoi. I feel like I should point out that in every other city we visited, the meter cabs were our preferred means of getting around. Everywhere outside Hanoi, they were clean, honest and hassle-free.

  • Although Vietnam is, seemingly, eternally and endlessly under construction, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of local heavy industry yet: we saw cranes, bulldozers, streamrollers and concrete mixers aplenty, but they were mostly Daewoo and Hyundai, with the occasional Mitsubishi or Yamaha thrown in for good measure.

  • In contrast, while there did seem to be plenty of local manufacturers of scooters and mopeds, “Honda” has become to two-wheeled transit in Viet Nam was “Xerox” is to photocopying in the US: a brand name that has transmigrated into a generic noun. A moped taxi is a “Honda Om”. A scooter repair stand will be marked by a sign saying merely “Hon Da”

Around 11am, Miranda returned, having spent a lovely morning wandering through Hanoi’s old quarter, and bearing breakfast: a pair of perfect baugettes snagged from one of the dozens of bakery vendors who are everywhere in Hanoi. By this time, I was woozy from lack of food but not actually hungry, so white bread was just about perfect. I chewed slowly and considered my options: my GI tract was still a mess, but checkout time was at noon and we needed to get across town to the hotel we’d booked for the last two nights in Hanoi. A much, much nicer hotel. Visions of hot showers and unflooded floors beguiled me. Thoughts of braving another Hanoi taxi ride in this state chilled me. Really, it wasn’t much of a choice: I popped a handful of Imodium and prayed that my abused gut would cooperate.

We wheeled our luggage out the door and into the piercingly bright Hanoi morning. Our hotel was on a small street filled with other hotels, internet cafes, vendors… whatever, whatever, whatever, was there a cab anywhere nearby? Thank the god of sick travellers, there was a meter taxi parked at the end of the block. We took off toward it to find the driver snoozing inside: I rapped on the window and he popped the trunk. As we were loading our bags in, he sauntered over and asked where we were going: Miranda gave him the address, and he smiled:

“No meter. Seven dollars.”

Oh, the taxicabs of Hanoi. Apparently it’s never too early for a laugh. Miranda and I both pointed bluntly at the “meter cab” sign on top of the car. “Meter,” we insisted. He demurred again, and my patience expired: I stared lifting my bag back out of the trunk. Another cab was, miracle of miracles, passing by the intersection. I waved at him, hefting the bag.

Suddenly, our cab was a meter cab again. He took a leisurely route to our new hotel, and it still cost less than three dollars. Just to make the circus complete, he tried first not to give me any change, and then, when I insisted, to shortchange me. I began to despair that I would never be able to tip a cabbie in Hanoi.

We had, finally, made it to the De Syloia Hotel. This was a hotel that Miranda had done an inspection of in her former job as a tour operator, and it was her favorite of all of the hotels she’d had to see in Hanoi. When we booked the trip, we’d figured that by this time we might be in need of a little luxury (and besides, this was an anniversary trip). The moment we walked in, my head aching and stomach rumbling, I decided that this was the best decision we’d ever made in our lives. The room was gorgeous, spotless and immense. The bed had chocolates on it. The bathroom was larger than several of the hotel rooms we’d stayed in previously. I fell in love. Then I fell down.

After resting for another hour or so, it was time to face the question: was I a man or a mouse? We only had two nights in Hanoi, so losing an entire day to travellers stomach seemed out of the question. We poked through the Lonely Planet for something suitably unchallenging. Ho Chi Minh’s tomb was closed, and I was not feeling anywhere near being up to a walking tour of the old quarter. Hm… Temple of Literature? Sure! More Imodium? Yes, please!

Not feeling like doing battle with another taxicab, we spent a bit of time in the room poring over the map to pick out a route to the Temple. It looked pretty simple: half a mile down Pho Tran Hung Dao from the hotel, then jog right at the train station and left on Nguyen Khuyen, then down two blocks and you’re right there. Simple, right?

Well, almost. We ran into two problems almost immediately. First, Nguyen Khuyen either had no street sign, or we somehow missed the sign. (More likely the latter: one of the nicest things about Viet Nam for the western traveller is that street name signs are usually well-posted.) Second, the Lonely Planet map was a bit tenuous in its relation to street-level reality. Third, suddenly there was a big honkin’ statue of Vladimir Lenin in front of us when we knew for a fact that we’d been walking away from Lenin Park:

We later figured out that the Lenin Memorial and Lenin Park are completely different things. Oops. No matter: a few blocks past Vladimir Illyich, we found a marked intersection that actually showed up on the LP map, and we were off again.

The Temple of Literature is, for an American, almost inconceivably old. It was founded in 1070, and became the site of Viet Nam’s first university in 1076. A series of courtyards, lakes and pavilions, it contains stone stele, carried on the backs of stone turtles, on which are carved the names of graduating doctoral students…from 1442 onward.

Some photos:

Best of all, the Temple had many, many park benches scattered around its ornamental ponds, where I was quite happy to sit down for a while and rest.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped off at a small restaurant outside the Temple called “KOTO” (an acronym for “Know One, Teach One”), which is actually a charitable foundation that serves to employ and educate Hanoi’s (large and, sadly, growing) street kid population. I wasn’t feeling up to actual food, but they had something wonderful on the menu called a “tea toddy”: a kettle of ginger tea steeped with cloves, cinnamon and other herbs. Mixed with a strong shot of honey, it was about the perfect thing for my stomach.

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