Vietnam – Should Have Stayed in the South

Hanoi – evening of Oct 19:

We are not really fans of big cities, so that has to be taken into account for our reaction.  We only stayed in Hanoi for a little over a day, and were glad to leave it behind.

For starters, we arrived to find nobody waiting for us.  Our last piece of luggage was the very last one off the plane, which had us worrying a bit, then we went to the waiting area to find it empty.  Everyone had already been met and left by then.  Before giving up, I went over to International, and found our guide waiting there.  For some reason he thought we were coming in from Singapore rather than Saigon, even though he had the flight number right there on his board.

As we left the airport, our eyes stung, and we realized we could not see the sun even though it was the middle of the afternoon.  This is harvest time and the surrounding farms burn their rice fields after harvest, which fills the air with acrid smoke.  We got up for a sunrise photograph from the hotel roof the next morning, only to find there was no sunup.  The sky gradually got lighter, but we never saw the sun all day.  No clouds. Just lots and lots and lots of smoke…

Thursday, Oct 20:

After an excellent breakfast, we led out on Thursday for a tour of the city.  We commented on not seeing tuk-tuks in town, though they were swarming in Cambodia. Our guide (“Q”) told us that only disabled vets were allowed to run them, and that others had to have traditional car taxis.  His explanation for this was that tuk-tuks take too much traffic space, but he seemed unfazed with the fact that the cars that replaced them took a lot more road room (the first of many times we wondered about his deductive powers, or how much of his talk was based on knowledge vs guessing).

I noticed that every scooter rider (of which there are 1,000,000 in the Hanoi city of 3,000,000 people) wore a helmet.  Q told us that the fine for not wearing a helmet was 5 times the cost of buying the helmet.  I noticed though that the helmets are pretty useless.  They look like hats, with only a small amount of padding.  They would never be legal in America.  In fact, many people continue to wear their helmets as hats after they have parked their bikes.

Q is a True Socialist Patriot, and we got The Party Line all day long.  We were told of the heroic deeds of Ho Chi Min,  and shown the monument to where they shot down John McCain.  He considered it a major success to have shot McCain down and captured him right in Hanoi.  Q was proud of keeping McCain for so many years.  When I mentioned that Americans considered torture to be an act of barbary that gained nothing, but was reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge the Vietnamese had kicked out of Cambodia, Q clearly did not understand a word I was saying. We were also told of the glorious act of disbanding the “parties that caused disunity” and replaced them with The Peoples Party, which “only believes in harmony.”

That night we went to a Water Puppet show.  Q told us that the actors had to learn to be really good at holding their breath, and had to time each act so they could get behind the curtain in time to take a breath of air.  Right…  It was pretty obvious in watching the show, that the puppets were controlled by wire rods from behind the curtain.  In fact, in the final scene, all the puppet controllers waded out with puppets over their heads, and the water didn’t even come to their waist (with dry torsos) — pretty obviously not deep enough for a puppet master to have hidden, even if that were a possibility up to that point.

By then we had also heard that “Vietnam has no unemployment, no crime, and people are very polite and stop to let pedestrians cross the street.”  Since all of those were so obviously false, we already understood that we needed a very large grain of salt for any “fact” that Q gave us. We were never able to get him to really understand that we were not interested in standing in front of a mausoleum and lining up with the others to take another picture home to toss.  Basically Hanoi was a mostly throw-away day.

Oh yes. Then there was the train from Hanoi to Lo Cai.  We had first class tickets, and Q insisted that all our luggage would easily fit under our beds.  Not in a million years.  If we had known just how small and cramped the quarters were, we would have left most of the luggage behind in Hanoi, since we will be returning through there in a couple days anyway.  Instead, we were stuck 4-to-a-VERY-cramped room, with luggage that would not fit under the bed even when fully disassembled.  Fortunately we were with a young couple from Israel who said it was OK to leave 2 bags in the middle of the floor, even though the luggage then blocked half the aisle.

This was our first time on a sleeper train.  We thought it might be interesting.  Not like an American train at all though.  Rough, back-and-forth rocking, air conditioning turned to freezing and out of our control (just like the Cuban trains in that regards), and tiny bunks that I just barely fit in, with both head and feet touching walls, even though I am only 5’10”.  Obviously designed for shorter Vietnamese, even though the 1st Class cabins are exclusively used by foreigners.  Oh well, one night isn’t too bad, and I was surprised that I slept better than I feared (though Evelyn said she did not sleep well, and was watching the hours go by on her watch).

Friday, Oct 21:

We were met by Ziang in Lo Cai, and were taken to breakfast in Sapa, which was quite good.  The drive from Lo Cai to Sapa was 20 miles that climbed from 1000′ to 6000′ in the hills.  We started in heavy tulle fog, where we could not see across the street.  Finally around 5000′ we climbed above the fog and had a brief look at a beautiful landscape — which was soon swallowed in smoke.  Sure enough, harvest is just finishing here too, and the fields are all being burned.  The smell of smoke is in the air, and you can’t see more than a hundred yards before everything becomes obscured by the smoke.  Too bad, because it really looks like this could be glorious scenery if there was a sun that could pierce the smoke.

Ziang’s command of English is pretty basic, but he pretends to understand more than he does.  I quickly learned that if I asked the same question twice, I would get two completely different answers.  We were trying to figure out what to do today, and he said we had to bring all our luggage that we would use at the homestay tonight.  But then he said we only needed our cameras and hats.  The next sentence said
we needed it all again.  After 5 requests for clarification, I thought he said we needed it all, but Evelyn thought he said we didn’t.  We gave up… and hauled our computer and overnight clothes over a 5 mile cross-coounty hike that ended up right back at the hotel — meaning we could (should) have left it there until later and picked it up when we resumed with a car.  

Turns out we really did need to carry the full packs for the last segment of the road that afternoon.  The confusion appears to be that we did NOT need them in the morning, but DID need them in the afternoon.  Ziang could not make that clear, or did not understand my questions (I really tried to use very basic words, as I learned in the TESOL program I finished last month).  The result is that he sometimes told me I needed the pack, and other times told me I did not need the pack, and never once said one was in the morning and the other was in the afternoon… so we did a full pack all day…

We went through several villages in the Muong Hoa Valley with different minority tribes, including the Black H’mongs, the Tay,the D’zay and some 53 ethnic groups, and I am afraid the names kinda melded together for me.  I know we went through Sapa, trekked to Cat Cat and I think we are now in Tavan village after a 5-hour trek up and down rice fields and along rivers, but I am not really sure.  We are somewhere in the North Vietnamese hills as I write the end of this blog posting though.

Though the people were interesting in appearance, they were somewhat disappointing in another way.  There are signs all over the villages (in English) saying “Tourists welcome” with many variants and expansions.  Yet, the most common response to a camera was “One Dolla” or “No mony, no piktur!”  We were also followed by an entourage of girls (boys don’t work in these towns) hawking wares, and literally following us for miles, then complaining “you took my picture, you have to buy or pay me for picture.”  The last time we were that badly inundated and hounded was in Tibet in 1988.  Similar costumes too, making the similarity all the stronger.

In the end, this was an interesting leg of the trip, that resulted in some good photos.  The difficulty in conversing with our guide, coupled with the incessant hounding of the local beggars made it rather unpleasant though.  I will be glad to be back with a guide that I can talk to, and in an area where I am not constantly hounded by beggars posing as vendors (selling trinkets that have no value whatsoever other than to disguise the begging).

Heading off to bed now.  Can’t send this until we reach a hotel with Internet, but am wrapping this one up, or it will never go out.

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