Village Voice

Amy Salmon continues her stories of adventures in Southeast Asia 

In honor of my three-month anniversary in Korea (woo-hoo! Survived three months!) I decided to go back and attempt to tell some stories from my Southeast Asian swing back in April, and my last few days in Vietnam, as I was about to set off to cross another few countries off my list...

I set the trip up the way I did on purpose -- I wanted to have the experience of seeing the richer countries of Southeast Asia back to back with the poorer ones -- and I wanted the break of the richer ones in between.  It's fascinating to see and experience poor, developing countries, but it can be pretty depressing, too, and a lot of work.  Although certain aspects of Thailand, and Chiang Mai in particular, are pretty Western, it's still a developing country, and that reality is reflected in everything from the poor conditions of sidewalks and streets to the lack of drinkable tap water to the fact that you're getting drenched when it rains, because you're more than likely riding on the back of a motorcycle to get where you want to go, not inside a cab or a subway, and certainly not in an SUV.  Still, Thailand is New York City compared to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and, for that matter, much of China.  So I went to Singapore before tackling Vietnam, and I flew from Hanoi to spend a couple of nights in ultra-modern, ultra-rich Kuala Lumpur before tackling the jungles of Cambodia.

My last few days in Vietnam, when I finished my course in Ho Chi Minh City and flew north to what is now-reunited Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, were a kind of mixed bag.  I enjoyed my course, but it was a lot of work, and by the end of it I was worn out, and quite honestly in no mood to do all of the traveling I had planned.  If I hadn't already made plane and some hotel reservations, I would probably have found a way to extend my visa and headed back to the South China Sea, where I'd spent Easter weekend.  I would have then crashed on the beach for at least a week.  Since I did have said reservations, I got up early the morning after my course was done and rode on the back of my friendly motorcycle chauffeur's bike for the last time through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, balancing my stuffed duffel bag on the seat in front of me and the bag with my laptop in it on my hip.  My suitcase was balanced between the driver's legs.   

The flight to Hanoi is about two hours, and, in contrast to Ho Chi Minh City, the airport is about an hour outside the city.  I had asked the helpful owner of my guest house in Saigon to book me a hotel.  She'd come through as usual, and had written the directions in Vietnamese for the taxi driver in Hanoi and told me about how much it should cost to get from the airport to my hotel.  She also told me that I should insist on the rate that she'd written down and not let them charge me any more.  I got a cab with no problems and was soon on my way into the city, noting that the airport in Hanoi was much less of a mob scene with annoying touts than that of Ho Chi Minh City.  I figured that my flight out to KL in two days' time would go off without a hitch.  Ha!

But for the moment I was enjoying riding in an actual car rather than on a motorbike, fun as that can actually be. It was misty out and I was happy to be inside.  The scenery was really nice -- all green rice paddies dotted with conical hats worn by workers in the fields -- and there were little stone houses beside them.  Gradually the outskirts of Hanoi came into view, but there was still a marked contrast to Ho Chi Minh City, which is just an endless bustling mob scene of motorcycles, with a car thrown in every now and then for good measure.  There was less traffic of any kind on the way in, and the part of the city where I was staying was full of small, winding streets and markets rather than motorcycles.  I also saw, as I'd been expecting, a much more pronounced French architectural influence.

Arriving at my hotel, I wasn't entirely surprised to find that the desk clerks spoke very little English, but were fluent in French.  In fact, they asked me if I spoke French and just went on from there, so I have a feeling Tu [guesthouse owner] must have told them I did.  The room wasn't the Ritz, but it was perfectly nice.  I was glad to see that it had a fridge, always something I like when traveling, because it lets me get a sandwich or something for dinner when I'm out during the day and be able to keep it for later, as well as juice or soda and yogurt or something for breakfast or a late-night snack.  Most importantly, it had an air-conditioner, a nice big bed, a TV, and a bathtub.  It's the little things that make me happy!  I drew the curtains, turned on the AC full-blast, turned on the TV to scope out whether or not I had any English channels, and crashed on the bed.  If it couldn't be the beach beside the South China Sea, it would have to do.  I was done for the day.

In fact, I didn't do much more than that while in Hanoi the next day and evening, either.  The next afternoon I set out for a walk and in search of Vietnamese pho noodles, which I really like, and which I was determined to have once more before leaving the country.  I'd seen some restaurants called "Pho 24" with green awnings while out and about in Ho Chi Minh, and I figured that would be a good place to go.  At least I'd be sure it was pho I was getting and not some random other dish that I might not like!  I'm getting more adventurous with food, but I've still got pretty big limits. 

So, setting out from my hotel and taking careful note of which way I was turning, I was happy to see the familiar "Pho 24" awning at the end of my street.  It was across a big street, but, in another marked difference from the chaos of Ho Chi Minh, it was no problem to cross.  There was actually a light and people obeyed it!  This might not seem out of the ordinary, but trust me, it is for Ho Chi Minh City.  To say that there is no rhyme or reason to the traffic patterns is to greatly understate the matter.  I had my pho, along with some really good Vietnamese coffee and a flan, and decided to go for a walk.  It was really hot, as usual, but not raining or overcast, and there were some nice, wide streets and buildings that looked appealing not far away.

I've been lost in a lot of cities by now, and it's really not a lot of fun.  It's just frustrating and exhausting, particularly when I get lost when I'm trying to get back to my hotel so I'm tired anyway, I'm on foot and it's sweltering, or when I've only intended to be out for a few minutes, and tried to walk around a block that turned out to be something else entirely.  That actually happened to me in Singapore, of all places, when I didn't even have any excuse, because all of the signs were in English for once!  I went out of my hotel to go over to the 7-Eleven I'd seen down the block, in search of dinner.  Convenience stores in Asia are a great bet for finding Western food and a microwave to go along with them.  Plus, in pricey Singapore, it was good value.  I found the 7-Eleven just fine, which really was only steps from my hotel.  The problem was that I decided to take a walk around the block, because it was a nice night, and it was all so orderly and neat and just so different from Thailand, and all the signs were in English.  It was such a luxury just to be able to read the signs.  Well, let's just say that it was a long hour and a half later before I found my way back to the 7-Eleven and my hotel, I saw a lot more of Singapore by night than I had intended, and it was not possible to walk around that particular block.  Oh, and not everyone in Singapore speaks English.  Of course, when I finally got so frustrated to be turned around that I gave up and asked someone, it was one of the five people living on the island who isn't fluent in English with a flawless British accent.  I didn't have the energy to try and communicate right then -- mostly because I was so stunned that she didn't speak English and it just deflated me...this was supposed to be my vacation from not being able to communicate with those around me!! -- so I just kept going, and eventually found my way back on my own.

I really didn't want that to happen today in Hanoi.  Accordingly, I took careful note once again of where I was going and set off towards the buildings I'd seen.  They really were nice, and the whole wide avenue where I was walking was strikingly like Paris.  I was meandering along, catching a nice breeze and enjoying the shade, when I started to notice that I was the only person walking along the entire street.  Even for comparatively quiet Hanoi, that seemed odd.  I started looking around me a little more closely.  I started noticing soldiers -- with guns -- stationed every few feet, standing in front of what looked like gates.  I walked more slowly, eyeing them carefully, but they didn't seem to be being paying me any particular attention.  I kept going, and realized that while I did seem to be the only pedestrian, there were cars and motorbikes going back and forth on the street beside me normally, and it didn't seem to be any sort of truly restricted area.  I mean, there were no gates blocking the road I hadn't seen, or anything.  I studied the buildings more closely, and saw lots of Vietnamese flags.  It must be some sort of government facility, I thought, and relaxed a little.  The guns had really unsettled me.  I saw what looked like a sniper on top of one of the buildings, and tensed up again.  Where in the heck was I?  I kept walking to the end of the block, crossed the street, and went back the way I had come, on the opposite side of the street.  There were definitely a lot of soldiers with guns, but as long as the guns weren't trained on me, I figured it was OK.  I didn't linger, though, and the enjoyment I'd taken in my surroundings had vanished.  Suddenly, it didn't seem at all like Paris.  It seemed very much like I was in a Communist country.  Which of course I was, and this had been quite the reminder.  Vietnam these days has very much the feel of a capitalist nation in many ways -- it's got a vibrant, lively, excited feel to it -- but the war wasn't really that long ago.  In some ways, it's still very close to the surface.  Relieved to see the "Pho 24" sign reappearing, I headed back to the hotel.  Enough adventures for one day. 

Back in my room, I scoured the map to see what I could have stumbled into, and it looked like some kind of military academy.  I don't suppose it was really any different than stumbling onto an American military base...after all, they have guns, too.  But it'd be different for me, because they'd be from my country.  Here, I was suddenly all too aware of being a stranger in a strange land.  That happens, every once in a while.  This was for sure one of those times.    

That's all for now.  I'm tired and I have a lot of work to do this week at school...I just got a whole new set of books that have no obvious teaching methods attached to them, and that are the wrong levels for virtually all of the students they're designed for.  Sigh.  The good news is that this week I have many hours of planning time in my schedule, and this week is the last week on the old set of books, and it's planned.  So I have a week to pull some more rabbits out of my hat. 

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