Gary and Sarah Girotti/Jones|
Southeast Asia, here we come!
Hanoi, oh Hanoi
OK, we've figured it out--after travelling for a month and stopping in who knows how many cities, we've determined the secret a successful visit. Our happiness in the city (HC) is indirectly proportional to the hassle (H) we incur in getting a taxi and hotel upon arrival, and directly proportional to the lack of hawker energy (LHE) upon arrival. For the math geeks in the crowd, that's:
the larger LHE/H is, then the higher the HC.
Conversely, the smaller the LHE/H is, the lower the HC (which leads to GG*)
Now that your math lesson is done for the day, let's turn to other subjects--such as how to assure a smooth and painless transition into a new environment. Sit up straight and pay attention!
The Greatest Scam on Earth: Email a hotel ahead of time, and tell them that you would like to make a reservation with them, and that you'd like them to pick you up at the airport (train station, bus station). When you disembark, there will be a lovely driver holding a sign, who will take your bags, and lead you through the hordes of other signless drivers vying for your business. This is key on three fronts:
1, you don't have the hawker hassle.
2, you are guaranteed to get taken to the hotel of your choice, and not to seventeen other "better" hotels, a typical cabbie move. [Quick side note--their best line is that the hotel you want to go to has burned down, or is closed for renovations, despite that it is right next door to the one they are trying to get you to stay at--classic!]
3, your driver will most likely drive cautiously, as they will be strung up if they kill a paying customer before they get the money!!
As an added bonus, the ride is free (provided, of course, that you stay with them!)
A few notes on translation:
1. Double bed=anything on which two people can sleep. including two twin beds pushed together with a double comforter on top, but the gap in the middle still there.
2. We have ESPN, CNN, BBC=we can get each of these channels on our satellite, but only one at a time, at the owner's discretion, and never in English.
3. Bus=anything with four wheels that will transport you to your destination, including, but not limited to, Yugos with six people and tri-peds with benches on the back.
The Old Quarter
After terrifying women and small children by our taxi hurtling down tiny streets in Hanoi's Old Quarter (Boston has NOTHING on this place!), we dumped our packs and headed out for an afternoon stroll. Our hotel proprietor insisted that we take a business card, for reasons that will become evident.
The Old Quarter has a lake at the south end of it, and a spaghetti-like mess of streets to the north. We wandered in the streets (not on the sidewalks, of course--that's where the motos are parked), checking out the amazing array of goods being peddled and food being consumed. The Quarter was originally claimed by 32 guilds, each with their own craft. They set up shop on each of 32 streets, most of which are still there today. There are entire streets dedicated to shoes (Lats, you'd love it!), welding, gravestones, electronics (OK, maybe that wasn't an original one), jewelry (funny, Gary avoided this one)...truly amazing! Competition, as you can imagine, is fierce, since everyone is selling the same thing on the same street...(scratch head)!!
When tired of wandering, we headed back to our hotel, which was right near the Sinh Cafe. Hmmm...Sinh Cafe, no Prnice Hotel. OK...we're walking...Prince Hotel, no Sinh Cafe. We're walking...Prince Hotel AND Sinh Cafe, but WRONG Prince Hotel. Light began to dawn...we're in the land of copyright hell, and we've been suckered. [Now the business card makes sense!] Note to self: it is embarassing to take a cyclo driver 1/2 block because you are too dumb to realize you are right near your hotel. Don't do that!
Vietnam has not yet realized the value of copyright laws, so every good idea is copied...and copied...and copied again. Case in point: Little Hanoi (the small intimate restaurant) is fabulous (despite the four-foot headroom on the second floor), while Little Hanoi (the deli) is not. Lonely Planet is a guidebook, not a travel agent, despite the identical logos. And no, McDonald's has not made it to Vietnam, but you can eat at many of them!
Throughout the USA, Feb. 6, 2001 was Superbowl Sunday. In Hanoi, however, it was the last weekend before Tet, the biggest Vietnamese holiday of the year. Needless to say, if asked, the vast majority of people in Hanoi would think the Superbowl was giant bowl of fishball and noodle soup prepared to feed the poor people during Tet.
Like the good little sports freaks that we are, we made sure well in advance that our hotel had ESPN-Asia (who were covering the game live and in English). Our hotel owner stated repeatedly, both in e-mail before our arrival and in person when we arrived, that the TV's in the rooms got ESPN, CNN, BBC, SuperSports Gold and StarSports. However, he failed to mention that they only got one of these 5 stations at any one time. Which station was at the discretion of the hotel owner, who had the satellite controller, for the entire hotel, at his home TV in his living room somewhere in Hanoi. Despite our trepidation, we accepted his assurances that at 6:00 AM, Feb. 7 Hanoi time, the satellite would be set to ESPN. We spent the rest of Sunday walking the Old Quarter, marveling at its pre-Tet frenzy, and shopping for snacks for our pre-dawn Superbowl party for two.
We awoke promptly at 5:45 am, pulled our bed close to the 13 inch TV screen, and turned on the TV praying for ESPN. The TV can alive with the voices of ESPN announcers (none of which we had ever heard before, and one with a british accent??) and scenes of New Orleans. We were ecstatic, and celebrated by busting out our long-life Chocolate milk, crackers, and a new circle of never-go-bad Laughing Cow cheese. [Despite our searching the day before this was the closest we could get to nachos and chili.] We laid in bed and watched a truly amazing game.
The most exciting point for us came mid-way through the 4th quarter, went the soccer-crazed hotel owners woke up "somewhere in Hanoi" and decided it was a good time to switch the satellite to a rerun of a Spanish soccer game. Sarah promptly lost her mind and began issuing death threats. Gary, fearing for the safety of the hotel staff and himself, locked Sarah in the room and ran downstairs to plead with the guy at the front desk to contact the owner and switch back to ESPN. As Gary approached the desk, the young man saw the fear and terror in his eyes and without Gary saying a word he picked up the phone, dialed and began screaming in Vietnamese. We can only assume he saw by the lobby TV what had happened and made a frantic call to the owner. All was set right in a matter of minutes, and Gary returned to the room where Sarah was watching the game as intently as before .
You all know the outcome of the game and can imagine the screams coming from our room as the winning kick went through the uprights. The best was Sarah's "What the $&*@ am I doing in Hanoi!!??"" We would have loved to have been in Boston for the big game, but we had a great time nonetheless. Congratulations to the Pats on a truly amazing season--we're looking for a repeat next year! And despite the many suggestions, Sarah will not be leaving the country for the end of the baseball season. Not even the SJ-away omen can help the Sox.
TET - What a trip!!
"Tet" is the Vietnamese word for the annual 8 day long Lunar (Chinese) New Years celebration. To most Westerners TET stand for Take Every Tylenol. Tet this year fell on Feb. 12th and we where in Hanoi to enjoy (well, experience) the mayhem.
The best way to describe Tet is to imagine the frenzy of a large North American city in the month before Christmas packed into 4 days, and the Old Quarter of Hanoi (where we were staying yet very infrequently sleeping) is a giant mall. The energy is palpable and the streets are packed with people, motos, animals and every consumer good available. It all comes to a head on the eve of Tet, which is followed by 4 days of community and family time. Most businesses are closed and most people take the only time off from work they get all year.
Tet is everyone's birthday in Vietnam--(they count their years in Tet's experienced), so everyone must get a present. As well everything must be cleaned, and then apparently burned. It was not uncommon for us to come out of our hotel and see the entire street lined with small infernos in front of every store, shop and house. I think Vietnamese fire codes are similar to their copyright laws (non-existent).
Every household and business must have a small (usually only a few feet tall) cumquat tree in it, and a large (sometimes very large) peach tree branch in it. [If you think this is strange, image a Vietnamese person in N.A. in late Dec. watching all the locals taking home pine trees...as the Asian say, "same, same but different."] Motos flew by with 4 or 5 trees or branches perched on them, seemingly in defiance of all laws of physics and gravity. It is truly amazing what they can get on a two wheel vehicle.
While we enjoyed the experience of Tet, the chaos did get to us and we took a number of trips outside of Hanoi to get a break (see following sections). We also decided to leave Hanoi before the the 12th as we were informed that most business, sites and restaurants were closed from the 12-15th.
In all, Hanoi was a great time and definitly a highlight of Vietnam. We would return again sometime, but likely in the summer when the weather is better and the mayham is less!