Like A Million Dong
Nov 24, 2003 13:50
Pros: beautiful scenery,
fantastic city, pretty lakes, limestone formations, good food
Now that Spring Break in Laos is over, we've been roughing it here
in Vietnam. After a cush flight from Vientiane, Laos on Vietnam
Airlines - the lesser of two flying evils, the other being Lao Aviation
- into Hanoi, we were whisked away to an excellent hotel in the
Hanoi Old Quarter.
Now being an enthusiast of walking around cities, I was excited
to check out Hanoi on foot the moment we got in. If you remember,
we talked about the crazy traffic in Bangkok - this is nothing,
absolutely nothing compared to the mayhem that constantly surrounds
you on the roads of the Hanoi Old Quarter. The sidewalk space here
serves as both parking lot for the motorbikes and overflow display
area for storefronts forcing pedestrians to walk in the street,
while motorbikes fly past on one side. This is nothing - once brave
enough to cross the street, the motorbikes fly on both sides. We
learned the trick is to walk slowly staring straight ahead while
the bikes part like the Red Sea on either side of us as we slowly
make our way to the "safety" of the other side of the
street. All the while, hoping there are no trucks, busses, or ox
carts barreling down the road toward us.
Despite the dim picture I may have painted of Hanoi from a traffic
perspective, the city is truly fantastic. The pretty lake, the buzz
of the Old Quarter and delicious food are only surpassed by the
world class hairdresser I found. Yes, it had been five months since
anyone but Aki, my NYC hairdresser (who I love), had touched my
hair and it was in desperate need of some loving care. While Jordan
was wandering around the Temple of Literature, I was at the Temple
of Hair, also known as Vu Doo Salon in a fashionable district close
to Hanoi's embassy row. Without going into too much detail, the
2 hour experience which included a head massage and a team of hairdryer
weilding Vietnamese was fanstastic. The end product was well worth
the 1.2 million Dong. For the first time I truly was looking like
a million bucks (Dong). Jordan wants everyone to know that Dong
is his favorite currency name to date.
Now that my hair was ready, we joined 6 other friends (Lao Spring
Breakers) for a three day, two night boat trip to Halong Bay. Our
guide Twa, a woman as small as her name, picked us up in a minivan
for a 3 hour drive to the Bay, northeast of Hanoi. Once there, we
boarded the boat to begin our trip. Despite the overcast sky, the
bay was stunning. Everywhere I looked I saw limestone formations
covered in lush greenery jutting out from the tranquil waters of
the South China Sea. The limestone islands are shaped dramatically
by the wind and waves making for gorgeous scenery. We spent the
day motoring amongst the rock formations and visiting caves, all
the while lounging on the roof of the boat hanging out with friends.
After a great seafood dinner prepared by the crew we entertained
ourselves by drinking all the beer on the boat during several drinking
games, which amused Twa to no end, especially the song consisting
only of her name (to the tune of the Beerlao song only consisting
of Beerlao - created in Lao on Spring Break, sung to the tune of
the Ole soccer song). The next two days days were spent hiking on
Cat Ba island, the largest of the rock islands, and kayaking around
some of the smaller ones in the improving weather. This was punctuated
only by jumping off the roof of the boat and drinking the replenished
beer supply. Ok, so it's still Spring Break.
Once back from Halong Bay, we spent one more day in Hanoi before
beginning our 6 day, 5 night jeep trip with two friends to Vietnam's
northwest. So as to not waste the day, we did see the Hanoi water
puppets, which are just that - puppets in water.
Still recovering from the water puppets and Halong Bay beerfest,
we boarded our Russian army surplus jeep and greeted our driver
whose name we think is Troy. Now you might think us not knowing
our driver's name is culturally insensitive, but he neither spoke
nor understood English, and our Vietnamese, now much improved, at
the time was lacking. In fact, our driver did seem to only understand
one word - "toilet" which seems to mean "pull over
to the side of the road so I can show the villagers my butt."
Troy guided us through the northwest stopping at overpriced dirty
guesthouses and restaurants where we are pretty sure we ate dog.
I really hope not, but it just didn't taste like beef. Charlie,
an Irish guy we are travelling with, suggested ordering dog so we
would know what it tasted like for next time and could avoid it.
This sounds right but defeats the purpose of not eating dog I think.
To Troy's credit he is an excellent driver. On the first day he
managed to avoid getting us blown up as the road we were driving
on is still being constructed - or shall we say dynamited, this
being the preferred method of Vietnamese road construction. This
dynamiting, er construction, resulted in mass delays which provided
us with ample opportunity to interact with the locals. This turned
into a benefit as once the crowd that had gathered to stare at us
got bored we had nothing better to do than try to talk to each other
using the very, very short "Helpful Vietnamese Phrases"
section of our guide book. We came away having learned such helpful
phrases as "too expensive" and "I'm a vegetarian."
You may think this helped us communicate better with Troy, but nothing
seemed to work better than a few well acted out charades (i.e.,
dinner = hand feeding mouth, bed = clasped hands next to tilted
head, bathroom, well, luckily he understood toilet).
Once past the construction, the drive was gorgeous. Troy whisked
us up and down mountain passes, through small villages and past
stunning rice paddy terraces framed by jagged green mountain tops
and a brilliant blue sky. On our way to Sapa, the largest and most
beautiful of the northwest towns, we waved almost continously to
colorfully attired hill tribe villagers working in their fields.
When in Sapa, we spent our time trekking through the hills to different
villages. This gave us a chance to learn about life in the hills
and meet more locals. At one point we did get a bit lost and found
our way only after following a water buffalo through the paddies
on its way home. Realizing there were limitations to our sense of
direction and that there might not always be a water buffalo, we
hired a guide for a full day trek through a different area. During
this trek, we met many people including a villager with a hand injury
who Jordan tried to help. Having honed his doctor skills the day
before while attending to a fellow traveler who suffered a broken
ankle during a motorbike accident, I was impressed to see Jordan's
medical knowledge and skill have not suffered from these past five
months as an international man of leisure (he just asked me to call
After our treks and helping the English celebrate their Rugby World
Cup victory with, ahem, more beer, Troy collected and drove us the
12 hours back to Hanoi. During which he tried to kill us multiple
times by weaving in and out of oncoming traffic and narrowly missing
a water buffalo relieving itself in the middle of the road. Which
almost provided Jordan with the opportunity to in all honesty quote
the famous Fletch line, "Can I borrow your towel, my car just
hit a water buffalo."