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Feeling Like A Million Dong
Rating: (4.8 stars)

Hanoi, Vietnam
Nov 24, 2003 13:50

Pros: beautiful scenery, fantastic city, pretty lakes, limestone formations, good food
Cons: traffic

Hi Everybody,

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 him that).

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."