Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hanoi (July 14, 17-19, 2011)

My first impression of Hanoi wasn’t very good. But then, it was 4 AM and raining when I got off the train from Hue. It would be another four hours before I could see about purchasing a ticket on the bi-weekly train for Beijing, so I found a seat in the lobby and spent time writing (at first with the computer and then longhand when my battery began to die. At 6 AM, the woman who rented out the storage lockers came in and for 10,000 dong (50 cent) I was able to lock up my backpack and head out into the streets for breakfast. It was a nasty looking morning, a light drizzle and very gray. I found a coffee shop and had a cup along with some noodles. Then I returned to the station to wait some more. My hopes rose when I then ticket counter clerks started appearing a little after 7 AM, but they all first ate breakfast at their desk before they opened for business and beside, I could only buy the “international” ticket at window 11 (or was it 14?). As school is out and this is a busy time in both China and Vietnam for trains, and I needing to get to Beijing to hook up with a group on the Trans-Siberian train on July 25, I had no choice but to wait.

Not watching, a tour operator was standing behind me and as soon as the woman opened her window, he jumped in front and proceeded to buy some 40 tickets… I thought he’d never be done, but I was wise and as he finished, what appeared to be a cabbie came up to buy tickets (they often do this service for people), but I was now wiser and quicker and just about tripped him as I pushed him aside. He wasn’t going to have any of that and I was debating giving him an elbow when the woman behind the counter spoke to him n Vietnamese. I’m not sure what she was saying, but I think it had something to do with minding his manners as he hung his head and went to the back of the line (that was now growing). As it turned out, getting a ticket wasn’t a problem. But I didn’t have enough money. I thought I did, but since you can only take 2 million dong per transaction out of most ATMs and this ticket cost a little over 7 million (It sounds like I’m a big-time spender, but that’s only $350), I found myself about a million short (the tickets had gone up about 1.5 million dong from what I’d expected). I had to go to the ATM and get another wad of 100,000 dong notes. The woman saved my stuff and called me up as soon as I came back and after showing my passport (to prove I had a valid Chinese visa), she sold me the ticket.

I had thought about heading down to the coast on the 9 AM train, but by the time I was done with the ticket, it was almost 9 AM and that train left from a different station, so I decided to forgo going to the bay and find a place to stay in Hanoi. I had a map that identified a number of mini-hotels and (putting on my raingear including pack covers, I ventured out and found a xe om to take me to the “old quarter” where I hoped to find lodging. I was assuming I’d have to stash my bags till the afternoon, but the first place I walked into (Thu Giang Guesthouse) had a room with a private bath and air conditioning for $10 a night. And I could move in right away and not have to wait to 2 or 3 PM. So I jumped on it. It wasn’t as nice as my room at been at Hoi An or Saigon, but it was comfortable and clean and the service made it an incredible deal. Giang (which means Autumn River) managed the property for her father. She spoke perfect English and was very helpful.
I had one important piece of business to accomplish in Hanoi: replenish my insulin supply. I’d brought enough insulin from the States (and had been able to keep it in refrigeration through Singapore), but the “advertised” shelf life once it is at room temperature is only 30 days (it’ll last longer, but I wasn’t sure how much longer, and I didn’t want to gamble with not having a fresh supply when what I brought stopped controlling my sugar levels.) I asked Giang about finding insulin. She made it a special project. She gave me directions to a hospital where she was sure I could find some insulin, but they said they didn’t have it and gave me an address and phone number of another place. Giang called them and found that it wasn’t a pharmacy (as I’d thought), but a medical supply place. She then suggested she go with me to the hospital to translate. On our way, we passed a large pharmacy and we both agreed that we should try them. They didn’t have the insulin that I used in the United States, but had different products. I wrote the information down (and took photos) and emailed them to my physician who did some research and emailed me back, telling me that it should work and how much of the product I should take and when. On my last day in Hanoi, I purchased a vial of insulin (a mixture of slow and rapid acting) along with a wad of needles. The insulin (Mixtard 30) cost 230,000 dong for a vial (a month’s supply) or $21, about a quarter of my insurance co-pay cost in the United States. When I got back to the hotel, I opened and looked at the needles. They were really thick and longer than what I normally use. I tested one and figured I could use them, but when I found another pharmacy with regular insulin syringes, I replaced the oversized ones. After all, they’re cheap, 1,000 dong each (that’s 21 for a dollar)!

I stayed at the Thu Giang Guesthouse for only one night before departing for Ha Long Bay (see previous entry).  After I came back from the Bay, I rebooked myself into the house that sits in an alley just a few blocks from the main business area of Hanoi.  Upon arriving back from Ha Long Bay, I dropped my stuff off and hired an xe om to take me to West Lake (a place Marie suggested had beautiful sunsets).  Looking at a map, I decided to head to Tran Quoc Pagoda, which is located on a small island off the causeway that crosses the southeast end of the lake.  The Pagoda was beautiful, a brick structure with 11 levels, each level featuring six Buddhas.  The sunset wasn’t as nice as a cloudbank in the west destroyed the view.  Afterwards, I took a xe om back to the area near the guesthouse, where I went out for a bowl of pho bo (beef noodles) for dinner.  There was a place just two blocks away that Giang had showed me that this was the only dish they served and it was 50,000 dong ($2.50) but it was a large filling bowl with mint and cabbage and peanuts added to the roasted beef and rice noodles.  There, I met Helen, an Australian who had moved to Vietnam with her husband’s job and now runs a NGO (the Blue Dragon) for street children.  I was shocked when she (to my surprise as I didn’t understand what she was saying in Vietnamese to the waitress) paid my bill. 
On the day after arriving back from Ha Long Bay, I signed up for another tour to the Perfume Pagoda, one of Vietnam’s holiest places, located about 75 km south of Hanoi.  Again, it was easier to pay a tour company than to try to get there myself.  Giang suggested a $19 tour, less than most of the others I’d seen priced at $25.  Now is a good time to describe the operations of these tours.  I was to be ready at 8 AM.  I came down for breakfast at 7:30 AM, enjoying an omelet, French bread, watermelon and coffee.  A few minutes after 8, the tour guide into the lobby of the guesthouse and introduced himself.  I followed him back down through the ally, as he collected a couple other tourists from another guesthouse down the alley.  All this while, the driver was circling the block in the mini-bus.  There were already a half a dozen on the bus when we piled in.  We then drove to another part of the Old Quarter where the guide ran around collecting tourist while the driver circled around the block. 
As we drove around, I noticed something I’d seen in other cities in Vietnam and Cambodia.  Each blocked seemed to be dedicated to a particular type of enterprise.   In one block, you can find plumbing supplies, on another there is lumber, another has hardware, or electrical or kitchen equipment.  There appears to be sections of the Old Quarter and French Quarter designed for the manufacture of stainless steel products such as facets, railings and even hat racks.  Most all the shops look alike and appear to have the same products.  It would seem that they would be too much competition or that it might be better to locate a store nearer to the costumer, but that isn’t the case.  
Like most visitors to the Perfume Pagoda, we stopped a ways north of the site and were loaded onto metal boats, six tourists to a craft, and ferried down river.  As the odd man out, I was loaded onto a boat of Koreans, a couple of who spoke a little English.  It was beautiful trip going down river, with the sun bright and hot and burning through the morning haze; however, we could hear distant thunder.  One of the Korean women loaned me a fan and then gave me instructions on how to hold it properly so that it wouldn’t collapse in my hand.  A couple of them produced umbrellas for shade, while a Vietnamese woman in a bamboo hat sat at the back of the boat and rowed.  The youngest of the Koreans, whom I assumed was the daughter of one of the two couples, spent the whole time talking to the Vietnamese woman.  I was impressed with her grasp of the language and on the way back asked the couple (the man spoke a little English) where their daughter had learned Vietnamese.  It turned out that she was his husband and was Vietnamese and the woman was his mother! 
Along the river were rice paddies and other fields of aquatic plants such as morning glory, with an occasional limestone hill rising sharply above the plains.  Insects hummed and birds chirped and searched the water and banks for food.  At the pagoda, we disembarked and, after a lunch that was included in the trip price, began the climb to the top.  There were only a dozen or so boats bringing in tourist, but during the festivals (from February through April), there are hoards of pilgrims and along the river bank were probably a thousand boats waiting for better days.  As we hiked up the 330 meter climb, we were welcomed by the few vendors out, all who were anxious for business, offering to sell everything from water and drinks (water, beer, juice, soda) to t-shirts and souvenirs.  Luckily, most of the vendor stalls were empty.  We had three hours to explore the various grottos and pagodas.  I was expecting a regular pagoda, a multi-storied tower, and was surprised to discover a natural “pagoda” of limestone in a huge cave.  Inside, it was cool and damp inside and the smoke of incense gave a haze to everything. 
Walking down from the top, I talked with a young French girl who’d come to Vietnam as a volunteer in an orphanage.  There were 17 of them in total and eight of them on the trip to the pagoda.  They were feeling they had been taken advantage of as there were only 25 children in the orphanage and nothing really for them to do.  So they were alternating days spent in the orphanage with trips.  She seemed upset (and for good reason) for it appeared the group who’d organized the volunteer trip was only interested in their money and not in helping the children.
After exploring the mountain and the various pagodas (including some more traditional ones that are at the base of the mountain), we prepared to leave.  As we were walking toward the launch, the skies opened.  The rain was so hard that water came down the path in waves.  We took shelter in an empty vendor stall as the few vendors still around came around to sell us ponchos (about a dollar each).   They were quickly purchased by those without raincoats.  In the confusion, several other vendors came over with drinks for sale and I asked one how much for a beer.  “20,000 dong,” she said.  I looked through my wad of bills for the correct bill.   I only had small bills or larger bills, so I produced a 50,000 dong bill ($2.50).  She acted like it was the correct change and quickly stuck it between other bills.  I asked for change and she shook her head, saying 20,000 dong.  “You cheat and I’ll leave it to karma,” I said, not wanting to make a big scene over $1.50.  Interestingly, with monetary conversions and a general unfamiliarity with the language and customs, it was amazing more people didn’t try to take advantage of me.  Instead, I found that most people were more than honest, even giving me back change when I wasn’t expecting it or pointing to the correct note of a lesser value when I would get confused and hand them a note of a larger denomination. 
When the rain slowed, our boat women (all but one of those on the oars were women) bailed out the water and we began to load the boats, riding back in the rain.  Even with rain jackets and ponchos, we got wet and chilled.
Early on my last day in Hanoi, I visited Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  I was shocked at the crowds and the security.  The soldiers around the mausoleum were sharply dressed and serious, like our military personnel who stand guard at the Tomb for the Unknown Soldier at the cemetery in Arlington, across the Potomac from Washington, DC.   We had to check bags, all then be scanned, all to see a guy that’s been dead for forty years.   The line snaked around the mausoleum and they kept it moving.  When we finally went inside, the air conditioning felt good.  We were able to walk around 3 sides of Uncle Ho who was sitting in bed, looking very much dead.  The preservation of Ho’s body was a gift from the Russians (who’d done the same thing to Lenin’s) and is ironic since Ho himself had asked to be cremated and have is ashes split into three parts, with some buried in the north, some in the central section and the rest in the southern part of Vietnam.  After seeing his body, I walked around the compound and museums; seeing where Ho lived and worked (he lived in a three room house next to the large colonial governor’s mansion.  Ho is seen everywhere in Vietnam.   I even saw him in parody, when in Saigon, on a t-shirt that was made up as a KFC advertisement, with Uncle Ho replacing Colonel Sanders.  The two do share a certain resemblance. 
After visiting Ho’s place, I headed over toward Hoan Kien Lake, the main business district in Hanoi, to mail some post cards and find lunch.  Along the way, I stopped by the Hanoi Cathedral.  Although  Catholicism is stronger in the South, there are many churches in the north (and from the looks of their buildings, they appear to have been left-over from the French era).  I’d also found in Hanoi a Protestant Church that was only a few blocks from my hotel, and had spoken briefly to the pastor (but his English was only slightly better than my Vietnamese).  As I was at Ha Long Bay on Sunday, I was unable to attend services.  Hoan Kien Lake is smaller than West Lake, but more historic with legends that links it to the finding of Hanoi.  I had lunch at a Vietnamese restaurant on the south side of the lake, and spent time in the park like setting writing post cards. 
My final thing to see in Hanoi was the Blue Dragon, a street children’s rescue mission in one of the poorer areas of Hanoi (the poorer area is kind of like New Orleans’s 9th Ward, and is located in a flood plain along the Red River).   This NGO that was started by Australians and receives support from schools and churches as well as other relief agencies around the world, provides a safe haven for both street children as well as does rescue work of trafficked children who work in sweat shops (mainly in the South).  I’d met Helen, the manager of the organization, at a noodle shop my first evening in Hanoi.  We’d talked for a few minutes and she’d surprised me by paying for my bowl of noodles.  When I expressed interest in seeing her organization, she arranged for me to visit.  James, an Englishman who is in charge of Public Relations, met me and showed me around (they don’t allow photos to be taken of the children for obvious reasons).  He explained their work.  The site included offices (as they do work throughout Vietnam) as well as a drop in center where there were two dozen or so children were actively engaged.  Some were playing together; others were being tutored in their reading center.  One of the Blue Dragon’s main goals is to get children back into school and they provide remedial help to get children back to grade level so they can resume their schooling.  Each child involved in the center has an individual plan.  Those without parents (or runaways, which is becoming more of a problem) are housed in a shelter, while others they attempt to reunite with their parents or extended family members.  Although the trafficking of children for the sex trade is not as serious of a problem in Vietnam as in neighboring countries, children are trafficked for work and the Blue Dragon also works to secure the release of such child laborers. 
After visiting the Blue Dragon, I headed back to the guesthouse to pick up my backpack.   After saying goodbye, I hired a xe om to give me a lift to the Hanoi train station.  There, I had the first hot dog since leaving the United States, done only as it can be done in Vietnam (a grilled dog served in a French loaf and garnished with fresh cilantro, basil and mint leaves and a slathering of mustard.  Then I went into the “International Waiting Room,” where three of us waited in beautiful over-sized carved wood chairs (and terribly uncomfortable) for the train to Beijing.  That’s another story. 


  1. I wish I was with you exploring that part of the world.


  2. It's clear that you are encountering mostly good people on your way. Lovely. And I like hearing about the food, too. How funny to hear Ho Che Min compared to Colonel Sanders. :)

  3. Yeah, I liked the Uncle Ho and Colonel Sanders. Now that boggles!

  4. Thanks again for your continuing educational posts and sharing of experiences. It continues to help me see parts of the world in a new light.

  5. It's so funny that you are in this neck of the woods as I just finished up writing about my coworkers bike tour of Vietnam back in April. When in Hanoi, she took in the water puppetry show along with seeing Uncle Ho. I've scanned some of your previous entries but didn't see you mention seeing the My Lai memorial or the Cu Chi tunnels but you have encountered pho, I see. Have you tried or smelled durian yet?

  6. If you see the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, say hello for me :)

    Safe travels.

  7. Oh what a nice trip. At first I thought you were a Rails developer visited

  8. This series of posts is amazing! It reads like an actual book. Have you thought about doing a book on your trip? You are an excellent writer!