Good Morning, Vietnam

Trip Start Aug 08, 2004
Trip End Aug 2005

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Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Departed Kunming on the night of the 28th. Once again, I found myself on an overnight sleeper bus. When I boarded the bus, I couldn't help but laugh. Our two bunks were right next to each other, and by that I mean there was not even an inch of breathing room between them; we were essentially sharing the same bunk. Oh well, better Mellisa than some random Chinese man picking his nose. This trip thankfully only lasted 12 hours. We arrived in Hekou at the Chinese/Vietnamese border just as the sun rose. The air felt damp and tropical and I became even more eager to leave China behind. After a long wait at the customs checkpoint, we walked across a bridge into Vietnam. This was followed by another long delay (no one said it would be easy going from one Communist country to another).

Mellisa and I got on separate motorbikes to go to the train station. My motorbike driver sped off and dropped me at the station in two minutes flat. I assumed that Mellisa would be a few seconds behind. So I waited. And I waited. Paced. Got extremely nervous. Checked to make sure I was indeed standing in front of the train station (which I was). Waited some more. Started panicking. There I was...hadn't even spent an hour in this strange country and was already facing catastrophe. I had no map, no knowledge of the language, no contact information...I had a guidebook, 30 pounds of clothes and toiletries, a jar of peanut butter and an ipod. The phrases "crash scene" and "internal bleeding" started flitting through my head. I figured the only reason she would not have turned up would be because she had fallen off the bike. I thumbed through Lonely Planet to see if the phrase "Excuse me, is my friend a patient at this hospital?" was listed.

A half hour passed. Mellisa limped up. I saw her walking across the road, disheveled, completely covered head to toe in mud, with a smiling Vietnamese man in tow. She had, in fact, fallen off the motorbike, along with her 50 pound backpack. Right into a big puddle of mud. This made her extremely dirty, but also kept her intact. She decided right then and there that that was to be her last motorbike ride ever and (declining the driver's plea that she get back on) walked the rest of the way to the train station. She was guided by a friendly man who wanted us to come eat at his restaurant. Which we did. All in all, you couldn't have scripted a more spectacular entrance into Vietnam. Let there be no mistake, the Americans have arrived.

The train ride to Hanoi was scheduled to take 10 hours. We sat in the soft seat car-lucky for us, especially when I caught a glimpse of the hard seats, which were nothing more than slatted wooden benches. Ouch. I watched with fascination as a woman in the cluster of seats across the aisle from us spread a tarp on the floor, then neatly curled up with her baby underneath the legs and feet of the other passengers.

We ate some of the food sold by the women walking down the aisles. Some sticky rice with dried fish on top and some kind of peppery ham wrapped in banana leaves. Mellisa kept saying, "I have the Pepto," whether to make herself feel better or me feel better I don't know.

Hanoi greeted us at 8pm with an electric hum of motorbikes and chaos in the streets. Our guesthouse is located in the Old Quarter, or the backpacker's ghetto, as I like to call it. The streets in Hanoi are redolent with a European air-aged buildings and quaint architecture with an obvious French influence, ancient gnarled trees dripping with sad, wispy moss. This is all mixed, of course, with a distinctly Vietnamese flair. Crazy motorbike traffic, noodle shops with customers spilling out onto the sidewalks and eating at low plastic tables, stores selling endless cheap plastic products and electronics.

The food here is fantastic. Fresh, light and refreshingly not stir-fried in a wok with 8 gallons of oil and 2 pounds of red peppers. My poor stomach, which was starting to get a hole burned through it from the Hunan food, is also on vacation. Bread, cheese, coffee and ice cream can be found on every street corner, which makes this my own personal heaven. To Olivia and Amir: yes, I've been eating pho every chance I get. All the beef part noodle soup you could ever desire...

First on our list was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where you can go view the actual body, put on display like a bizarre prized coin collection. The stern-faced guards lined us up single file, just a gaggle of tourists all in a row, and herded us through a dimly lit room where Uncle Ho's remains lay in a glass coffin in a recess in the floor. He was lit from above with a saintly golden light, which made his white goatee shimmer resplendently. It's true: the resemblance between him and Colonel Sanders is uncanny.

Despite my general distaste for group tours, we signed up for an overnight trip to Halong Bay. Thirty-five dollars bought us a cabin on a boat, transportation to and from Hanoi, three fairly bland meals, and hours of forced small talk with a lot of other foreigners. The karst limestone formations reminded me a lot of Guilin. During the afternoon they lowered kayaks in the water for anyone interested. In the US, this would have been preceded by an intense "kayak safety and skills training" seminar and the signing of numerous liability waiver forms. Here, they slapped a life preserver on us and said, "Go to it. Come back whenever." Gliding through the quiet, blue-green waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in a did I get so lucky?

We fly to Ho Chi Minh City tomorrow.
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