Come On In, The Water's Fine!

Trip Start Sep 14, 2006
Trip End Dec 05, 2006

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Saturday, November 11, 2006

Leaving behind the group with which I've toured China, I reenter the realm of solo travel and land in Hanoi. Just the word carries the baggage of history and despite my anticipation of seeing southeast Asia again, I have a small hazy feeling of nervousness as I taxi my way into the city. After threading through the Old Quarter of the city, with its narrow streets and abundant street life, and checking into my lovely hotel (a splurge at $25), I begin to explore the area, and almost immediately feel far more welcome and fascinated than I ever did in China. Vietnam is of course a developing country, and I'm reminded that the cleanliness we're used to is really only found in N. America, Europe, & Australia, and that the majority of the world is more like this - a bit crumbling, a bit grimy, but with an intensity of life and vibrancy of culture that I do find very appealing. The tidiness of our first world is the good side of the coin, but there's a dull sterility on the other side.

I've heard such positive things about travel in Vietnam from a few friends, and even after a day or two I begin to realize that I'll certainly want to come back to the country again, even though I've seen only a few blocks of one city. The frequent smiles I remember from Thailand are back, prices are low, and I feel an involuntary smile of my own jamming at the corners of my mouth as I walk. Sidewalks crammed with scooters and with people on tiny plastic stools eating and doing business day & late into the night means pedestrians alternate in and out of the narrow streets, mingling with the slow river of motorbikes and the occasional car.
Every night in Hanoi, I grab a little preschooler-sized stool myself and enjoy a glass or two of 'Bia Hoi', fresh beer that's made outside the city and sold by nice ladies on multiple street corners. Pulled from a keg into a somewhat clean glass for the princely sum of 14 cents per glass, it's a great way to talk with locals and to watch the streets go by.

I also warm to Hanoi so quickly because of the Old Quarter's intense combination of genuine local life with heavy tourist traffic. I do like most of the Asian foods I've had the last couple of months, but I'm also a bit burned out, and the wonderful array of Western restaurants is a welcome attraction. Prices are perhaps double what local food could cost but my $6 dinners of freshly blended tropical smoothies and international semi-haute cuisine remain a great value. There are a ton of Western tourists here from all over the first world, and Hanoi's Old Quarter is a staggeringly easy place to navigate for travelers of all ages and confidence levels. Don't be afraid, English is spoken so readily and easily, everyone should spend a few days here.

I keep feeling a bit agog at my own reactions to Hanoi, I can't quite belive that a place with such emotional baggage is so quickly proving to be so wonderful. History is a strange thing, it only sometimes matters. When we visit modern Rome, no one expects events from antiquity to inform local beliefs, but war here is such a recent memory, and only one generation has lived without it. It turns out that here, one generation is enough, and I'm told over and over from all folks under 30 (my guides, my hotel staff, & my fellow Bia Hoi patrons) that young Vietnamese love Americans and the French, and that war history just doesn't matter at all. It's the future they want, with jobs, opportunities & mobile phones their parents haven't known.
Vietnam's 40 years of war, of which the American chapter is but the middle portion, is a topic I want to address later, but for now I'll say yet again what a great first week I've had in Vietnam.

I book several different excursions out of Hanoi through my unbelivable hotel staff, and the first is to the World Heritage Halong Bay. Like China's Yangshuo, but surrounded by the sea, these limestone karsts are plied by tourist boats, and I end up with a typical group composition of Germans, Aussies, & Brits. We spend two days on the boat, floating around the surreal scenery, visiting caves, bicycling to a village, and stopping once on a tiny beach in the shadow of one of the karsts.
Our boat captain wasn't quite on his best game this day however, and he fails to notice the speed with which the tide is receeding. We're soon stuck on our tiny, but growing beach, and all motor revving becomes moot as more and more of the hull is revealed each minute. Part of the tour includes some kayaking around the karsts, but when a replacement boat arrives to take us, I decide to stay behind and have some private beach time. Our captain snores while I swim & sit on the top deck and watch the sunset for a few hours before our group returns to pick up the luggage and a slightly sunburned me for the remainder of our trip.

It's perfect winter weather, clear skies without scorching summer heat, and while I'm swimming it's a perfect moment, like Spalding Gray's Perfect Moment:

("Suddenly, there was no time and there was no fear and there was no body. There were no longer any outlines. It was just one big ocean. My body had blended with the ocean. And there was just this round, smiling-ear-to-ear pumpkin-head perceiver on top, bobbing up and down. And up the perceiver would go with the waves, then down it would go, and the waves would come up around the perceiver, and it could have been in the middle of the ocean, because it could see no land. And the waves would take the perceiver up to the where it could look down this great wall of water, and then whoop! the perceiver would go down again. I don't know how long this went on. It was all very out of time until it was brought back into time by Ivan's voice calling, "Spalding! Spalding, come back, man! I haven't tested those waters yet! And I fell back into time and back into my body and I was back in fearful time. I was also sad because I knew I'd had a Perfect Moment and would now have to go home.")

Ok, for me there wasn't anybody named Ivan, (there were chatting German girls as the replacement boat returned), and there were no dangerous waters, but it's still a good quote.

* * *

I'm reminded that enlightenment isn't some ultimate destination of groovy eternal aloofness, but rather a string of occasional occasions where being in the moment without thought of the future allows the temporary extinguishing of self.

* * *

This transition from one scrap of enlightenment back to reality on my beach reminds me of TS Eliot, which seems a fitting close for this entry:

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.
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