I took the train from Hanoi to Huế, which turned out to be about a 14 hour ride. Since most of it took place at night there isn’t much to say about the scenery except when we would stop on a siding to let another train pass you could hear a million frogs croaking in the rice paddies just off the tracks. I was unable to sleep due to cold tablets and so had to witness the train crew disport themselves in the manner of a Washington State University sorority party in the mid-1970s.

This morning I met Sister Ephraim patrolling the front entrance to The Church of The Redeemer on Nguyen Hue Street. She is shy of five feet and wears a steel gray and white habit. Her arms were crossed as she paced and she had focused her attention on a drunk couple who, for some reason, had taken up temporary residence just outside the church. Whatever they were doing caused her to clap loudly and address them so sharply that I was instantly transported back to elementary school, which was the last time I heard anything quite like it. She asked if I was a priest and then quickly extracted my information (not a priest, tourist, name, from Washington State, lawyer) and told me I’d better get inside as mass was starting. The church has a school attached and was full of kids, organized by grade levels in the front pews. The Vietnamese language is musical and the singing was very pretty. The congregation leaves the church together through one exit and then drive away on scooters and in cars in a kind of loose processional. Honking of horns is suspended for at least a few blocks.

I used my map to walk back to the hotel although a parishioner kindly offered me a ride. The pedi-cab and scooter drivers in Huế are relentless; if you stop on the street for a minute to look at your map they pounce. They ask what you are looking for and use directions as a way to put you into their debt. Today I was manipulated into having tea with a driver who said he was 59 and talked like he had been the last faithful retainer abandoned on the US Embassy roof after the fall of Saigon. He leaned in close to whisper that the Vietnamese government didn’t like him, and he was working up to a request for money when he went too far. He looked at my map, saw the church circled and, leaning in again, said he didn’t dare go near that place because the police had a ring around it and kept track of who went in and out. He obviously didn’t know I’d just been there and I used this bullshit as a way to get out of his clutches.

I’m in the “Romance Hotel.” It’s fine for my purposes and nothing like its name implies but I did feel sheepish telling Sister Ephraim the name of the place when she asked where I was staying. I’m going to hang here for a few more days.

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Vietnam Wiring

This picture is pretty typical, although it can be much worse in the old sections of town. At times you will see suspicious looking wires dangling from poles over sidewalks, and coils of wire laying at the feet of weird precast concrete “poles” that areA scary utility pole in Hanoi used in places to prop the whole mess up.

Often electrical meters are situated in this bird’s nest of wires and you will see two man crews, one in an orange jumpsuit with a bamboo ladder and the other with a clipboard, taking readings for billings.

According to Saturday’s Viet Nam News, there are plans in Hanoi to relocate many of these installations underground by 2015, which seems optimistic given the scope of the problem and Hanoi’s density.

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B-52 and the Hanoi Hilton

An, my new translator and guide, met me outside the hotel first thing in the morning and off we went on his scooter to run errands and see some of Hanoi. He still wouldn’t commit to a price so I named a fair one for three hours work and he said it was good. I first mailed some silk and other items back to Seattle. The main Hanoi Post Office occupies a full block overlooking  Hoan Kiem Lake, where the giant turtle lives, and has a special entrance for international mail staffed by English speakers. A woman who works there even wrapped the box in butcher paper and taped it up for me. Then to the pharmacy for cold tablets, weaving through the fierce Hanoi traffic.

As near as I can tell there are three notions that govern Hanoi traffic: 1) Whoever gets there first has an indisputable right to occupy the space, no matter how he got there;  2) Traffic lights are mere aspirational goals without the force and effect of law;  and 3) Never take anything personally. These apply to pedestrians as well, who are regarded as vehicles without  wheels. The hotel advises its guests to stride purposefully into the crossing and keep moving P1000890forward at all times, which is excellent counsel. I quickly got used to it and it appears to work. I heard lots of horns sounding but heard no screaming or gunshots, and saw no fingers displayed.

We travelled on the scooter down very tight back alleys to the location where the remains of a United States Air Force B-52, shot down during a December, 1972 bombing raid on Hanoi, can still be seen in a small lake. Although the lake is now surrounded by homes and even an elementary school, An told me that these were built well after the fact, and that in 1972 the area was largely agricultural.

I looked it up later and was reminded that the plane was shot down during the highly controversial 1972 Christmas bombings of Hanoi ordered by President Nixon allegedly to restart peace negotiations. There is a detailed article about that period of the war at the Smithsonian website.

Next we went to the Hoa Lo prison which began as a colonial French gaol for Vietnamese agitators seeking independence and was later turned into a prisonerP1000926 of war camp for captured United States fliers, including John McCain, whose flight suit is prominently displayed. This is the place the American prisoners dubbed the Hanoi Hilton, It is grim, its high wall topped with broken bottles and shards of glass embedded in concrete by the French in the days before razor wire.

After the prison we rode past the Vietnam Ministry of Finance building which I assumed dated back to colonial days. In fact, An said, it was built within the last few years, which surprised me as I would not expect the Vietnamese to keep to that style in new government buildings, as it must be hugely expensive. It fits in well with the architectural style of the city.

There is now an authentic Hilton Hotel in Hanoi, not far from the Metropole.

This dog was chained to the low wall surrounding the lake where the remains of the B-52 are situated. When I came upon it it was making nice with a youngP1000892 Vietnamese mother and her 2 year old child. As soon as it saw me, however, it commenced this savage display of racial animosity that continued as I walked around the lake. Notice the raised hair on its back. When I got back to the scooter I asked An to participate in a sociological experiment by walking past the animal and he refused, citing a painful encounter with what I assume was a White Supremacist dog in his youth.

If anyone plans a trip to Hanoi, by the way, I can highly recommend An as a personal translator and tour guide. Send me an email and I will forward his contact information.

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The Banana Women of Hanoi

You see quite a few women in the Ancient Quarter market carrying fresh produce in two flat baskets suspended from a bamboo shoulder pole sectioned lengthwise. They always carry some Vietnamese bananas, which are shorter than the Central American ones. I have the sense that they supply their clientele in the mornings and then freelance with tourists  in the afternoons.

These are tough women physically and mentally. If one sets her Nón lá on you, it’s only aP1000880 question of how many bananas you will be purchasing, and at what price. The first one who approached me ended up with a US dollar and I with the most expensive banana ever sold in Southeast Asia. When I reached for my banana she smacked my hand away and broke off a different one, turning the encounter into a contact sport that she completely dominated.

The next day as I was trying to take a video of the young tap dancers this woman saw her mark. You can hear her badgering me in the video.  I had two bananas for breakfast and didn’t want a third. A couple of older Vietnamese stood just off to the side enjoying the game. The woman decided that if I didn’t want a banana, she would sell me a photo, and I finally agreed. We haggled over the price – I can’t recall what was agreed to and it didn’t matter anyway as she would have all the money that came out of my pocket, she doesn’t do “change.” I enjoy a good salesperson and she had me and the spectators laughing as I got this picture. (In the background you can see another of the wedding couples at the fountain). Then she mimed that she would use my camera to take a photo of me, but I said I couldn’t afford it.

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The Metropole Hotel in Hanoi dates from 1901 and is built in French colonial style. P1000854The rooms are comfortable, the staff is friendly and considerate, and the furnishings are grand. Wages must be quite low in Hanoi as the staff is huge. There were often three bellmen on duty, two concierge, six or more doormen at the two entrances, two or three at the desk, and large restaurant staffs in each of the three restaurants. there is one guy whose job is to check the contents of the room refrigerators and tally the bill.

I hate hotel reviews, and how stupid is it to do one without getting paid? You’ll pay a lot of money for a room at the Metropole, P1000804even in February, but it’s a great hotel, in an ideal location in central Hanoi, very near to the Ancient Quarter and to Hoan Kiem Lake, which is beautiful and a fine place for a walk. There is a story in today’s Viet Nam News, a pretty good little English language newspaper, noting concerns scientists have about the health of the giant turtle that lives at the bottom of the lake.

Here’s a typical outdoor scene at the Metropole. On the far left is the Maitre d’ of one of the hotel restaurants. Next is Metropole street scenea hotel driver in full livery. Then a married couple who are having their pictures taken by a professional photographer in front of the hotel and at the nearby fountain. (Over the course of three days I saw at least 25 such couples). Behind them is a photographer’s assistant holding a reflector. Seated at the table are two officers of the People’s Army of Vietnam enjoying a refreshment.

I spoke to one of the photographers and she said the couples were in most cases married a month or more ago, and waited until the weather was right to have their portraits taken. They pick the hotel as a backdrop because it is pretty. The women are very into it, in some cases having makeup done and changing from the wedding gown into silk Ao Dai for more pictures. The men are less involved, standing around in rented tuxedos looking bored and smoking. I remember a similar scene in Philadelphia when carloads of wedding parties stopped to have their pictures taken in front of Swann Memorial Fountain.

After two nights I moved today to a much less expensive hotel in the Ancient Quarter. It’s name is La Dolce Vita and it’s more Spartan than the Metropole. The view from the window is squalid, no other word for it, but the hotel is clean and the room and bathroom are as well. The Internet is the same one as at the Metropole. The bellman wears a rumpled purple uniform and hat and came on initially like Andy Kaufmann’s foreign man character. Then he asked where I was from and when I told him he turned into Robin Williams; his voice dropped an octave and he said “Whoa America.” Why do you say it that way? “Well America is very rich.”

Before I checked out the travel desk at the Metropole arranged a soft sleeper on the train to Hue for tomorrow at around 3 pm, and had it delivered as well. As I waited for the P1000863ticket to arrive, seated on a bench watching a group of young tap dancers in the park (a bystander said you can watch at least one of them perform on YouTube, which is surprising since YouTube is blocked in Vietnam), I was approached by a fellow on a scooter. The guy is a master of the soft sell. We talked about our families for a bit, each showed our kid pictures, this and that, and I ended up proposing to hire him for three hours tomorrow to show me the sights. How much would that cost, I asked and he replied, as many do, “Whatever you think it’s worth.” This is, I believe, a tactic that works on new arrivals unfamiliar with the currency exchange rates, and always leads to overpayment. His name is An and I will definitely get the price agreed upon before we start. No more Shanghai haircuts.

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Night Train to Hanoi

The train from China to Vietnam leaves Nanning at 6:45 pm from the hectic railroad station. It’s an overnight trip, and the only accommodations available were “soft sleeper,” which is what I wanted. I hung around outside the station where the thousands of passengers are staged for their trains getting the looks until I finally found out there is aP1000802 “soft sleeper” lounge.  The soft sleeper is a 4 bed cabin with better mattresses than “hard sleeper,” a door which can be closed to the corridor, and two pillows. I had an upper bunk –  that’s my bag on the top left.

I didn’t like the company as much as the Shanghai-Nanning trip. The obnoxious couple in the lower bunks were total Flintstones. They changed the orientation of their bunks so that their heads pointed east rather than west as the stewards always arrange it. This meant that to climb into the upper bunk I had to ask Wilma to move her head and pillows so that I could climb up or down without stepping on them. Once I was up in the bunk Wilma would fold up the high step I would need to climb down again. Fred snored when he wasn’t playing with his nose. I childishly shelled peanuts in bed and swept the debris that had missed my garbage bag down onto the floor for Fred and Wilma to enjoy later.

We stopped near the Chinese border and I received a somewhat baffling interrogation in the cabin by a PLA Captain, i.e., “You have been to China many times?”

No sir, just this once.
Why do you have three Chinese stamps in your passport?
I was on a container ship that stopped at three Chinese ports.
Were there a lot of passengers on this ship?
No, just one.
And that was you?
Why you work on passengers in China ships all over all the time?
I think you were working in China.
No sir. I was not working. I’m retired.
Oh, what did you used to do for work? Etc.

I swear I actually blurted out that I was retired when he accused me of working in China, as if the fact of retirement made it physically impossible to perform work of any sort. The whole time Fred sat across the aisle giving me this rock-hard stare, finding my explanations unconvincing and openly siding with the screws. He now bears the mark of the squealer and will get his later in the big showers. We had to pile off the train and our bags were x-rayed, etc.

On the Vietnam side, we were also pulled off the train at about 2:30 am for a one hour passport inspection. It was an odd experience. The railway station is French colonial and dimly lit with a few probably 40 watt bulbs. An old large crudely painted but endearing picture of Ho Chi Minh, painted from this famous photo, presides over the station. The Vietnamese border guards were much cooler than the Chinese, and the border crossing felt like a real border crossing.

We got into Hanoi at a little after 5 am. Took a cab to the Metropole hotel where I ended up waiting until nearly 2 pm to get into my room, bone tired. On first inspection, Hanoi is really something.

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