Thursday, August 21, 2014

Hanoi's Old Quarter

Before I begin, here are the rules which governed—or initially governed—my trip through Southeast Asia. 

  1. No food selfies
  2. No foreign food (meaning Western or American)
  3. No getting suckered—bargain for everything
  4. Wherever possible, travel by train

As a result, I didn't take photos of any of the foods I ate in Hanoi, more's the pity. I'll just have to make do with other people's, I guess. Thank Gawd for the Internet. 

I had a lovely, full sleep the night of July 13th, after catching barely ninety minutes in 36 hours. I awoke at mid-morning, "had a good gap and a stretch," and peered out the window:

Anvil clouds were already piling up in every quarter of the bright blue sky. I made a mental note to buy an umbrella. The Hanoi Asia Star provided a free breakfast, so I sat in the tiny two-table dining room and had an omelet with a buff, broad-shouldered Singaporean fellow named Dylan. He and his sister were visiting Hanoi for a day before haring off to Ha Long Bay. As soon as I budged outside the air-conditioned oasis of my room I'd begun to sweat, but Dylan was dry as a bone. Upon hearing of my own travel plans, he cautioned me that Singapore would likely be even hotter and wetter than Hanoi, to which I reacted with some dismay. 

I went back up to my room, e-mailed my parents to let me know I'd arrived safely, updated my journals, and slathered on sunscreen. For some inexplicable reason, I decided not to pocket my rain poncho—figuring, perhaps, that it would be easy to find and buy a cheap bumbershoot at a convenience store somewhere.

I stopped in at the first store I saw to buy 1.5 liters of water. It cost 12,000 VND—about 75 cents at the time. No umbrellas though.

Next stop was Hoan Kiem Lake:


I wasn't hurrying. I was strolling. Even so, I was drenched. Great wet spots appeared on my linen shirt, the bandanna I'd stuck under my hat was already soaked through, and my thighs were as wet and squeaky as trained dolphins. My sweaty fingers smudged the postcards I bought and addressed and sent at the moldy, water-stained French colonial post office.

My luck ran out during the long walk from the post office to the Maison Centrale—better known as the "Hanoi Hilton." The skies broke. The clouds weltered up and burst. There was nothing gradual about this kind of rain: full in the grip of monsoon season, the Vietnamese skies vomited all their contents upon me with wanton abandon. One minute it was dry; the next minute the air was filled with drops of water that would have done that godawful third Matrix movie proud. I thought I'd been sopping with sweat earlier. Now I was truly soaked. Unwilling to appear unprepared or chagrined, I stood defiantly out in the open for a few moments; then I slunk under the eaves of a nearby government building with a few other feckless souls. We stood there for some 20 minutes, trying to wait the damn storm out. It was too wet to light up a smoke. None of us would meet each others' eyes. All of us felt the caustic shame of being caught without an umbrella or poncho during monsoon season. 

Presently, there was the wet slapping sound of flip-flops on rainy pavement. A pack of dripping young English and Irish women, their tank tops and shorts plastered enticingly to their bodies by the fruits of the monsoon, sprinted up to our hiding-place. They inquired of everyone present whether the Hanoi Hilton was nearby. Your humble correspondent, having faithfully memorized the route before leaving his hotel room, pointed these women in the right direction. Together we strode soggily around the corner to the Maison Centrale.

The original door—the one John McCain probably walked through, the putz.


This place was yet another letdown. Ninety-five percent of it was devoted to the cruel oppression of the French during the colonial era, and the bitter tortures and deprivations the noble Vietnamese resistance fighters endured at their captors' hands. One small room was devoted to the American fighter pilots who were incarcerated here during the Vietnam War, and even that was decorated with propaganda: staged photographs showing American P.O.W.s raising chickens, decorating Christmas trees, attending church services, and holding chess tournaments. The entire upper level of one building was devoted to giant, tacky brass plaques memorializing the glorious names of the Vietnamese heroes held by the French (second-to-last picture above). I was put off by the whole thing, frankly. I couldn't wait to get back outside into the sunny, drying streets and make my way to the Temple of Literature. 

Now, here's the funny part: remember way back in 2013 when I went to Japan, and I saw the famous Zōjō-ji temple in Tokyo? And I got the prayer etiquette all wrong? And all during my train trip through Japan I kept getting it wrong such that, if any Shinto deities actually heard my prayers, they'd have either laughed them off or put an eternal curse on me?

I kept up my streak at the Temple of Literature, a Confucian school to which the Lý dynasty sent their best and brightest youths. I forgot to take off my hat while donating a few dong and saying a brief prayer. May I be damned to ignorance forevermore.  

Does your washroom look this cool?

These four pillars carried an inscription in Chinese admonishing horsemen to dismount already, gosh dang it to heck. 

I caught a cab back to the hotel, hung up my wet things, and walked back to a likely neighborhood I'd seen north of Hoan Kiem Lake, which was packed with eateries. I found a tiny shop the precise size and shape of a scooter garage that sold bun cha, fried pork slices in broth with vermicelli, with as much minced garlic and sliced pepper as you'd care to add (and the omnipresent complimentary mint salad).

from Wikimedia Commons

I bolted the lot down, walked another block and stopped in at a foreigner's bar for some nem (Vietnamese sausage wrapped in rice paper) and two more 450-ml bottles of Bia Ha Noi. 

from Wikimedia Commons
Okay, I'm stopping there. I'll tell you about the rest of this evening, and boarding the express train to Saigon, in the next entry. 

first night in Hanoi

Picture, if you will, a pale blue sky crowded with wispy, windblown cumulonimbus clouds, through which the brassy sun glitters down upon the late-afternoon haze below. 

The landscape is flatter than a chessboard. Hemmed in by cracked concrete dikes, the muddy brown Red River and its little children wind their way through an endless series of neon-green rice paddies on their way to join the Thái Binh River and satisfy the Gulf of Tonkin's endless thirst. 

Amid this sea of green are odd sights: clumps of areca palm and banana trees, their broad leaves flapping in the breeze like drowsy birds' wings; French colonial manor houses, their yellow ochre walls and white columns clashing incongruously with the overflowing verdure of the surrounding countryside; and fat water buffalo—their legs, bellies, backs and snouts coated with a slimy veneer of mud, snot, and saliva—wallowing indolently in ponds or slogging through soggy fields.

Running like a seam through this idyllic scene is a broad, straight expanse of ancient asphalt.  Trucks, cars, buses, and an overwhelming plethora of scooters—some crammed with as many as five passengers, including unrestrained infants—zip to and fro along this highway. This, then, was the 34-kilometer stretch of the Bac Thăng Long - Noi Bai expressway between Noi Bai Airport and Hanoi's Old Quarter, which I traveled late in the afternoon on July 13th. 

I got off the plane and made it through immigration. As I'd predicted, I was immediately accosted by a taxi driver. He was a skinny man of unimpressive height and unassuming appearance, with manic eyes and an energetic demeanor, clad in a light blue short-sleeved work shirt, slacks, and sandals with black socks. He called himself Mr. Anh. He quoted me a price of $20 American for a cab ride to the Hanoi Asia Star Hotel in the Old Quarter. I demurred. I was determined not to be suckered during this trip, as I had on so many others. I sat and tried fruitlessly to get the Noi Bai Airport wifi to work on Miss H's iPad while Mr. Anh sat next to me and fidgeted. Eventually he agreed to drop the price to $18. I computed the exchange rate and figured that was about as good as I was going to get. The triumphant Anh and I left the terminal building and weaved our way through the throng of less courageous taxi drivers to Anh's hot-pink conveyance. We got in, and Mr. Anh swung the car onto an unpaved dirt road which led out of the airport and onto the expressway. 

Dirt roads? I wondered silently. 

Anh was a great one for conversation. At first I had difficulty discerning that I was indeed not in Korea. I was asked all the usual questions: where was I from, where I was going, how long would I be in Vietnam, and all that sort of thing. Wherever I roam I'm always delighted by how curious the Asian people are about foreigners, no matter what their governments say about us. I'm afraid I wasn't much of a conversationalist, though. I was too busy fretting that I'd paid too much for the ride, feeling sleepy after my horrendous transfer fiasco in China, and trying to soak up the amazing scenes outside the window.

After 40 minutes we rolled into the northern outskirts of Hanoi. The rice paddies gave way to crumbling, weather-stained concrete buildings
—or the skeletons of buildings—into which people had crammed the meager implements of their lives: steel bowls, wicker baskets, rusty bicycles, plastic chairs and stools, laundry on lines, flowerbeds under windows. Heaps of gravel and piles of rubbish adorned the narrow, dark alleys and uneven gutters. Lean-ribbed stray dogs sniffed among them for sustenance. Shirtless, bony, olive-skinned men lounged in doorways and smoked, while their women washed or cooked or arranged goods in shop windows. Boys—their hair uniformly buzz-cut—ran around kicking beanbags or roughhousing. Wheezing, droning scooters ran hither and thither without rhyme or reason. What few four-wheeled vehicles there were looked swamped and half-drowned, like buffalo in a rain-swollen river. 

Anh—who by this time had learned to keep his mouth shut—turned off the freeway and directed his tiny pink cab into the madness of the Old Quarter. I'd thought some of the older Korean neighborhoods could be narrow and dark, but I hadn't seen anything like this place. The streets were just wide enough for a compact car. People walked in the gutters because the sidewalks were choked with heaps of garbage, shopkeepers' wares, and clumps of parked scooters. Shabby convenience stores, scooter garages, souvenir shops, cafés, and greasy spoons jockeyed for position in each tiny alley, all of which seemed to connect as though this neighborhood had been planned and built by a legion of sentient spiders. They'd trapped a lot of flies, that's for sure: I saw foreigners everywhere. Tall, svelte, blonde-haired European university students (and their dumpy, frumpy parents), tattooed American hipsters, suntanned Australian youths, oily backpackers, fresh-faced and hairless urban adventurers. It made me sick just to look at them. 

I actually only had 15 American dollars. I gave them to Mr. Anh and paid him the rest in Vietnamese dong. Making some later calculations in my room, I discovered that I'd given him approximately $5 US in dong, rounding out his asked-for price of $20 after all. Oh well. He was a nice guy and didn't take any detours. 

I kicked the door to the cab open, slung my ten-ton backpack over my shoulder, and entered the lobby of the Hanoi Asia Star. It amazes me how Asian entrepreneurs manage to cram their sundry shopfronts and boutiques and businesses onto a lot the average American would consider fit for a victory garden. The hotel had about ten or twelve rooms, each of which was about 344 square feet. Nothing too small, but when you consider that they'd stuck the whole place onto a lot that couldn't have been much more than 900 feet square, it becomes quite a feat. 

I got checked in and collapsed in my room. I'd had about a 90 minutes of sleep in the last 36 hours. Darkness was falling fast and I was hungry. To allay both these problems I changed clothes and, despite heat and humidity that resembled a giant warm-blooded amoeba trying to absorb and digest me Blob-style, I strode a few hundred meters west to the night market.


I was bitterly disappointed. Once again I felt like I was back in Korea. I saw nothing but cheap knock-offs of Western products, poorly-made souvenirs, gaudy baubles, hackneyed gift ideas, and fashion disasters. The food pickings were likewise pretty slim. Unlike Korea, however, the hawkers didn't just stand behind their stalls and call out to you: they hired underage boys to jump into your path and shove a laminated menu under your nose. This happened to me twice: prepubescent, crop-haired youths in jeans and tennis shoes leaped out of nowhere with English menus in their hands, flicking them with their fingers in precisely the same way that a fleshmonger on Las Vegas Boulevard would do with his smutty business cards. Free-market capitalism, even with reminders of the country's nominal political stance in the background:


After a bit of wandering I located a street-corner restaurant. I don't know how else to describe it. A wispy shrimp of a woman, her skin brown and covered with a shiny film of sweat and cooking grease, stood at an open-air kitchen, surrounded by billowing steam and the entrancing smell of charcoal. Short metal tables (only two feet off the ground) and the omnipresent blue plastic stools were arranged under an awning up against the wall of an adjoining building, and here were seated a bewildering array of locals and foreigners.  Teenage boys flitted among them, delivering giant bottles of Bia Ha Noi and plates of steaming food. The smells
—and, I'll confess, the sight of other foreigners—drew me in. I found an empty stool next to an attractive and well-dressed young Vietnamese couple and sat there in the sweltering heat, my linen shirt stuck to my back and the blue bandanna on my forehead dripping sweat into my eyes. I ordered the pigeon-heart-and-gizzard pho and an oozing bottle of Bia Ha Noi. 

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I crave your attention. For here, after sweating my balls off all evening and stepping over heaps of garbage and refuse on the way...this was the point at which I started falling in love with Vietnam. 

I got an enormous plate of delicious pigeon-heart-and-gizzard pho with noodles, a mint salad, and a 450-ml bottle of Bia Ha Noi...for less than five dollars. Stuffing yourself with delicious food for next to nothing, ladies and gentlemen, is happiness. I didn't take any pictures...sorry. I set out on this journey with a set of ironclad rules which gradually got looser and looser as the miles went by. One of these rules was "absolutely NO food selfies." I'll tell you the others later. 

As I was waiting for dinner to arrive, the cute Vietnamese couple next to me started talking to me. The young lady introduced herself as Jenny. She was from Ho Chi Minh City, and her boyfriend was from some remote province in the south. They were both up in Hanoi on holiday, sampling the local cuisine. Jenny asked me the same questions Mr. Anh had: name, rank, posting. I, in turn, asked how they'd met and what jobs they did. The boyfriend didn't speak much English, so Jenny did all the talking. She worked in an office and made good money, and her boyfriend was trying to get a job in the city so he could move away from his crappy job in the sticks and they could save up enough to get married. They'd managed to scrape together enough for this trip, though. They were mostly here for the food, for (as I was to be reminded many times during this journey) the culinary differences between North and South Vietnam are many and variegated. 

The pivotal moment came when I asked Jenny what advice she might have for me, a wet-behind-the-ears tourist who'd never been to Vietnam  before. She gave me a mile-wide grin and said "Get out of Hanoi!"  

No problem, I thought. I have a train to catch at 11:00 p.m. tomorrow night.  

Monday, August 18, 2014

a brief glimpse of Nanning

There really isn't much to say about the remainder of my journey through China on July 13th. I managed—just barely—to make my connection in Kunming at around four o'clock. Even so had the flight not been delayed, I'd have missed it. As I sprinted through the airy, crowded, never-ending concourse I found myself wishing that I could've taken photos of this amazing airport and the mist-shrouded, awe-inspiring mountains surrounding it. 

The transfer at Nanning was annoying. I had to go through security for the fourth freakin' time. The airport was ancient, the roof leaky, the rafters rusty, the X-ray machines antique, the employees confused and overawed by the sudden influx of people, and the rain warm, heavy, and wet. It came bucketing down on us during our bus transfers to and from the terminal as though to give us a little preview of Indochina. 

Let's just say that I got in to Hanoi in the late afternoon after the last hour-long hop across the Vietnamese border. I peered hawkishly out of the porthole and saw a fair verdant country dotted with stands of banana trees, hummocky hills with tousled hair, and rice paddies the color of chai. It didn't look too different from Korea from the air, just wetter. 

What really astounded me were the clouds: heaps of low-lying cumulonimbus, heavily pregnant with rain and choking up the airways at 10,000 feet. Spires, pillars, minarets, enormous castles with crenelated keeps and battlements, men-o'-war with all sails flying, puffy white battleships with jagged conning towers, swirls of ice cream with Reddi-wip on top, thundering stampedes of gout-stricken buffalo and cancerous bull rhinos in full gallop. I saw all these shapes and more in the packed skies as we descended into Hanoi.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Seoul to Shanghai

Well, it's Saturday and I'm sitting here in my boxer shorts, hungry and bleary-eyed. My journals are sitting in a heap near my elbow and haven't been updated since we got back from Hong Kong. I have to go get cat litter at some point today and start packing up the guest room for reasons I shall make apparent at the proper time. 

Time to start telling you about my massive 3.5-week trip through Southeast Asia, I guess.

Travel Truth #1: When it comes to cheap flights on cheap airlines, you get what you pay for.

China's answer to Singapore's Scoot and Ireland's Ryanair is China Eastern. I don't know if they intended it to be that way, but it is. For a pittance they'll fly your ass all over the eastern Orient. I booked them for a flight from Seoul to Hanoi, Vietnam, on the 12th of July. To get the best deal, though, I had to accept an eleven-hour overnight layover in Shanghai, a four-hour layover in Kunming, and a mere 40-minute layover in Nanning before the final hop to Vietnam. 

Not the most desirable itinerary, right? There was a silver lining, though. Shanghai has this thing called 72-hour visa-free transit, wherein the Chinese government—in a rare moment of magnanimity—decided to allow foreigners from 51 countries enter the cities of Beijing, Chongqing, Chengdu, Shanghai, or Guangzhou (formerly known as Canton) for 72 hours without a visa during long layovers. What's more, I happened to have a friend in Shanghai, a hip-hop-loving New Zealander named Larry whom I knew through a mutual friend in Busan. Why not go see him and drink a few beers? Shanghai was on CNN's list of Asia's best pours, after all. And you know how I love me some craft brew.

There was a five-hour delay in my flight from Gimpo, which meant Miss H and I sat around the tiny terminal snacking on fast food and staring into each other's (crusty, bloodshot) eyes. But at eleven o'clock I finally made it off the ground. What with the time difference I landed in Shanghai at midnight (one o'clock p.m. Seoul time). I managed to get messages to Larry so he wasn't sitting around the arrival gate at Shanghai's Hongqiao Airport for four hours. He met me in due course and we grabbed a cab to the Huangpu District (Fuxing Middle Road) to have a sip at Boxing Cat Brewery.

Wikipedia's free image of the Huangpu District. That's the People's Park in the middle. 
Photo courtesy of Pilsgrimage, which did a rather lovely write-up about this place. 

Hailed as the best craft brew in China, Boxing Cat is ideally located. Huangpu used to be where all the foreign concessions were in Shanghai, and there are still a lot of foreigners living there, Shanghai being an economic powerhouse and all. Amusingly, all the brews were named in pugilistic terms: Right Hook Helles (4.5% ABV), Contender Extra Pale Ale (4.9% ABV), Suckerpunch Pale Ale (5.5% ABV), TKO India Pale Ale (6.3% ABV), etc. All heavy on the hops but hey, that's the trend. I like the maltier and wheatier beers better, but I appreciate me some hops now and then. 

Larry and I sipped a couple of tall cold ones and got caught up with each other. He'd been a teacher in Busan alongside Adam (the English mate I was going to see in Ho Chi Minh City) but he'd since moved to Shanghai, where the living was easier and the pickings were better. We shied away from politics and whatnot and focused mostly on how we'd been doing in the two or three years since we'd seen each other. The beer was good and the music was quiet, but it was already 1:00 a.m. We'd barely ordered the second round before the waitress informed us of last call. 

Now, I was already pouring sweat by the time we got to Boxing Cat. I thought Seoul got hot and humid in summer, but I'd clearly forgotten my roots: the five years I spent in the jungles of East Tennessee and the visits we made to my paternal grandparents' house near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Shanghai was even worse, a greenhouse even at midnight. After Boxing Cat slammed the door on our backs, we decided to hike through the quiet, steamy streets to find a new watering hole, and there's me with a 30-pound pack on my back in umpteen billion percent humidity and 85-degree heat. 

Wikipedia's photo of the Luwan neighborhood of Huangpu (the old French concession), the area Larry and I were traipsing through...only a lot darker and steamier. You could see the dang humidity. It filled the throat, clogged the nostrils and formed a sticky slime on the skin.

Not a breath of a breeze disturbed the filmy fog as we trudged through the damp streets to the Shanghai Brewery on Hongmei Road. This place was bigger and much better air-conditioned, resembling a proper beer hall. The brews didn't have the same depth of flavor as Boxing Cat's did, but man, the price was better. Here Larry and I talked and joked and chafed until four o'clock in the morning. The time difference really comes in handy: there was a football (soccer) game on the big projector at the front of the room. Never too late (or too early) for sports over here in the Orient. 

Larry, unbeknownst to me, had work in the morning (!), so he said adieu and good night at this juncture. He got me a cab back to Hongqiao—Terminal 1, as it happened. The international terminal. I needed Terminal 2, the domestic one, as I'd be hopping through two more Chinese airports before finally making Vietnam.

Well, I didn't know the layout of Hongqiao Airport, did I? I assumed the cabbie had dropped me off in the right spot. It was only five o'clock in the morning and check-ins for flights didn't even start up for another few hours. I spent most of the wee hours of the morning of July 13th wandering around the terminal trying to find a spot to nap. The competition was fierce. 

After a while I found an empty corner and got an hour's sleep. I woke up at six—just 80 minutes before my flight to Kunming left. It was then that the ominous warning Larry had given last night rang home: 

The cabbie might take you to Terminal 1

I needed Terminal 2! Que lástima! 

I scrambled to get on the inter-terminal bus, which, I was warned, would take 20 minutes. Indeed, I was shocked by how far apart the terminals were. To my foggy, hung-over brain, it was as though we'd completely left the airport and driven to a new one. You may well imagine me with my damp, sweaty clothes and unwashed hair, peering out at the muggy grey light of an overcast Shanghai morning, drumming my fingers and tapping my sandaled feet with impatience. 

I dashed off the bus and into the much larger and newer Terminal 2 and my heart sank. The lines were out the door. I shoved my way through to the automated check-in machines and tried to clock in, but the damn thing wouldn't let me. I kept getting an error message. It was already 6:45 and my flight left at 7:20. Desperate, I made my way to the service counter—and the incoherent crowd of people grouped around it—to revise my ticket. I figured it was all up with my original flight, so I planned to claim that I'd missed it and ask to be put on a later flight. I had a four-hour layover in Kunming, so as long as the Chinese were efficacious I could still be there and make my flight to Nanning in good time. 

IF the Chinese were efficacious, that is.

Efficacy, however, is not something for which the Chinese are renowned. The throng at Hongqiao was atrocious. White-shirted, black-tied clerks scrambled behind the help desk, peered over each other's shoulders at computers, ran to get supervisors, held up their hands to appease the madding crowd. The crowd in question had no rhyme or reason to it. There were no clear lines, just a muddled press of ill-tempered human bodies. The crush got so bad that one tiny Chinese man with short-cropped hair and a red-striped shirt climbed on top of his heaped luggage cart, cupped his hands to his mouth, and began to shout: 


He repeated this about seventeen times. I know this because I happened to have a lovely middle-aged Chinese-American woman behind me with bobbed black-dyed hair and a bit too much purple eye shadow who translated for me. Her flight had been canceled and she needed a new one. She'd lived in Los Angeles for decades and was a well-established realtor. She chattered a few rapid words to the fish-faced clerk when the two of us finally battled our way to the counter, back-to-back like a master-and-pupil duo in a kung fu movie. Everything was peachy-keen after that. The harried, wall-eyed fellow behind the counter slashed a pen across a slip of paper, handed it to me, and told me to go check in at the China Eastern counter. I wished my matron good luck, and then went and waited in line a further 45 minutes—during which my original flight boarded and took off without me, or so I believed—got checked in, went through security, and was on a plane to Kunming before I knew it. 

(I later discovered that I needn't have panicked about getting to Terminal 2 on time. My original flight from Shanghai to Kunming had been canceled. Expedia sent an e-mail to my inbox, but as I hadn't been able to check it since Gimpo, I missed the memo. I would have had to do the exact same malarkey—wait in that crazy, amorphous line and check in at the front counter—that I did anyway, only I could have done it in far less of a hurry. C'est la vie, as they say in Huangpu.)