Saturday, October 17, 2009

Three Little Words

Friday, June 12, 2009
Hanoi, Vietnam

Three Little Words

After reading Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love" in preparation for
our stopoff in Bali, Indonesia - the next cultural hubbub on the
itinerary - Ari and I spent the day debating the three words to best
describe our experience in Vietnam, for unlike Gilbert, we felt that
one word alone would not do the country justice...The words we chose
most certainly have a negative tone, and had we'd the time to visist
elsewhere in Vietnam -- for instance, the trekking mecca of Sapa in the
north of the clotheshorses' fantasyland of Hoian in the central plain
-- we might have chosen words with positive connotations...After this
buildup, you're probably wondering what the terrible "three words"
could be...let me explain.

We flew into Noi Bai Airport in the capital city of Hanoi on the
eve of June 7th, and were greeted by a hot and humid, bustling and
chaotic, old-city. Thankfully (and in much better preparation than our
arrival in other cities), we'd pre-arranged accomodation and airport
pick-up with the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel...for we had been forewarned
about the abundance of airport taxi and hotel scams. After all, in
Vietnam there are no copyright laws which means that there are
literally ten-identical copies of every successful business and hotel,
usually located directly next door to or across the street from the
original. Not only does this make it difficult for unsuspecting
visitors to differentiate between the original and the copy store for
instance, but the plethora of copycat-business inevitability leads to
very intricate scams...that we did not want to become witness to!

Mayhem: Our drive from the airport into the city takes place at
sunset, and over the next 35 km, our driver explains that there are 7
million people in Hanoi and 6 million motorbikes. Indeed, motorbikes
zoom past us on all sides of the vehicle, blocking us in in a sort of
motorized brigade into the city center. Horns blare loudly as cars and
trucks try to recapture their authority on the street...and not run
over any motorbikes (or pedestrians) in the process. The smog hangs
low over the city, and (cliche as it sounds) makes for a beautiful
red-orange sunset against the dark, city skyline. We drive past an
arc-de-triumph, which looks strange and out-of-place amidst the clutter
of old (and colorful) buildings...Then we are in the city, surrounded
on either side by mock-designer stores...Dolce & Gabbana, Prada,
Armani...and on every street corner, there is a small "pho" noodle-soup
stand, complete with short, plastic chairs and make-shift tables for
the evening's customers.

Agression: We spend our first day in Hanoi exploring the old-quarter.
Our mapping-out of the area is a slow (and strenuous) activity as the
sidewalks have been converted into parking areas (and temporary
garages) for motorbikes, forcing us to walk in the streets and dodge
traffic. We hold our bags close, as every female staying in our dorm
room has stories to share of being robbed and some have even been
mugged at knife-point. Nice city, hey? We manage to find the markets,
but a vegetarian restaurant proves to be a more difficult task...and
even then, we order vegetarian spring rolls (as is written on the menu)
and they bring an appetizer with succulent shrimp and chicken! Unlike
Thailand and Laos, vegetarianism is a rare concept; especially when one
can indulge in such specialities as snake blood and dog. Near the lake
in the center of the city, we encounter the water puppet theatre and
purchase two tickets for the 8pm performance. On our way "home" from
the show, I am accosted by an elderly woman who shoves her wooden
shoulder-pole at my throat, backing me up against the glass storefront,
"You buy peanuts, two-dollars." I push her away, and yell "khong" or
"no;" I don't yet know how to say, "get away from me!" Aggression.

Humidity: After surviving one-day in Hanoi city, these island girls
decide they need to get away, to find water and a sea breeze! We book
a 3-day, 2-night boat cruise to Ha Long Bay on the hostel's boat, The
Jolly Roger. The cruise is named, "Rock Long, Rock Hard" and that is
exactly what we plan to do. We set out from Hanoi on Tuesday morning,
8am; it is already smoldering hot and although the bus is
"air-conditioned," I regret my decision to adorn long pants. It's too
early to be sweating...After nearly four hours on the road, we can
begin to see the limestone outcroppings of Ha Long Bay in the
distance...The bus pulls up alongside the "tourist wharf" -- we're
embarrassed to be using this wharf, not to mention that we've all been
made to wear flourescent, sombrero hats (is this Mexico?) -- and we
boat-taxi out to the Jolly Roger. There are 36 of us and the boat
sleeps 35 max, not including rooms for the crew and our Aussie guide;
all in all, the boat is packed but we're a solid group and nobody seems
to mind. We spent the afternoon alternating between kayaking (through
water-passageways and caves) and jumping off the side of the boat (into
the refreshing, cool water 25 feet below). No "injuries" were
sustained until our improntu evening swim, when the top of my bathing
suit broke right-off. The situation might have gotten even more
embarrassing had Ari not heard my distress-call and thrown a t-shirt
overboard...having to be towed-in against the strong current by a group
of intoxicated young men (while holding my swim-top up!) was hilarious
enough (in hindsight). Our vegetarian dinner consisted of, waittttttt:
rice, cabbage and the main, peanuts! and was followed by a rowdy game
of Yee-haw introduced by Team Canada (including yours truely). The
following day, we go trekking straight-up a rock face on the island of
Cat Ba. We all agree, we've never sweat so much in our life --
attractive. Maybe it was due to our team "sweat-a-thon" this
afternoon, but we find ourselves drawn to Cat Ba Beach III after a
relaxing dinner (and massage from roaming street masseuses). It is
quite dark on the seemingly private beach, and we go for a group swim
in the moonlight surrounded only by the limestone cliffs that lead down
to the sea. I'm in heaven...and I really don't know how it can get
much better than this!

The return to Hanoi was too quick, and we find ourselves utterly
exhausted from the trip. We allow ourselves one day of resting,
catching up on our reading and enjoying a leisurely lunch (from the
grocery store) near the hostel. As our time in Vietnam comes to a
close, we load-up our backpacks (which have now come to include a third
"travel bag" of random nicknacks) and head to the airport. In
Gilbert's book, she travels to Indonesia for one word: love. Although
this is not exactly what we are seeking, we board the plane optimistic.

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