Getting Around in Vietnam

Posted in Mixed Nuts on January 3rd, 2009 by MadDog
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In Hanoi, I was following Lonely Planet’s guide carefully. The atmosphere when I was there several years ago was slightly intimidating. There were cops or military looking people on every street corner. I was careful where I pointed my camera. I was also uncertain about travel methods. Nobody could tell me anything. I stayed away from cyclos and motorbikes. Therefore, getting around in Hanoi consisted mostly of walking if it wasn’t too far or taking a taxi if it was.

When I left Hanoi, I decided to take a train to Hoi An. I’ve always preferred train travel to anything else. It’s usually cheaper, you get to see more, and it’s not so tiring. I’d take two days on a train to ten hours on a plane anytime.

The train from Hanoi to Hoi An was an overnight run. Foreigners could not travel by coach, but had to take a compartment. I thought this was a good deal until I realized, upon boarding, that I shared the compartment with three other people, none of whom spoke English.

Fortunately, there was plenty of interesting scenery out the window to keep me amused:

Shooting through the window - a train tunnel on the way from Hanoi to Hoi An

At each little station, there were vendors selling all sorts of snack items. I tried a few, but was disappointed. Since I couldn’t read anything, each package contained a little surprise. I was unable to even recognise most of the items. Even some items that looked like candy tasted like dead fish. If fact, after a while, everything tasted like fish:

Lots of goodies at the train stations, but if you can't read, the packets are full of surprises

By morning, I was pretty hungry. A little old woman came down the isle with a big trolley carrying a giant cauldron of vegetable soup. It was delicious; I motioned for more. She gave me a frown, but ladled it out anyway.

I noticed a guy in uniform walking up and down the isle in the dining/bar carriage who seemed to be eyeing me with suspicion. He stopped and sat down in front of me and gave me that blank look that says, “I’m waiting for you to explain yourself.”

The engineer of the train from Hanoi to Hoi An, Vietnam

I did what any cagey old hippy would do. I handed him a cigar (you can see him asserting possession of it). As it turned out, he was the engineer of the train. He was taking a break and checking for suspicious persons. I guess I was a standout.

He turned out to be quite friendly. He even suggested that I might return to the locomotive with him and snap some photos. We talked for a while and then he got up to leave. I started to follow him. He said, “Where are you going?” When I said I was following him to the front of the train, he said, “NO! That is forbidden!” Go figure.

After my stay in Hoi An, I decided that the train wasn’t for me. I was running out of time anyway. Taking a plane would give me an extra day in Saigon.

As I waited in the airport lounge, I took a shot at some American women travelling together. A little conversation wouldn’t hurt, I thought. I realized that I hadn’t had a genuine conversation in English for over a week. I think I frightened them, because they absolutely refused to talk to me:

The airport lounge at Hoi An

I continued to gather my courage to get on a Vietnamese airliner. I had no idea what to expect. When I walked out on the tarmac and saw the plane, I thought, “That doesn’t look so bad.”

Vietnam Airlines - "We're Not As Scary As We Sound"

It got me safely to Saigon.

After a couple of days walking around and taking taxis again, I was tired. I must have walked a hundred miles already in Hanoi. I noticed this one cyclo driver who stuck around the entrance of my hotel. Unlike others, he never hassled me for business. I stood close by him for a few minutes and finally said something stupid like, “Nice cyclo, man.” He introduced himself and pulled out a packet of endorsements, photos, emails, and letters from probably twenty former clients. I was so impressed (and tired) that I decided to give him a try:Quang, the cyclo driver - Saigon

His name is Quang. It was the best decision I made while travelling in Vietnam. He took me anywhere that I wanted to go, day or night – at least the places he said were safe. He got me good deals on things that I bought. I know he went back for his cut later, but the prices were still better than I could haggle. He found some guys that were selling Cuban cigars for a decent price. He said that he was happy to have me for a client because I didn’t ask him to take me to prostitutes. I guess he gets a lot of that.

After the trial day, I had about four days left. I made a deal with Quang to haul me around for the next four days and paid him twice what he asked. We were both very happy with the arrangement.

Quang was one of the millions that were forced to leave the city completely deserted after the “American War” had been won. By the way, don’t bother to see it any other way while you’re in Vietnam. You’ll be all alone. He was not allowed to come back to the city for five years.

Here you can see my somewhat-less-tired feet , My Lonely Planet guide, and imagine Quang peddaling like crazy behind me:

Travelling in style in Saigon

I’d love to get back to Vietnam again someday. There’s so much that I missed.

When I’m in Saigon, I’m going to find Quang.

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Hanoi – Caught Between Two Worlds

Posted in Mixed Nuts, Opinions on December 23rd, 2008 by MadDog
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It took me nearly twenty years to decide that I wanted to actually go to Vietnam. It was a sort of pilgrimage. Having spent years in the National Guard flying Hueys to avoid going there, it felt slightly hypocritical to suddenly want to go. Nevertheless, I had a lot of ghosts to lay to rest. Eunie and I have estimated that about a third of my pilot training course at Fort Wolters, Texas either didn’t make it back or were so adversely affected by the experience that their “Pursuit of Happiness” guaranteed by the constitution of the country that sent them to war was forever thwarted.

Here’s the view of Hanoi from my window at the Hanoi Horison Hotel. It was super-swanky and it cost me US$89 a night. I couldn’t believe it:

View from the Hanoi Horison Hotel

Absolutely nothing was as I expected in Hanoi. I don’t know what I expected, but what I got wasn’t it. I remember coming in on the plane to Hanoi. As I looked out the window at the thousands and thousands of bomb craters stretching from horizon to horizon, I started crying like a baby. It was a kind of catharsis, I suppose. It was also one of the more embarrassing moments of my life. I hadn’t even gotten off the plane yet and I was already attracting far too much attention to myself – something that I’d hoped to avoid.

I’m a little chicken-hearted when it comes to saying things here that might hurt someone. I guess it’s because I’m getting old – the testosterone level is blessedly diminishing. This time, I’ll take the risk. Can anybody tell me anything good that came out of that war? Did it kill Communism? Don’t be ridiculous. Communism died quietly in its sleep. Did it make America look good? Come on . . . Exactly what did all that suffering of every imaginable kind accomplish?

Try to find a Communist in Vietnam today. I can just about guarantee that there are none in this photo of a typical street scene:

Hanoi street scene

When I was getting ready to go, I contacted the Vietnam Helicopter Pilot’s Association. I left a message on their bulletin board explaining briefly the situation and the reason for my trip. I said that if anybody wanted to send me a small item that I could carry from Hanoi to Saigon that I would then return it. It seems now a ridiculous offer. I got one response. It was from a guy whose email address begins with dou4free as in “Do you for free.” If you’re not up on American slang from that era, let me tell you that “Do you” can mean kill you.

The poor fellow actually threatened me if I went to Vietnam. After a couple of increasingly angry emails from him, I told him that I was not willing to feed his rage any longer and I blocked his address. This is what war – especially one so damaging to human dignity as Vietnam – can do to people.

I want to believe that his attitude was not typical of the approximately 8,000 dues-paid members of the Association. (That’s out of 40,000 – yes that’s right, forty thousand – helicopter pilots that served in Vietnam.) That’s what I want to believe.

Hey, this is getting way too preachy. Let’s look at some images:

An astonishing scene - only a few motorbikes in sight in Hanoi

As it is throughout most of Southeast Asia, the motorbike is king. Though there are not nearly so many in Hanoi as in Saigon, there is one thing that they all have in common. They are powered by their horns. It is impossible to escape the sound of honking motorbike horns night or day.

(Okay, so it’s Ho Chi Minh city, but there is a part of it that is still called Saigon. I will use Saigon and, if you please, you may substitute Ho Chi Minh City.)

It has always amused me that Communism tried mightily to beat the religion out of people and so utterly failed. Apparently, it can’t be done. Shrines and temples everywhere decorate Hanoi:

One of the many beautiful temples in Hanoi

This has gone on long enough, so let me show you one of my favourite photos from Vietnam:

Is there a message here?

There’s something in this image that’s trying to whisper a message to my heart. I wonder if I’ll live long enough to hear it.

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Coming Attractions

Posted in Mixed Nuts on December 15th, 2008 by MadDog
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As you may have gathered by now, my ghostly computer is posting these articles in my absence while I’m away on Miss Rankin doing some very interesting dives until the 18th.

Before I left, I started working on photos that I took about six years ago in Vietnam (yes, I’m that far behind).

Here’s a little street-scene teaser from Hanoi:

Hanoi street scene

I’d go back to Vietnam at the drop of a hat. Having escaped it during the war (National Guard – yes, I’m one of those), I was able enjoy it nearly completely. I’ll explain the exceptions later.

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