The first week in October China celebrates National Day, the anniversary of the founding of the Peoples Republic of China. Their equivalent of our 4th of July, except where the US only gets one day they get an entire week. We planned to visit Vietnam as a family, we had some old friends from Cache Valley who lived in Hanoi (Stan and Nga) and they said October was one of the best times to visit.
We booked tickets through Ctrip to Hanoi connecting through Honk Kong and then made our in country plans for Hanoi and Hoi An, south of Da Nang. As the holiday approach Stac’s parents health deteriorated. Emilie ended up in the hospital with a bladder infection and gall stones and Roy’s gall bladder and congenital heart failure continued to worsen. They entered a care facility and three weeks before travel day we got a call from Craig who said the doctor had told Roy that he had 2 weeks to 2 months to live. Stac made the decision to travel home to see her Dad, say goodbye and take care of arrangements. I stayed behind to play Mr Mom and we sadly canceled Stac’s Vietnam ticket and bought her a ticket to the States.
Saturday of the flight was a bright sunny blue sky day that is rare in Beijing but more likely in late September. We put the last of our things in our backpacks, called Stac on Skype and headed to the airport with Mr Wang. As we eventually arrived at our gate the attendants told us we be delayed taking off by 20 minutes due to a late arrival. After boarding we sat on the runway another 10 waiting in line for a spot on the runway. All told we were 30 minutes late departing and this meant our one hour layover in Hong kong between flights was going to be tight. With no control we kicked back to enjoy the 3 hr and 15 minute flight to the fragrant habor. We flew Dragon Air a Hong Kong airline and they were impressive, clean, courteous and some of the best airplane food I’ve ever tasted. The kids especially liked the Haegen Daaz ice cream for dessert. There maybe direct flights to Hanoi but if you can’t get those I recommend taking Dragon Air.
Enroute the pilot was able to make up a few minutes and we landed at 5:20; we taxied for 10 agonizing minutes and finally arrived at the gate. We were at row 45 in the last 1/4th of the plane. Finally we exited the ramp and a short stewardess was waiting at the gate exit holding a sign for our Vietnam flight. She had a large group of 15 people or so behind her; she asked for our boarding passes, checked our names on a list and then put a sticker on our shirts. She turned to the group and said in halting English : “The flight leaves soon we have to walk quickly.”. She then turned and started a very fast walk/slow trot a fellow passenger said “I guess she meant run”. We all set off trying to keep up and follow her as we weaved in and out of other travelers who weren’t on such tight schedules.
We must have sped walked for at least a quarter mile. While running through the airport following the sprinting stewardess suddenly a small girl ran up beside us and said : “Hi Miles”. A girl from Miles class was on our same flight to Vietnam. Small world in Asia when your traveling on a national holiday. We got through security and waited to regroup and then up the escalators and another mad dash through the shops and pedestrians until we shortly came to the gate. 5:55 we had made it with minutes to spare.
The flight was full from Beijing to Hong Kong and Miles and I had sat together while Sofia had her own seat. The flight to Vietnam had the same arrangement. Miles and I were in row 25 and Sofia was in 29. After settling in the stewardess approached me and said Sofi and myself had to switch, row 29 was an exit row and she was too young and small to be responsible for opening the door. So I had to suffer through having 6 inches of extra leg room and hope the kids didn’t fight through the flight.
We landed in Vietnam and after grabbing our bags entered the customs area. Those with a visa went and stood in line. In doing research on-line for a visa I’d come across a visa upon arrival process. I had filed with a site who provides paperwork online and after paying $25 vi paypal I was emailed an attachment to print off and bring with me in the airport. Seemed a bit fishy, but an email to Stan confirmed the papers looked legit. There was a longish line in front of a counter at a large office with glass windows down it’s length that said Visa upon Arrival. This appeared to be the visa factory, it was about 40 feet long and had 4-5 guys inside in green uniforms. At the other end of the office was another glass window and an even larger crowd gathered.
Typical of most first time travel experiences, your not really sure where to go or what to do. Often these are circumstances where there seem to be no signs or explanations, you are just expected to figure it out. So I stood in the first line and did the standard “see what everyone else is doing.” I had Sofi go get me another set of applications on the counter and started filling out the visa application. Instructions weren’t very clear and now I wondered if I had wasted my money on the email visa. Unsure I attached the copies of the email attachment and waited in line with my visa photos. When I finally got to the counter the gentleman took my passports and all my paperwork and set them in a huge stack of other passports and paperwork. He just pointed down the hallway to the other counter. So I walked down the hallway and in the process observed the visa factory. After taking your passport, they were processed at a station that printed off visa with sequential numbers on the normal visa paper. These were then affixed in the passport. Then the passports were taken across the room to a table with a myriad of stamps and red ink where they were stamped. Then back across the room to another station where a bunch of data was manually typed into an ancient looking printer machine that spit out receipts in triplicate. Then a guy at the counter on the other end showed the passport at the window and the owner paid the visa fee, retrieved their passport and headed for immigration.
The fee was $25 USD, and if you didn’t have USD then it was 200 RMB, at 6.5 exchange rate this is more like $30 USD but they didn’t have change so no choice but to pay. The stack of passports was huge and the crowd waiting just as large. A group of 25 or more Chinese tourists in a tour group all waited. I kept pacing up and down the glass windows in the hallway trying to see the progress of my passports. Finally an hour later they were done and we made for immigration and then found our driver from the hotel waiting for us.
As we drove the 45 minutes from the airport to the old section of Hanoi I was struck by how slower the cars drove in Vietnam. And there were so many motorcycles and scooters; they outnumbered the cars by 10 to 1. And everyone was wearing helmets. Cars in Vietnam are taxed at 100% encouraging everyone to drive scooters instead. There was a flow and rhythm to the scooter traffic as they weaved in and around each other, turning and merging in chaotic ballet where magically no one seemed to crash into each other. When you crossed the road on foot this scooter flow moved around you, you slowly walked into the road and intuitively the scooters lean to the left and right and flow around you as if you’ve some sort of magnetic scooter repellant.
We spent three nights in the old quarter of Hanoi at the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel, one of many small boutique hotels. The old quarter is the original section of the city, with very small narrow lanes; originally 36 streets to buy 36 things : bamboo, wood, metal, fruit etc. The Ruby Hotel was on a very narrow alley Yen Thai Street that was too small for a car to fit down, in between two slightly larger streets. We stayed on the top floor in room 805 which was big enough to accomodate a second single bed for Sofi and Miles and I stayed in the double bed. The room across the hall 801 was a bit smaller but had a balcony and a nice view of the old quarter. The staff were all very friendly, spoke excellent English and the made to order breakfast with crepes and eggs was awesome.
Following my usual pattern of morning outings – I was up before dawn to wander the world before it awakens. This maybe true in America but in Vietnam things are busy at 5 am already. I walked down to Hoa Kiem Lake where by 5:30 am there was already a myriad of people walking around the lake in their early morning exercises. Games of badmitten went on adjacent to women doing dances with their red fans and couples dancing to music from a portable boom box. I was back to the hotel before the kids awoke and after breakfast we headed out to see Ho Chi Minh. I was hoping to cross of my list seeing 2 out of the three embalmed dead communist dictators, but Ho was in Russia for maintenance so we wandered around the memorial seeing the bamboo house he lived in and the very small and disappointing one pillar pagoda (small!). From there we took a pedi-cab through the streets to the Literature temple an old confucian temple with hundreds of stelle and stone turtles celebrating scholars. We then met Stan and Nga and their two children for a delicious lunch.
The next morning I decided to walk down to the Hong Seng River and then up toward the Long Bien bridge. During the Vietnam War the US had tried repeatedly to bomb this bridge. Under the bridge I came across the tail end of a vibrant fresh market that starts at midnight as the boats unload from the river and the goods are dispersed through out the city. I stood with my back against a pillar at the markets gate and watched the hustle and bustle of the traffic. Woman after woman passed me by carrying heavy loads of goods, most on long sticks on their shoulders balanced on either end and some carrying loads on their heads. Not sure what the men in Vietnam do, but they certainly don’t do the heavy lifting. I didn’t see a man carrying anything not once. Some were on scooters but the woman did all the raw power work. On a whim I decided to walk across the Long Bien bridge. There are two small concrete lanes with traffic flowing in either side. Down the middle is a set of train tracks. There are no cars allowed on the bridge, only scooter traffic. On either side of the lanes is a 3-4 ft wide (narrow) sidewalk that is made of rectangular concrete blocks laid in metal frames. There are gaps between each block where you can see down to the river hundreds of feet below. Occasionally a corner is broken off and there is a bit more of the river showing. I walked away from Hanoi across the bridge. There were only a handful of scooters here and there passed me. The river is very wide and the bridge is long. In the middle of the river you can really see the red color of the water and the namesake of the Red River.
On the other side of the bridge I walked to the other side and began the long walk back. Here at 7 am in the middle of rush hour the entire lane was full of scooters and there was a huge page of them waiting to get on the bridge. I walked along the narrow sidewalk and every so often I heard a honk behind me and someone would actually pass me on the walkway on a scooter. As I walked back a train came slowly chugging down the middle tracks. There appear to be no fast trains in Veitnam. Behind the train came a crew working on rail maintenance, tightening bolts and checking the timbers. Finally on the other side I watched from the bridge the flow of scooters merge with the cars and busses. More scooter ballet and chaos as the traffic merged together. That day the kids and I went off to see the Hanoi Hilton, the infamous prison were John McCain was held in prison. The prison is dark and the spooky music they played over the speakers added to the mood. Afterwards we met Stan and Nga at the Lenin Park and had a drink at a local cafe next to the Vietnam Military History Museum. Miles loved wandering among the tanks, planes and helicopters, which were all captured US versions during the war with America. The Vietnamese are very proud to have never lost a war and to have always repelled invaders. (Eventually anyways, the Chinese occupied for quite some time in the Ming Dynasty).
Tuesday we flew into Da Nang in a light rain on local Jetstar Airways. We met the driver from the Palm Garden Resort and rode the 30 minutes down to our hotel outside Hoi An. The Palm Garden lives up to its name with lush gardens set on the ocean. Reminded me a lot of Hawaii. Our room wasn’t quite ready and we went across the street to get some lunch. For $10 US we enjoyed a plate of fried rice, steamed rice, fried noodles and a grilled fresh fish. Back at the hotel we were shown to our deluxe garden room on the second floor; nice fresh, airy and clean. Despite the fact it was raining and cloudy the kids wanted to immediately swim in the pool. I sat under the umbrellas and watched my bit-torrent downloads of US TV while they cavorted in the pool. I remember that feeling when I was a young traveler with my family and swimming in the pool was the best time. Not sure why swimming is anticipated and enjoyed so much by kids but they swam and swam for over two hours. Their swimming lessons at BCIS have paid off and they both completely comfortable in the water. Miles doesn’t even have to get out and wipe his face every 2 minutes when he gets water in his eyes.
Wednesday the kids were up at 7:30, they wore their bathing suits to breakfast and were in the pool by 8 am. After three hours in the pool we went out to the beach were I sat and read Information (not your light vacation reading) while they dug in the sand and played in the surf. We got lucky and the sun came out and the rain seemed to be a thing of the past. After almost 8 hours in the water we showered and went into the city to meet Kari Roe and Steve Saito, who I both work with at Amazon and just happened to be in Vietnam at the same time as us. We walked around the old city of Hoi An, took a ride on the river in a boat (Miles got to drive) and then found a place to have a nice dinner. The crab was especially delicious. I wasn’t that impressed with Hoi An. I’ve been to tourist traps before (YangShuo) but it seemed everything was cookie cutter and everyone was selling the same dribble and crap and everyone seemed to be pushier than they were elsewhere.
Thursday we were up early off to Hoi An, we’d signed up for a motorcycle tour with Hoi An Motorcycle Adventures. Steve and Kari joined and Miles, Sofi and myself. We each had Honda motorcycles which required shifting but had no clutch. We had Pete our guide from Australia, another Vietnamese employee rode his motorcycle with Sofi on back. Miles and I were on another motorcycle and Steve and Kari on their own. We set off through the countryside for the ruins of My Son. We rode on small country lanes through rice fields and villages. The country people were all so beautiful, so genuine, their smiles and “halloos” as we rode by were infectious. At one point we rode down a steep road and came to a stop at a river. Here we waited for a boat to come from the other side. We rode our bikes up on the boat and then were ferried to the opposite side. Pretty cool way to get across a river! From there we rode to an abandoned US air force base : a large black top runway set among huge hillocks where helicopters had once been parked. It was surreal to stop and ponder all the effort, the pain, the suffering that war had wrung so long ago from both sides and now it seemed all for naught.
We rode and stopped for lunch for some noodles and then on again until My Son an ancient burial ground for the Cham Kings. The site was the longest populated ruins in South East Asia from 400 AD to 1300 AD. We peered at that the scrolled script of their ancient writing preserved on stone stele that has never been translated. We wandered through the towers covered in weeds and growing jungle. Afterwards we rode back through the countryside toward Hoi An one final bit of adventure when we rode through a flock of a couple of hundred ducks and then through a river that crossed the road. What a great adventure and a great way to see the countryside of Vietnam, definitely the highlight of the trip for me. Although it was an long 8 hour day and covered 100 km, the kids had a great time and traveled well.
Friday was pool and beach day again. The sun was shining strong as we swam in the pool and then played in the surf. Miles had on his googles and was fearless. He’d dive under the crashing waves and then raise his arms triumphantly smiling and cheering. Other times he’d let the waves hit him squarely in the chest and knock him down. As the sun set on the beach, it was pretty much a perfect day (except we were missing Stac) and a great closing to our time in Vietnam.
Saturday was an early and long travel day as our flight left Da Nang at 6 am, which mean’t a 4:15 am departure from the hotel. Our flight from Hanoi left for Hong Kong at 10 am and we finally arrived back home in Beijing at 1:00 pm where we headed straight for Din Tai Fung for a lunch of dumplings!