This time I got to work in Hanoi before going to Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi is in the north of the long narrow country, and HCMC is in the south 1,000 miles away. The country is like an “S” between the rest of SEA and the South China Sea. I didn’t bother to look up weather, thinking it would be the same as HCMC, but it was actually in the 70s (Fahrenheit) and rained a little bit. A welcome change, after being hot for several weeks in Thailand and HCMC.
The two most interesting parts about the ten hour journey to Hanoi were dropping the motorcycle off in Chiang Mai, and the taxi ride once I arrived. Air travel is starting to feel much safer than other alternatives in SEA, even after being on an airline that is banned in most European and Asian countries because of “safety”. I even hesitate to tell you what I did. Just keep it between us and don’t tell my parents, okay? Broc and I discussed how I was going to get to the airport, and we agreed that I could fit my bag where my feet go, just like his motorcycle driver did recently while shuttling us between hotels. However we didn’t actually measure it, and I didn’t leave myself the extra hour I would need to drop the bike off, return to the condo, then get a taxi to the airport. Plus, the bike shop owner was known to be out whenever we needed him most, and you never really know what time a taxi driver is going to show up (if they can even find our condo.) The problem was that the bag didn’t fit between the seat and the handlebars/steering column. Without a way to strap it to the seat behind me, I was forced to balance the heavy suitcase between my stomach and the handlebars. I also couldn’t take the back roads, because I couldn’t turn easily, and there are a ton of tight turns that way, and blind corners to boot. And intersections where people don’t stop. I had to take the “freeway”. (At home we’d justs call it a main road, since most people drive about thirty miles per hour and drivers are considerate in Chiang Mai.) But still, very dangerous, and not something I’d ever repeat. By some miracle I make it to the bike shop, and even managed to get a workout on the way from trying to steer and balance the bag. The bike shop owner is there as he promised, and my prearranged taxi driver shows up only about ninety seconds after I’m ready in our agreed upon spot, and I make my flight in plenty of time!
After getting my Visa on Arrival in Hanoi, Vietnam, in a much more orderly and quiet facility than HCMC, I make my way to the taxi area. I don’t see the usual taxi stand where tourists pay too much, so I figure I’ll do it the way locals do, and just make sure they use the meter. If you think I’m being overly cautious, consider there are tourists who get in a taxi only to realize they are locked in and won’t be released unless they pay $40 for a ride which should cost $2. My driver agrees to use the meter and to give me a receipt, and I even have Sophia (my coworker) talk to him on the phone to make sure he knows where to drop me off. Sophia had also told me how much to expect to pay and that the drive was 45 minutes. He pulls around the airport exit, and before getting on to the freeway, he pulls to the side of the road where another taxi is waiting, and explains that his tire is flat, and we need to switch cars. The tire was indeed flat, but suspicious that he already had the other car waiting, right?
I did hear the first driver tell the second driver my hotel address-the only Vietnamese I understood. I figured if they really were kidnappers they wouldn’t tell each other addresses when they think I’m not listening/can’t understand what they were saying. Plus the new driver had the same logos on his cab and polo shirt. Once on the road, I texted Sophia to say my “kidnapper” seemed to be following the correct Google Map’s path, but unfortunately my phone battery was soon about to die. Interestingly, almost every car that passed us honked at us. The only thing I could think of was that my driver’s lights weren’t working correctly? I eventually asked why they were honking, and sure enough, he said something about a light not working! Okay, so maybe the two drivers had a scam where the first (nicer, larger car), would snag a tourist like me, then pass them off to the driver that didn’t pass airport “inspection”? Doesn’t quite add up, since the original driver got through the airport with a flat tire. Or maybe the second driver hadn’t paid his most recent cab license? Whatever the reason, it doesn’t seem to be a scam, and trying to get another taxi (with receipt) at this hour, with my bags, would have been impossible.
About thirty minutes into the drive, a motorcycle driver with a huge cargo of yellow flowers (Sohpia calls them “Young Forever” flowers) a couple of feet across in diameter tied to the back of his bike actually ran into our cab! He slowly changed lanes literally into us near the front of our taxi, lightly crushing his flowers, which are commonly used at household alters and temples. My driver of course honked, and then the motorcycle backed off and does it again!!! Turns out he was trying to get over to an exit on the left that he almost missed, and would rather go in front of us than behind us. My driver was not happy, but seemed relieved that I laughed incredulously rather than screaming. With that kind of driving, “Eternal Youth Flower Man” might not live to an old age.
When I pull up to what might be my hotel (there are three “Church Boutique Hotels” in the area), I have just enough juice left on my phone to call Sophia and ask her to come down to meet me, and she even pays my driver in Vietnamese Dong after I learn that they prefer their local currency over USD (The last taxi I took in HCMC only accepted USD, so I didn’t have the $55 in Dong that I needed!) Whatever the cause for the suspicious swap and brush with the Eternal Youth Flower man, I ended up getting to my hotel just fine, albeit quite hungry.
The young woman at the reception desk tells me Sophia is such a good friend, to pay for my taxi and greet me with me food. I agree – maybe a little too heartily, because she then asks me if we are a couple! (To be fair I had just asked if Sophia and I were sharing a room.) We laugh as she says, “it’s ok, it’s legal in the U.S., no?”
The hotel is so fancy; very tasteful decorations and furniture in the room, with marble in the bathroom. After eating the bahn mi (small sandwich) and noodles Sophia gave me, and
taking a bath and writing some of this blog I double check my phone is on “Bangkok/Hanoi time”, and set an alarm for 6:45am, and fall asleep around 1am local time. When my alarm goes off I drag my carcass to the breakfast room and it’s not open yet! Turns out when I set my phone to “Hanoi” time, it wasn’t correct, so I actually woke up around 5:30am. (I had also tried to connect to Wi-Fi just to double check, but couldn’t get it working…) Too tired to explore the city, and unable to rely on my phone or computer, I call down to the guy at the front desk and ask him to call me on my room phone at 7:15am. In perfect English he repeats, “okay, I will give you a wake up call to room 402 at 7:15am”. On the chance that I sleep through the call, I stayed in my clothing, sans the shoes. Luckily, Sophia wakes me up when the front desk fails to call, and we get to our meetings on time that morning.
We take a taxi to three different agencies, and talk to five different agents about American Honors. We finish our appointments earlier than expected, so we make a stop on the way home at the first university in Vietnam; it’s a Confucius temple of literature. It was built in 1070, and is featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese dong banknote (About $5 USD, so a common note!). Along the sides of the temple ponds, near the walls, are stone tablets on stone tortoises. Historically, doctorate students got huge tablets of carved “blue” stone to honor their accomplishment upon graduating/passing the Royal Exam. Between 1442 and 1779, eighty two exams were held and 1307 graduates passed. Today, the temple courtyards are used to honor and continue national traditions, and for “cultural and scientific activities”. There were at least two high school graduations taking place in two of the courtyards while we were there, and a huge elementary school group on a field trip in a third courtyard. We were able to avoid the crowds, but we did get caught in the elementary school children herd for a few minutes before we could untangle ourselves. If I weren’t literally twice their height, I would have felt overwhelmed. I don’t really think about my height here a lot, (unless I’ve just bumped my head on a ceiling in the market), but there are times I’m grateful. Poor Sophia is only slightly taller than these kids, yet she instinctively knew how to get their attention and lead us out of the swarm of boisterous ankle biters.
We ate lunch at a very famous pho place, and it was great! We order the half cooked beef brisket, just like home! It’s actually similar to pho in the U.S., the primary difference is that there were fewer basil leaves, no plum sauce, and instead of Sriracha sauce, the spicy sauce is obviously home-ground and full of flavor. There is also a “donut” that you dunk in the soup. These are the same donuts we ate in Thailand, and Sophia insists that it’s not a donut because it’s not sweet. She says in the south, such as HCMC, people don’t dunk the fried bread in the pho, just in Hanoi where we were. Then we walk a block to a famous cathedral, which is one of the few Christian churches I’ve seen in SEA. It’s closed, but we take a pic outside, then cross the street to a lake with an island. Sophia said an ancient king would consult a wise turtle who lived in the lake, and on the eve of battle the king received a magic sword from the turtle. The king ended up winning the battle against China, only to be later tricked out of the sword by a Chinese prince, who was in town on the pretense of marrying a Vietnamese princess. Wow. For so much historical animosity and modern racism, there is sure still a lot of Chinese influence in Vietnam!
After our tourist break, Sophia and I check out of our hotel and get back to work. We had an education fair at a fancy hotel. The fair was free to the public, but the fifty or so schools had to pay to have a table with fliers and admissions assistants who tell students about their school. This fair was meant just for students interested in studying abroad, so all of the colleges are international, and most are from the United States. There are free presentations that I thought were really helpful, such as tips on getting your Visa, the U.S. education system, the college application process, etc. Maybe I was especially interested because I had just volunteered to host one of these panels on April 1st. Almost all of the admissions reps are also from the U.S., and had local interpreters. These assistants were student volunteers and recipients of international scholarships.
They actually cut the presentations short because long lines were forming to enter the room where the colleges were. We were lucky that we had Sophia in addition to just me and my interpreter, because it was packed. Also some people prefer to hear about the schools in English, and some prefer Vietnamese, so they had their pick at our booth, and our booth seemed to be particularly popular. Tiring, but so fun to talk to students and help them understand our education system! When we finally are able to pack up after an exhausting day on very little sleep, we scramble across the boulevard of traffic to a fancy (Korean owned) mall, and take the elevator to the fifth floor where the restaurants are. We look around, then decide on a Korean chain restaurant that makes its own sauces. Like if Heinz had an authentic “American” restaurant that featured sauces. We share pot stickers (with dipping sauce) and a rice/short rib dish covered in a thin omelet. Of course the short ribs were cooked until tender in a delicious sauce, then the bones were taken out and it was flaked apart into the rice, so I didn’t bite down on to anything hard, as I have quite often in SEA. I also ordered an orange and pomelo juice, since I felt a cold coming on. It was quite large, so I end up taking half of it to go as we depart for the airport.
Never fly Vietjet, a cheap Vietnamese airline, if you can help it! Pay the extra $40 if you have an option for a different airline, because flights are delayed 80% of the time. Our 10pm flight was delayed until 11pm, so we had to wait outside security until two hours before the flight, when we could check in. Luckily Broc and I had a lot to talk about on the phone about his trip in Myanmar, so he entertained me for an hour on the phone while I waited. When we finally boarded, my seat felt like a piece of metal covered by some stinky, torn material. No padding at all, and of course less than standard 28 inches of legroom. I also had an uncomfortable baby in front of me and behind me. Luckily, only one of them threw up on me – and it was just my shoe. Sophia actually knew the flight attendant from her university, but because he was so busy and we didn’t feel like being friendly, we didn’t say hi.
Thuy let me skip some early morning meetings in HCMC to sleep in, which was so nice! I found a great coffee place, and had a leisurely breakfast of green guava juice and a scallop salad before heading over to the office. The next two days were similar; fun yet long hours of Visa interviews, scholarship interviews, agent training, coffee chats, and education fairs. One highlight was a dinner that was hosted by the owner of an education agency that shares an office with Thuy and Sohia. It just happen to be at the place where we celebrated Broc’s birthday! It’s pretty famous for showcasing food from around Vietnam It was served family style, so I got to try a wide variety: Prawn BBQ’d in the shell on a stick, fried tofu, a noodle dish with real crab served in a ceramic jar, morning glory sautéed with garlic, chicken kabobs, the marinated beef with spicy salt that we had on Broc’s birthday, “goi” salad with green banana, star fruit, pork, noodles, shallots, and a little spicy red pepper. There were so many dishes I can’t even remember all of them! For dessert we had coconut milk with ginger, floating rice noodle ball stuffed with ground bean cake. On the way out, we passed some prep tables and I saw a large bowl of snails. I asked Thuy if she ate them often, and she said not at home but maybe twice a year at restaurants. Surprisingly, she said they don’t consider it a delicacy.
After a busy couple of days working, I was ready for the beach and looking forward to one of our best friends, Dan Koch joining us! I arrived in Phuket at 11pm on March 19th, and luckily Broc’s flight was only an hour before mine, so we were able to share the (expensive) taxi to our AirB&B rental apartment. More to come soon about Phuket!