April 16-17, 2004
In Kunming, China, I bought a ticket on a "sleeper bus" south to Herkou on the Vietnam border. Inside, the big bus had a stainless steel framework holding 26 bunks. Fortunately, I got a window bunk with a sliding window, a lifesaver considering the cloud of cigarette smoke filling the bus.
It was a comfortable ride, I slept most of the night and at 7am we arrived in Herkou on the border, in the rain. I walked down to the big new flashy Chinese Customs building, surrounded by crisply-uniformed soldiers. The border is a bridge across the Red River, wide and muddy by the time it reaches here from farther north in China (that's Vietnam across the river.)
I walked across the bridge into Vietnam. The contrast between the two countries was striking: Vietnamese Customs had a funky old one-story building staffed by mellow, casually uniformed officers. After standing at three different windows, an officer finally stamped my passport and I wandered out into the Lao Cai rain. I rode a 'moto' (motorbike) into town, then bought a ticket for the morning train to Hanoi. I ordered my first bowl of Pho noodle soup. When the soup arrived it was accompanied by a big bowl of greens that I'd earlier observed the kitchen staff washing with well water. Should I? Quick mental calculation: the well water probably wouldn't hit until the next morning, when I'd be in a Hanoi hotel. I added a big pile of the greens to my soup: muy delicioso! (...sure enough, next morning at 8, the 'Lao Cai Express' came barreling through my GI tract...yeah!)
The train ride to Hanoi was a total knockout: I had come south from cold, arid Yunnan Province in China; now we rolled southeast along the Red River for ten hours past endless emerald-green fields of rice, corn and vegetables. This seemed the richest, lushest valley I've ever seen.
At 8pm we crossed the 'famous' Long Bien Bridge into Hanoi (bombed and rebuilt several times during the American war.)
I found a clean hotel in Hanoi, seemed pretty nice until the next morning when I left some money on the table and returned an hour later to find 100,000 Dong (about $6 US) missing. I took the manager aside and explained what had happened, saying that it was regrettable, and I hoped that the hotel would subtract the $6 from my bill. No way! She even added an extra charge. Welcome to Vietnam.
After a quick change of hotels, I spent the day walking around Hanoi. In many ways, it is a beautiful and wonderful city.
There is much historic colonial architecture dating from the French occupation (roughly 1858 to 1954.)
But it is a dangerous place for the traveler who likes to walk. The problem: rivers of
motorbikes filling city streets, with very few stoplights. The first lesson for visitors is to
learn how to cross the street. If you stand on the curb waiting for a break in the traffic, you
may wait until the middle of the night when everybody else is asleep.
The solution is to simply step right out into traffic, maintaining a slow, steady pace and
keeping your eye on the moto drivers n case you need to jump. Don't run or stop! Think of yourself
as that squirrel crossing the road in Mt. Rainier Natonal Park, dependent on the SUV's
maintaining a steady speed so you can get across the road.
First time: my heart was pounding, alone out in the middle with motorbikes buzzing all around. Miraculously, none hit me and I made it to the other side.
That evening I connected with David Gleeson, an Australian friend from Cebu, Philippines. We discovered via e-mail that we were both in Hanoi. Among other things, he knows how to find good and cheap restaurants!
Next morning David & I visited the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. David read somewhere that Ho had requested cremation, but apparently the regime needed his body more. He now lies in a glass box in a huge air-conditioned concrete building, surrounded by dozens of armed and immaculately uniformed soldiers. It is the holiest site in Vietnam. Inside, all is marble, red bunting, red carpet, stern-looking armed soldiers, Ho in the glass case, and absolutely no cameras allowed.
While in Hanoi I read Ho's biography: Ho Chi Minh: The Man Who Made a Nation / Gioi Publishers. His life story is amazing, but somehow preserving his body like this seems pretty morbid.
Next day I visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Inside this similarly colossal concrete building is the expected set of patriotic displays chronicling the political life of Ho. But the displays are dazzling and artistic, it's clear that the greatest artistic talents in Vietnam were recruited to create this. Chris Pforr sez check it out.
To continue my historic tour of Hanoi, next stop was the Vietnam Army Museum on Dien Bien Phu Street. This museum meticulously documents a thousand years of Vietnam's struggle to repel foreign invaders, including the Chinese, Spanish, French, Japanese, and finally the Americans. It put history into better perspective for me: while we Americans think of the Vietnam War as something that lasted from 1964 to 1975, the Vietnamese by contrast consider the war against the USA as only one in a series of national catastrophes. Today after hundreds of years of armed struggle, they have their independence.
After five days in Hanoi, I was ready to go south...