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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Good Morning Vietnam!

About eight years ago I paid a visit to Vietnam.  I was there for nearly a month and travelled from Sapa on the northern border with China to to the remote Con Dao Islands in the South China Seas.  Here are the high (and low) points of that trip.

May 26 , 2007
If this is Vietnam, why doesn’t anyone here speak Vietnamese??   My plane arrived on time, getting through customs was a breeze, and sure enough there was a Vietnamese guy holding a sign with my name on it.

 When I travel I try to learn a few words in the native language. I walk up to the guy and introduce myself in Vietnamese.   With a blank look on his face he points to the sign – I nod and try again. No matter what I say to him in perfectly good book learned Vietnamese he looks at me as if I am talking Swahili.   (Of course when I was in Africa and tried to speak Swahili they looked at me as if I was speaking Vietnamese!) Then it hits me - I must be speaking South Vietnamese, and I’m in North.

The trip from the airport to the old part of Hanoi is uneventful until I realize my guide has absolutely no idea where my hotel is.  We went in circles for the better part of half an hour until I finally show him my map, and a couple of minutes later he dumps me at a small hotel and takes off.   I drag my bags inside to discover the hotel has never heard of me.  
Local travel agent

One benefit of booking your trip through a Vietnamese travel agency online is that the office is only a couple of blocks from my hotel.    Several frantic calls to my travel agent later and I discover my guide dropped me off at the wrong hotel.  I was supposed to be in the Ngoc III, but due to a clerical error I was now in Ngoc IV – just around the corner.  Good thing I wasn't booked into the Ngoc  MMXIV!  I drag my bags around the corner and am shown to my room.  As soon as I open the door I know there’s a problem.  I turn to the bell boy and point to the room.

“Did the Buddhist monk staying here check out?”
“Did he find the room too small?  Perhaps he is used to a bigger cell?   What time is lock down around here?”
The "before" room

The room consisted of a bed with six inches of clearance between it and the walls on three sides, and a very small bathroom attached.  There are bare electrical wires hanging everywhere.  The only tiny window looked inwards to the stairwell.    I tell him in Canada if we put prisoners in such conditions they would be set free because of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

 My unhappiness with my lodgings generates more calls and threats to my travel agent.  He agrees to come right over and move me to more suitable digs.  When he arrives and reams out the hotel manager, there is much bowing, scraping and wringing of hands.  The hotel manager apologizes and asks me to look at another room.  The rep begs me to at least look at the room lest the manager lose “face” and has to kill himself on the spot.  I’m not convinced that would be a bad thing.  The room is totally the opposite of the one I was originally shown.  Large, bright, and newly renovated.  It’s hard to believe it’s in the same hotel. 

have a day to myself to look around Hanoi before I catch the night train up north to Sapa.  I decide to take my own walking tour.     I take ten steps out of the hotel, turn the corner and am hopelessly lost.  The problem here is there are no sidewalks!  Well actually there are but they are totally filled with parked motor bikes, so you have to walk on the road which is filled with traffic.  I try several strategies for staying alive.  I have some success with what I call the “Human Shield” method used and loved by terrorists everywhere.  I find some poor Vietnamese person and walk right behind them.  This works for a few feet until they turn off from where I want to go and I’m once again left exposed.

 I sort of get the knack of crossing the streets, and am rather proud of myself till I come to a major thoroughfare.  Now there are traffic lights and crosswalks, but no one pays the slightest attention to them.  I have six lanes of traffic going across. Every time I decide to try and cross I find myself racing back to curb.  It’s sort of a human game of Frogger –with me as the frog.   Finally I come up with a brilliant solution.

On board a Hanoi taxi
You can take a motorbike taxi anywhere in the old quarter for about a quarter!   There are several of them waiting for customers on the corner in front of me.   I go up to one of them.

 “I’ll give you five thousand dong (50 cents) to drive me across the street.”
“Yes,  but where you want to go?”
“Across the street.”
“Yes but where across the street?”
“Just across the street – anywhere - five thousand dong!”
“You go away.  Stop bothering me.”

Obviously the guy had been a cabbie in Vancouver.  Not only would he not take me, but none of his buddies would either.  So I did what you do in Montreal.  I closed my eyes and walked across the street.

After that I decided the best thing was to go back to my hotel and have a nap except I was hopelessly lost.  I went back to the motorbike guy and handed him a card with the hotel’s address on it.
“How much to go here?” I asked.
“Five thousand dong.”
I climbed on the back of the motorbike.  He drove around the block and dropped me off at my hotel.

The prices in Vietnam are ridiculous.  In Hanoi I take the tour operator, his wife, and his wife's partner to one of the most chic restaurants in Vietnam.  How swank is it you ask?   They  have valet parking for motorbikes!   Drinks, a very nice full lunch for 4 people cost me all of $20.00

the train station to Sapa
Tonight I take the night train north to  Sapa. 

Sapa is in the extreme north of Vietnam.  Just a spit away from China.  But don't spit - the Chinese don't like it.  I’m booked for an overnight  train trip from Hanoi to Sapa in  a "soft sleeper" car.  My last trip in a sleeper was on the CPR in 1961 and it wasn't soft and I didn't sleep.  My travel agent drives me to the station and points out the train I’m to get on.  I’m so concerned with not getting killed crossing the street I lose sight of the train and end up getting on a train to Cambodia.  Luckily the conductor looked at my ticket before it was too late and got me on the correct train.  

My "sleeping" partner
My compartment is very modern and has wood paneling.    It’s close to 100 degrees F and the compartment begins to resemble a sauna - not just because of the wood paneling but because of the temperature.   (It’s sweltering hot in Vietnam – even at night!)   I’m joined by an English girl and two  young Vietnamese girls  with their Vietnamese woman teacher.  Just me and five women in the sauna.

Luckily once the train starts going the air conditioning kicks in with a vengeance.  An hour later we’re all wrapped in blankets.  I actually manage to fall asleep until  the older Vietnamese woman starts  having  screaming nightmares.  

The train is supposed to arrive in  Sapa at 5:30am, so when we stop  around 5:15  I grab my stuff and push towards the exit.  The other tourists see me heading up the aisle so they grab their stuff too.  I am about to lead about 30 tourists off the train when the screaming teacher wakes up and screams not to get off.  Sapa is the NEXT stop.

Jeff "the tall guy"
Sapa looks like a mini whistler perched high on the mountains.  They have everything except snow - which they get now and then.  The native population is not Vietnamese but Mung, and the women (you never see men) dress in black dresses, aprons, seventies retro leggings and conical hats.  With their similar dress they all look like Private School girls – if you’re into that sort of fantasy.  They are also extremely short.  I am Wilt Chamberlain to them – I tower over them.   They are also aggressively trying  to sell you crap – even those as young as 3 or 4.  I make the mistake of buying one trinket
A $30.00 deluxe suite
from one of them  and am immediately swarmed by a horde them.  It reminds me of the monkeys in Kenya.

My little suite on the top floor of Sapa tops out at about $20.00 a night.  If you were staying in something  similar in Whistler start adding a lot of zeros.

Next:  Ha Long Bay and No Boom Boom for Jeff

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