Margo McCreary

Vietnam!

What a wild ride today after an early morning cab ride to Don Meuang Airport in Bangkok with the exciting intention of being in Hanoi by 9:00 am. As usual the scene is really wild in these crowded spaces in Thailand, like a big city airport; it’s familiar, but not.

I was waiting in a huge line when a volunteer came up and asked where I was going…Hanoi. She told me to get in a different line, and when I got up to the counter, I found that in fact it was not the right line. The agent told me which line to wait in, and now I get into the right line, but find out that I cannot board the plane to Vietnam without a visa. Oops. I slacked off on my homework big time. I got way too far into the notion that it always works out. So I am at the airport for 11 hours trying to get a visa online on a Sunday. After about five hours, It has actually worked out and not without some financial suffering, but now I will be in Hanoi 12 hours later than planned. I am chalking it up to a good learning experience, and I am still happy to be in the travel mode. Things don’t bother me too much; even the chaotic boarding process at the gate, with huge numbers of Chinese travelers toting bags of duty-free merchandise pushing onto the buses that transport passengers to the plane. My flight is past due, and there is no mention of it, but it finally comes up on a sign as “boarding,” so I figure I better join the line, and eventually we are on board! Ya gotta pay attention, and keep deducing!!!

So, I am in Hanoi. Wow! I realize that I must change currency before I leave the airport since I need to pay for taxi or tuktuk as I travel into Hanoi. We are about 40 minutes outside of the city I learn. I am so wary of getting caught by some wheeler dealer cabbie after a fiasco cab ride in Bangkok which I kicked myself for accepting. This guy was a crazy man who got way too much Baht from me, and the only redeeming part was that he was a good natured con man and I got to be extremely sassy, while he would exclaim, “Oh my God, oh my God!” I guess it was worth the overcharge. Okay, so back to Hanoi. I think some background information is that I am road weary at this point, and not feeling so well since I do believe that I have picked up some parasites or something that is making for low-grade nausea, diarrhea and headaches.
My courage is in shorter supply these days, but I AM IN VIETNAM!!!!!! This feels quite amazing considering how familiar names of cities, rivers, points of interest all bring up such a sense of history, and memories from protest marches in Wash. DC, and news stories, and photos, and stories from Hmong refuge children from when I was a bus driver with Mpls Public Schools. I feel like a time traveler, and honored to be here. I do get a ride into Hanoi from a young man driving his own vehicle rather than a taxi, and I have given up on doing this like a savvy traveler. The ride is just fine, and thanks to GPS we find our way to The Golden Rooster Guesthouse in Old Hanoi. On the way into Hanoi we pass over the most beautiful bridge with a spectacular light show of rainbow Aurora Borealis over the Hong River. Both the driver and I share the universal language of ooooo, ahhhhh, wow, cool!

The Golden Rooster, which I booked online, is a strangely fancy little hole in the wall that is reasonably priced. The staff are so welcoming and sit me down with a glass of water to discuss what my hopes and dreams are for my time in Hanoi. I have arrived probably around 10:00 on a Sunday night and I am told that there is still time to get to the night market, and also to the walking streets that are only clear of traffic on weekends. I am so glad that they encourage me to get out there. What a vibrant introduction to the energy and youthful exuberance of Hanoi! The first thing I notice are little gatherings of people around short plastic tables sitting on short plastic stools with their heads together enjoying food. So communal and satisfying….I want to be part of that! These impromptu cafes are everywhere along the streets, and set up down alleys. It makes me wonder if anyone eats at home. The market is just like so many others with stuff stuff stuff … knock-offs, little purses, shoes. I would love to get a sweatshirt since I have discovered that I left my jacket in the cab, but hoodies are passé and now the jacket of choice is the light weight down jacket! Everybody is wearing them! The market ends at Hoan Kiem Lake and this is where the streets have been closed to traffic and the street life is fantastic! Circles of young people play a variation of hackysack with these feathery things with a rubber tip. I am heartened to see some skillful women players too. There are little enclaves of karaoke happening, and my favorite is a huge crowd of group jump ropers. One young man who is one of the rope turners has a constant chatter going on and seems to be the “leader.” I watch for quite a while and finally take a video.

I am completely charmed by this zestful group fun. It seems that if you are the person who stops the rope (messes up) that you go and hug the rope turners. So fun to watch 7 people jumping at the same time!

As I return to the hotel, I do get disoriented, and even though I know I am close, I am lost. In that way, I am an easy target, and this cabbie who seems genuinely offering to help, gets me to my place driving around a little too much, and then does something someone had warned me about. I am in the front seat, and as I pull out my money to pay (it is a new currency to me, and I must figure it out to find the right bills) he starts taking bills. I quickly try to get them back and find the right amount, but later find that he has taken one of the largest bills worth 20 USD. Thanks for the help, you creep. Live and learn…too many of those lessons for one day, and I am discouraged as I go to bed that night, feeling burnt and angry with myself.

Tomorrow is a new day, and I do wake ready to explore this fascinating new world. Someone has told me to try Egg Coffee which is a Hanoi thing, and what could be more compelling? On my way out, I talk to the staff about an intention to see a water puppet show that is performed in this man’s home with a little pool. There was also a large theater dedicated to water puppets that has about 5 shows a day. Through research the staff found that a showing at the small theater would be quite expensive, since they did not have regular showings, so they give me directions for the big theater and the showtimes. I wished so much that I had done some advance outreach to set something up, but this trip was a last minute decision. Out on the streets, I am constantly amazed. The traffic and beeping is incessant and intersections are a chaotic weave of motorbikes, cars, rigshaws, bicycles, and pedestrians. No one stops coming from any direction, just little slowdowns to effectively miss contact with others vehicles. Stop signs seems strangely extraneous, though I have the feeling that any intersection I made it through without mishap would be reason for celebration, but that is not what I witness! One intersection is just one of thousands navigated every day. I have been warned that to cross the street a person must just step out and proceed at a slow and steady pace “trusting” that all the vehicles will weave around you. It seems to work, though it takes fortitude. On my way to a coffee place I saw a bamboo shop, and come to see two or three others on the same street. What a richness of robust pieces of bamboo. Wouldn’t the puppet community be in heaven with this store in the hood!!!

I watch traffic for at least an hour, and sip my Egg Coffee. It’s weird….thick frothed egg yolk with sweetened condensed milk topping a very bitter brew of dripped coffee. Ask me to make it for you when I get home. I am game to try! Then I set out on a wander through the streets of the Old Quarter. I understand from older times different streets are named for the trades that did business on them. So I was on an dried herb and traditional medicine street, a ribbon, button and trim street, a housewares street, a coffee street, a hardware street, a funeral street, and a motor street to name a few.



For lunch I find a place that sells baan-mi sandwiches which I am tempted by, but I am being careful of my guts, and do not want to have fresh stuff that might have been washed in tap water, but then I notice that they serve a baan-mi fry platter that comes with a baguette. Sounds perfect and it is. This is a small place with limited seating and for a time I am joined by two women. I like that even though they just relate to each other. Being alone in this social city is not working for me!

Time for the puppet show! What a gift to walk off the streets into a theater with all the anticipation of live theater. The place really fills up, and my ticket is in the 2nd to last row, but the seats are great. The live music and singing are amazing, and the show is vibrant with well animated puppets splashing, and swirling, with some pyrotechnics. It is traditional as far as I know and has the Hanoi legend I have read about with a turtle reclaiming a sword. I am completely satisfied. I roamed around a little more before regrouping at the hotel, and then I head out for dinner, but as I said earlier, the streets are full of vibrant groups of people eating together at these little street cafes. This night it seems the theme of most of these restaurants is grilling on these little burners at each table. It is a group meal for sure, and being solo is not where it’s at! I look for a party to crash, and decide maybe it would be easier to push myself on Westerners. I find a sweet little couple, and ask if I could sit with them just a bit, and they kindly comply, but they are in the middle of their dinner so really I just talk with them a little and then move on. Dang! When I get back to The Golden Rooster, I tell them my lonely story, and they sweetly say, “we’ll go out and eat with you when we aren’t working!” I believe them and it makes me feel much better. These people are so kind and soulful! I’m in love!

I have one more day in Hanoi before I catch a night train to Danang. I decide to go to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum after I stop for Egg Coffee. The staff has steered me to the best coffee street, and I plan to wander up to that point. I continue just looking around, and get pulled by my intuition into a massage place where I ask for a neck, shoulders and back oil massage. We climb to the third floor up steep stairs, and I lay down on a table after putting a loose tunic on. There is very peaceful music on, and the masseuse’s touch is so relaxing, but nothing drowns out the traffic roar and beep beep three floor down. I do wonder how people live with this reality….it is so hyper. I still enjoy this woman’s deep probing touch into some tight places. What a gift these touching interludes are, and so completely affordable.

The main way I have found my path around the towns and cities is with this app on my phone called maps.me.com which is quite amazing. It can download a map of the country I am traveling to, and then in great detail, it maps out routes. I can use it offline and it gives me a route to so many places. I put the Women’s Museum into the search and find a route….it doesn’t help me cross the streets with all the crazy traffic, but I can find things. I also ask people, but language is a limiting factor. I do wonder how people did things in the past…maybe I would need to learn more language to get around, and I am not proud at how little I have learned. When I do use some language that is beyond the most basic, people are tickled. My desire is to connect more, and that would have taken discipline to learn much more and try harder to communicate with people who were willing. Sometimes I just feel like the cat has gotten my tongue for days on end! In reflecting on this trip, I think time spent in studying some language and preparing harder for specific interactions would have born fruit for me to feel more connected. I know I got overwhelmed when I crossed three borders. I worked on basics, but that was all, and people appreciated even the most meager attempts. It is humbling, and more than that, sad to me that I did not find a way to feel more connected. I often felt profoundly grateful to people I interacted with, and the bow of my head with my hands in a prayer position that is practiced in Thailand felt just right.

The Vietnamese Women’s Museum was a great way to connect to the culture. There are 54 distinct tribes in Vietnam, including a few different Hmong peoples, that we Minnesotans know from our own communities. The museum showed traditions of dress, handiwork, childbirth, courting and marriage, work, family life especially as related to women. One floor was devoted to the radical community and political work done by women organizing together to resist both the French and the American invasions. There were some women warriors who took up arms as early as the age of 15 or 16, and there were women who resisted by supporting villages that were being devastated by the wars. They promoted peace and did not take up arms. What a powerful testament to the strength of women.

As I was walking back to my hotel from the museum, I was crossing on a rare green light, and I nearly got mowed down by a huge tour bus. For the first time on this whole trip I was muttering swear words under my breath. Time to leave Hanoi!!!! One last sweet story from The Golden Rooster extraordinary staff…..I called an Uber to get to the train station, and then had a sudden rush to pay up. Quick!!!!! With help, I get into the cab, and we take off through the crazy traffic. We get to the train station, and I open my purse to discover that I have left my change purse with $$$$ and credit card on the counter. I am just registering the impact of that careless move when I look up and there is Thanh outside my window holding the pouch. He had chased us down on his motorbike! Angels! Truly. I am touched to the core and so relieved. Thank you!
Look for the next installment soon…..Hoi An City via Danang.