February 9, 2018
At 7:45 AM I’m fast walking through the overcast morning mist. I will not master Old Quarter Hanoi geography on this trip but I have memorized the path to and from my
local street Pho stand. Pho, it’s Vietnamese for what’s for breakfast? Out the hotel door, left, right at the corner, down two blocks, curve to the left and you’re there. I bow respectfully and point, to be answered with a hot bowl of soup and a smile. It’s easy to order here; she only serves one thing. My chopsticks swirl the onions, beef, and lime through the bowl. I slurp and contemplate my day as I watch an old woman perform her morning Tai Chi down the street. The Legend Beer building looms ominously over her. Sitting on the street, I watch the city start to emerge from the morning fog. The tables are communal. I sit with a mix of businessmen and grandmas. In Vietnam, then men are served first. An observation I fall into for a moment. Once you get past the newness of it, hot soup for breakfast makes all the sense in the world. I swallow the last drops of my Pho and pay my 30,000 Viet Dong (about $1.40). I retrace my steps back to the hotel. The bus to Ninh Binh should be picking me up at any minute.
Our tour guide Tran, Tina for our benefit, rattles off fun facts and anecdotes about Tet, the history of Vietnam and life in Hanoi. I’m back on a bus rolling towards Ninh Binh. Beside me on the bus is Jack. Jack is a 72-year-old retiree who enjoys traveling the world while his wife remains home in Sarasota. We do a fair amount of chatting. Destinations near and far are nothing new to Jack. He spent 32 years working overseas as an engineer for Chevron. When he tells me this he says it like, “I worked for this company, don’t know that you would have heard of it, it’s called Chevron”. Tran describes the dreaded 70 kilometers, 4 person scooter journey she usually endures every Tet with her father, mother, and sister to see their grandparents outside of Hanoi. I look out the bus window and watch similar configurations zipping down the dusty road. Tran tells us about the close cultural connection between Vietnam and China, about the days of arranged marriages and couples jumping from bridges denied their love because they were betrothed to another. In so many stories customs are mixed with religion mixed with superstition. In so many stories the horror of war and foreign invader oppression take center stage. She explains how tourism has become a driving force in the Vietnamese economy behind only rice and coffee. The bulk of Tran’s speech on the bus is a breakdown down of the cost of living in Hanoi, which leads into a long discussion about how poor they are in Vietnam and how difficult life is and how we should all be generous while visiting. I mean, basically. Thankfully it’s not a long bus ride.
Just like when I traveled to Halong Bay, the bus has a scheduled stop at what passes for a highway pitstop. The bus drops you off on one side of the complex and promises to pick you at the other side. You have fifteen minutes. After bathrooms, walking to the other side means passing through a makeshift store selling; arts, crafts, clothing, jewelry, souvenirs, booze, snacks, coffee, and food. If your gaze lingers too long on an item, or if heaven forbid you pick it up, you are swarmed by store employees eager to assist you to complete the purchase. There is always a stray dog I end up petting.
I’m gonna gloss lightly over the first part of my Ninh Binh day. That’s because we go to a temple and it’s madness. We are one of many busses that converge on the temple simultaneously. Tran seems unable to wrangle the group or adequately conduct an informative tour. Tran mostly runs to spots, we fight crowds to get to her while everyone snaps photos and selfies, we catch an out of place fact she blurts out and then she’s rushing us along. Wait, what? Who? Meanwhile, the sun has burned through the morning clouds and is making an aggressive assault on our skin. I catch something about emperors and signs and temples and dragons. This country loves dragons. Khalessi would do well here. The press of bodies angers me. Hawkers take photos of tourists and then insist on the subject of purchasing the photo. I watch it turn contentious as one woman finally breaks and yells at her pursuant “get away from me!”. More getting pushed and shoved in small temples sends me running off. I retreat, walking back towards the bus. I meet a Phillipino couple sitting on a bench outside. Like me, they ran from the madness. It tickles me they appear to be dressed to play golf. Tran frantically collects us as we walk over to lunch. I have lunch seated with the couple (but failed to record their names). He lives in Queens while she still resided in the Philippines. They are married but wading through Visa issues until she can join him. They seem very much in love. I’m warming up to the golf outfits. Thankfully I resist my impulse to be the whitest man I can be by asking if they know my friend Rrrramon. The lunch is the worst meal I have in Vietnam. I can’t sit still for long so I wander around. There isn’t much to see. When I walk around the cafeteria the poverty and filth of the place become apparent. It’s in the high-90’s and humid. I should buy a hat. I don’t buy a hat. So far the Ninh Binh tour leaves something to be desired.
A large collection of bicycles are piled in a center section of the dusty town of Tam Cốc, surrounded at a distance by vendors selling souvenirs and refreshments. Tran instructs us to find a bicycle and follow her. We’re taking a ride. I pull one out that looks good to test and discover it has a flat tire. I spy another of the same model, also a flat tire. Next to me, a local is yelling at a 20 something white girl who stripped down into Daisy Dukes and a sports bra for the bike ride. I gather it’s too much skin. In the typical rush, Tran has already started peddling leading a small fraction of our group who have successfully located a functioning bike down the path. Path? It’s impossible to tell what’s going on. Fifth time is a charm as I find my ride and roll after the group. In about a hundred yards the chain comes off. I’m having my very own Good Morning in Vietnam moment. Part of this tour is “bike ride in the country”. I tell myself to stay confident and flip the bike over on it’s back. I reach back to my nine-year-old self and attempt to rethread the chain. I know how simple an operation this is, but that in no way tarnishes my pride when I accomplish it for the first time in thirty years. My hands covered in grease, I remount the bike and start up again. Another traveler passes me on foot rolling his bike. The pedal broke off.
I jostle and shake down the dirt road. I half expect my bike to shatter into a hundred pieces each time I hit a bump. I have no idea where the tour is. The countryside is breathtaking; emerald green mountains rising in sound waves high into the sky beautiful. I have all the emotions. I spot a fellow traveler. He made his own detour in order to snap some photos and has also been separated from the group. He asks me where the tour went. I tell him I have no idea. In a French accent with the perfect je ne sais quoi attitude Marc responds “Oh well, we’re on our own now!”. I spend the rest of the day hanging out with Marc. We continue to ride along, making guesses about which direction the group may have headed. We stop often, taking photos, making jokes and getting lost in the splendor of the countryside. The land is magical. Hot, humid, dirty, undeveloped and majestic. We see a small group riding together on brand new mountain bikes, with helmets and elbow pads. The class warrior lodged in my soul scowls. Marc jokes “I didn’t see those bikes when we were choosing”. In true Tran fashion, when we finally catch the tour at a temple, she is leading them away. She seems bothered to see us arriving because it leads to the discovery she had lost us. She tells us to hurry like her hair is on fire. We roll our eyes a drag behind like disobedient teenagers.
Officially paired up, Marc and I wait our turn to embark on our boat ride. Marc is from Montreal. He’s French Canadian, eh? Marc lives cheaply, stores up enough vacation time and spends the entire month of February each year traveling abroad, plying his real passion, photography. Also avoiding February in Montreal. His photos are outstanding and make me wish he was along on all my blog adventures to supply the visual compliments. Marc has a gentle, vibrant and friendly nature. His passion for travel and people is pure and contagious. He’s a world-class friend for a day. Occasionally his English fails him and he apologizes for not being better at it. I always remind him it’s light years ahead of my French. Besides, it only gets in the way when I try to make distasteful jokes under my breath that he misses. As we wait in line for our boat Marc tells me I look like an Italian movie star. I don’t know what’s happening but I appear to be really good looking here. I keep fielding compliments. Vietnam must bring out my eyes.
Next, we’re on the water. Marc sits in front, then me and behind us, an old Vietnamese man rows our boat with his feet. Yes, his feet. It’s a common approach. Tam Cốc, located in Ninh Binh, is part of the Red River Delta of Northern Vietnam. The water is brown and murky lined by rice fields and mountains. We’re warned under no circumstances to go overboard, best not to tempt the piranhas. That’s when I declined the life jacket. “Water isn’t deep, but there are piranhas in it? You can hang on to that then”. Under a blistering sun, we spend the next two hours cruising down the river and back again. Hundreds of photos are taken. Photos of landscape, boatsmen, fellow travelers, birds, sky, temples and more. Marc’s professional camera shots make my iPhone pics look pitiful. Still, I keep snapping photos. I have no idea how I will narrow it down and choose for this entry. The boatsmen come in all ages, genders, shapes, and sizes. They seem numb to the swarm of tourists they ferry. They yell out and talk to each other during the whole ride, largely ignoring their passengers. I imagine someone is saying “I say we feed them to the piranhas!”. Goats make spotted white marks in the hills. At first just specs then we get closer and see them moving. Feel bad about the hot dog looking carts on our way in that had an entire roasted goat slung across the top. We pass under caves, sometimes so low inside you can reach up and touch the ceiling. The sun streaks through slits in the mountain tops. After the last cave, at the turnaround, boats filled with fresh fruit, drinks and candy float to sell refreshments. We buy some fruit and a gift for our driver. We enjoy mangos and bananas on our ride back. Our boatsman downs a Red Bull. Marc snaps a photo of another boatswoman passing who asks where we are from. When Marc says “Canadian”, then points at me and says “American”, at which time the boatswoman starts to chant “U-S-A Number #1”. And more mountains and more sun and more water and more rice fields and more caves and more conversation with Marc.
The bus ride back is long. For the first time, I hit traffic in Vietnam. We bake on a bus with no AC as the sun sets and we slowly creep back into Hanoi. At the rest stop, Marc and I keep up our getting to know you dance. He tells me how much he loves Southern California. He visited twice, that was back when he was with his ex-girlfriend. They rented a convertible and drove the coast as he snapped photos. He becomes reflective, “I really need to find another girlfriend like that,” he says. I agree. We both leave Hanoi tomorrow. There is a weight of anticipation that hangs in the air. It may have started poorly but I got a lot out of my Ninh Binh adventure. A very full day complete with a shabby bike ride, the boat trip down the river and the new friend made. I’m famous for taking it easy on vacation. Back in Hanoi, I eat a crepe filled with pork and shrimp, adding lettuce, red leaf and mint and then dipping in a soy-based sauce. Ending the day as I begin, eating.