She looks down at her boarding pass and up at the sans-serif placard above your seat, pops the latch of the overhead bin and delicately places her two bags inside. On a nearly empty Vietnamese Airlines plane, she sits down in the adjacent seat.
“Hello,” you put forth with a slight nod and smile.
“Hello,” she responds with a slight glint.
“What brought you to Saigon?” you question. She cocks her head, squints her eyes, softly grimaces and shakes her head.
“I sorry, I do not understand many English.”
You reframe and simplify the questions. She is in Ho Chi Minh City for a teacher’s conference and lives a couple hours outside of Hanoi. The plane is now taxiing to the runway. Much to the chagrin of the flight attendant, Bien stands up, pops the overhead latch once again and pulls out a bag of what appears to be fruit, resembling cherries in shape and size.
“Try,” she notes, while handing you three pieces of cherry-like fruit. “Vietnamese cherries.”
A firm texture, a bit of tartness and an absence of the sweetness you usually correlate to cherries back home. They have several pits in them, making the public consumption quite interesting, and perhaps intimate. Faced with a couple pits and no where to put them, you pull out the motion sickness bag, tear the top edge, expand it open and place it in the seat pocket. You and her alternate dropping your leftover pits in the bag.
A cherry pit slips from your finger as you remove it from your mouth and drops onto her seat. “I’m so sorry,” you mention as you scramble to motion for her to allow you to retrieve it. Without any reaction, she contorts her body, reaches down, picks up the pit and puts it into the bag. She looks back, smiles and hands you three more cherries.
Pretty soon, you are in an extended conversation utilizing Vietnamese-English translation applications, the assistance of a bilingual flight attendant and gestures. You teach her singular versus plural, and explain why she should say she is twenty-eight years old and not twenty-eight year old. Meanwhile she teaches you Vietnamese pronunciations.
“What is difference, is and are,” she inquires. You stare at the aircraft ceiling and then out the window trying to come up with a simple manner of description. You decide it is perhaps too difficult to describe it in depth, given the language complications.
You walk out of the baggage claim area of Hanoi International Airport and turn to the right. You are looking for Local Bus #17. Finally, at the very far end, you spot a bus with the number 17 prominently displayed. As you draw closer, you notice that the bus is completely empty and has no driver—quite strange for a local city bus. As you are about to turn away, a man appears and informs you to seat yourself on board.
“Where you go,” the man who appears to be the driver asks.
“The Old Quarter.”
“Ahh, yes, the Old Quarter, we go there, we go there.”
He steps off the bus. You notice the nice seats, the clean floor, the large TV up front and the clean windows. The more you observe, the more it appears this cannot be the local bus, even if it is Bus #17. Just then, you see an old, dirty pockmarked bus turn the corner and leave the airport.
You look back towards where the driver disappeared to, but see no sign. Wanting to avoid any sales pitch, and now quite certain that this is not the right bus, you clutch your bag and slip off the bus, around some other obstacles and find the local bus lot. If you had left the airport and turned right, you should’ve crossed a couple medians on the left to position yourself in a small clearing in the parking lot (rather than continue all the way to the end).
A well-dressed Vietnamese kid boards and sits next to you. He seems excited by this development. The bus rumbles forward and the money collector is edging his way towards you. You take out the 7,000VND (.30USD) and hand it to him. He shakes his head.
“I pay for you, do not worry,” the kid notes. You insist that he takes your money but he refuses. He asks where you are from, why you are in Vietnam, why you are visiting Hanoi, what you plan to do and all of those other standard questions. He seems very excited to give a great first impression.
“Try this,” he says and hands you one red cherry, which looks exactly like a cherry you’d find growing in Washington State.
“Oh, thank you,” you reply as you take the cherry from him and raise it to the air while gesturing gratitude.
“I like these. They are New Zealand. They are expensive here, $40USD/kg, but I buy for gift.”
A simple thing like cherries, which you take for granted, as a high-end gift here, and with the little money that so many people have here, it becomes even more extreme. Yet, here you are, being offered one of these super special cherries by a stranger in a city bus.
The bus continues on its course from the airport until it finally crosses a large bridge and turns to the north. It pulls into a bus lot (Ben xe Long Bien) and everyone gets up to get off. It is a walkable distance from the lot to the Old Quarter, but it seems it might be tricky given rush hour traffic and road patterns. Still, you decide it will be the easier method to take given your lack of heavy baggage and your penchant for walking.
“I help you,” he notes as he departs the bus alongside you. He quickly finds a xe-om (motorbike) driver and negotiates with him in Vietnamese.
“Okay,” he concludes, “he will take you to your hotel for 3,000VND ($1.30).”
You thank him excessively for his kindness and his help. You hop on the motorbike while asking for a helmet. The driver has no helmet, and you are already being surrounded by the city traffic. A helmet is not going to happen.
“How did you arrive,” the hotel clerk asks after the typical greetings.
“Ah, by mini-bus,” she replies.
“No, local bus.”
“Local bus? Are you sure it was local bus?”
It is shocking to her that a traveler would arrive to the Old Quarter by bus as the vast majority get private car service, taxis or mini-bus.
The friendliness is so exuberant, it seems bordering on artificial. Questions like “where are you visiting after Hanoi?” seem posed to merely extract revenue for the travel desk, but then she gives in-depth information regardless to the fact that you aren’t needing tours or transportation booked.
You step outside and start to walk in random directions, your favorite way of observing a city. The traffic is intense. Whereas Saigon’s traffic has higher volume, it seems to work much better in the infrastructure. The streets are wider, longer and straighter. In comparison, Hanoi’s streets, which are older and filled with character, have limited visibility. Throngs of motorbikes roar around blind corners and seem to appear out of thin air on the narrow stone-lined streets.
After enjoying a nice bowl of pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) you head to the lake (ho Hoan Kiem) in the center of the Old Quarter. The picturesque scenery is enjoyable, but even better is the continuous walkway free of motorbikes and cars.
“Can I practice my English,” a smiling Vietnamese kid asks.
His English is laced with a noticeable German accent.
“Yes, many of my tour groups are German, so maybe I have a German sound,” he offers in response to your observation.
“Well, couples typically do not live together here until they are married. And when they are married, the bride goes to live with the groom’s family. Once the couple has saved up enough money, then they move out. But, if the groom is the only-child, then the couple never moves out from the house.”
“Why is that?” you ask.
“Well, eventually the house will be theirs,” he replies.
“The female traditionally cares for and nurtures the guy, and the guy is expected to lead,” he notes at one point in conversation. Your head spins into gear.
“Well then how do breakups work? Who breaks up with whom traditionally?”
He takes a few seconds to think. “Well, I’ve never had a girlfriend,” he volunteers, “but usually the girls break up with the guys here.”
“Really? That seems interesting, why is that?”
“Well, girls are constantly trying to find better, so they keep on finding a better guy and breaking up with the one they have. But once you are married here, divorce is very rare. You are shamed for divorce, so couples stay together even if they don’t really like each other.”
We continue making laps.
“So I have a question that might seem odd,” you ask.
“Ho Chi Minh City?”
“Yes, Ho Chi Minh City,” you respond noticing that some people in the north seem to bristle at the Saigon nomenclature, “seems to have a fair number of prostitutes in plain view. Where do they come from, how do they get into that field and what do people think of them generally?”
“Well, many come from the Mekong Delta in the South, this is where the most beautiful Vietnamese girls come from, but it is poor. They are given job offers, perhaps to work in a cafe in the city, and they come to make the money. However, once they are there, maybe they might be given the option to make much more money as a call girl.”
“So then what do people think of them? Are they looked down upon by people in society?”
“Well, I think they are just trying to make money for their future and their family,” he notes. “Many are ashamed to admit going to them, but it isn’t entirely uncommon. But anyways, I think it is just a job. Of course, other girls in the Mekong and the countryside are purchased by Chinese and Koreans for wives.”
“How does that work?”
Two days have slipped by. Beyond the treacherous activity of crossing the many streets, Hanoi is full of character and charm. It is perhaps more active than you thought heading in. To use rough generalizations, Saigon is perhaps the New York City and Hanoi is the Paris. Saigon is more modern, busy and to the point—a fair bit more American feeling in comparison to the European feel (architecturally, street design, etc.) of Hanoi. Hanoi is more scenic, flowery (in feeling) and intimate. The streets and buildings of Hanoi range from being quaint to regal, with the more refined French Quarter and its tree-lined boulevards transitioning nicely into the Old Quarter, where admiring the fine surroundings surely increase your chance of getting hit on the streets (in fairness, the drivers are very adept at navigating obstacles like people).
Having purchased your train ticket at the main train station yesterday, you head out in time to make the 40-minute walk during evening rush hour. You head south, into the French Quarter, passing the upscale shopping mall. Wedding photographers line the walkway shooting their subjects in from of Louis Vuitton bags and the marble facade.
At one point, the smell of grilled meats hits you and you take a detour, heading further south until you find a smattering of banh mi vendors. You order two, but you only end up with one. You pay, and head off, taking bites which are even more delicious than the smell.
You look for a place to eat that will fill you up for the overnight train ride. One vendor is selling something but you can’t quite tell what it is exactly. You stop at a food stand. A flurry of activity continues all around you. No one asks what you need. You can’t quite tell who works there, who eats there and what is being sold. It looks like a good place, but you head onwards.
To the south of the train station, you find pretty much no food options. Northwest of the train station, you find what looks to be a restaurant and enter. There are a couple tables of Vietnamese. The waitstaff knows no English, but you ask and get a menu and can make out generally what is being sold. Unfortunately, when you inquire on the price, they are giving highly exorbitant pricing. You end up settling for a pair of draft beers, now even more pleased that you stopped for that banh mi.
You look at your train ticket, find the right train (Train SE19 from Hanoi to Da Nang), find the right car, find the right four-bed berth and find the right bed. The train looks like it was built in the 1970’s, but has everything you need, a working sink, two toilets per train car, windows, air-conditioning, a snack cart and relatively comfortable beds (even if they look like they came out of San Quentin).
On the bottom two beds is a Polish tour leader and a Japanese tourist. On the top bed across from you, is an empty bed as the train lurches away from the station. Outside the windows are passing images of Vietnamese motorbike swarms awaiting at the various gated intersections for the train to pass. Perhaps 10 minutes later, the conductor arrives with a Vietnamese passenger, shows him the upper bunk and gets handed 100,000VND in cash.
By the time morning arrives, the train is snaking its way along the Vietnamese coastline. At Hue, all the passengers get off the train except you and a pair of girls. As the train starts to roll again, you manipulate an old mechanical latch and open the window; a warm breeze blows in.
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