On my last day in Hoi An, April and I ate at our cheese-and-chocolate restaurant three times in one day (same server each time, embarrassingly) and in between, we hired the tiniest, most ancient man ever to row us up and down the river for an hour. I felt sure he would expire from the labor, but he had a grand time, starting water fights with the other boats and making us take his picture forty times.
After that, I felt I’d worn out Hoi An, so I went on to Hue and April and I agreed to meet up again in Hanoi.Hue features the ruins of a walled Imperial City built by some emperor or other in the 19th century. I walked all around it in the freezing, pouring rain. The city is also just South of the DMZ, so I took a bus tour of that the next day (also in the freezing, pouring rain). Once upon a time in Chicago, I took a bus tour of various sights having to do with Al Capone and the mob: all the relevant sights had long since been razed and built over, so the tour was mostly looking at parking lots and hearing about what used to be there. The DMZ tour was sort of the same deal. The DMZ itself has been resettled by rice farmers and now looks like the rest of Vietnam, and all the other sights just a single monument or bridge in the middle of nowhere. It was at least a 20 minute drive in between each sight, and half the time we didn’t even get out of the bus when we got there. I did find the Vinh Moc tunnels interesting: over fifty, tiny tunnels constitute an underground city where families lived for years during the bombing, emerging only for brief periods at night.
The tour bus dropped me off at a depressing restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where I sat for nearly three hours before being picked up by the overnight bus to Hanoi. Unlike the bus to Hoi An, I managed to sleep this time, and arrived in Hanoi in the still-dark early morning feeling fairly rested. April and I met up around 7 a.m., and had the worst time finding a hotel room that I’ve ever yet experienced in my travels. Everyone we talked to was mean, and the rooms were all dingy and overpriced. We were even installed in a room, only to be tossed out an hour later, because the nice girl we’d dealt with quoted us a price that was $4 lower than her horrid, rude boss really wanted for the room.
We did not have the best time in Hanoi. Everybody in Hanoi seems entirely over tourism, and not at all happy to deal with tourists. People were unfriendly, and all the vendors kept quoting us crazy high prices and laughing at us.
On a more pleasant note, we did escape Hanoi for three days and two nights, while we took a cruise around Halong Bay. There are many such tours you can book from Hanoi; the prices may vary, but in true Asian “same-same” style, the tours are all exactly identical down to each meal served. The first day, you board a mid-sized wooden boat and head out into Halong Bay, which is quite large and dramatically studded with many karst formations. You see a floating village: houses, shops and a school all on individual floating platforms. The villagers get around by boat and everybody has a big dog to protect their fish farms from sabotage by competition. You take a ride on a little kip through a couple of lagoons, after which the boy driving stops the kip far from your boat and demands a ludicrous fee from each person (his request takes the form of his slapping your leg repeatedly and saying, ‘Money! Money!’). You visit “Surprising Cave;” the surprise is that it’s about the size of a football stadium. You do some swimming and kayaking off the boat, which is probably a lot more fun when it’s not December.
There was a Vietnamese-Australian family on our boat tour, and after dinner that night, some of us asked them how they’d ended up in Australia. The man had escaped there by accident when he was 13, just after the end of the war. He’d gone along with his best friend without knowing where he was going; next thing he knew, he was on a boat to Malaysia and couldn’t go back. Two months later, he was a ward of the state in Australia. His mother didn’t know where he’d gone, but as his father and brother were both in prison being reeducated (15 and 12 years respectively), she had enough to worry about. He saw his family again 17 years later, in 1994, when he had to return to Vietnam on a work trip. Because he’d lied about who his family was and where they lived in order to get his visa in Australia, he couldn’t tell his work he planned to take a side trip to see them, so he also coulnt’ warn his family he was coming. He just showed up. His wife’s family had run away (from Dalat) in the middle of the night, Von Trapp style, when she was 10. They were both really frightened returning to Vietnam as recently as the ’90s, but here it is 2006, and we were all chatting casually about it on a boat in the middle of Halong Bay.The tour was highly regimented. From one end of it to the other, we were herded and ordered about like kindergartners.
‘Hello, hello, please,’ our guide, “Rooster,” would cry, round about noon. ‘Lunch now. Lunch. Excuse me? Lunch now, please.’
And there he would stand until every, single last guest had proceeded to table.
‘Excuse me, you will enjoy to sit on deck for 30 minutes and then we will dock at the cave. Please enjoy to sit on deck. Please enjoy to sit on deck now, this way. Thirty minute.’
No lingering at table, no napping in the cabins, all stragglers were promptly rounded up. We swam on day one and biked in Cat Ba National Park on day two, no matter that there was rain on the water day and sun on the land. There is a schedule and there is a plan, and the schedule has never changed and it will not change today, not for Ho Chi Minh himself, and sure as hell not for an American, three Canadians, two Germans and a family of Vietnamese-Australians. On day two, we relocated to a hotel on Cat Ba Island and took all our meals in the dining room there. On the first day, April and I were asked to sit with a table of strangers so that all the chairs at that table would be filled before a new table was started on. We declined and soon were joined by two of our friends, and the four of us were promptly served. A guy and his dad from our tour sat at the table adjacent to ours, and the guy started helping himself to some of our rice. A server immediately ran over and told him to stop; he and his father would be served their own food as soon as the two empty chairs across from them were occupied. No sooner, no later. Meanwhile, across the room, I saw several panicky servers make a girl get up and move across from her boyfriend (she’d tried to sit next to him) because that’s where the place setting had been laid. Soon, we learned to work this system. Next day, we were all at lunch at some restuarant and had been sitting there for a good while without anyone approaching us (though they kept walking by and staring). We noticed there was an extra place setting at our table, and moved the dishes and chair to another table. Immediately, a woman made a beeline for us and asked us what we’d have to drink.
Also on the tour, we visited Monkey Island, so named because of the troops of wild monkeys living there. Tourists and locals alike love to feed the monkeys, though occasionally the monkeys will swipe sunglasses, etc. April and I went over and looked at them; we were standing some distance away, watching a family of monkeys turn cartwheels and swat adorably at each other, when suddenly one of them drew a bead on a large bottle of water April had and ran at us, hissing. Frightened, April threw her water bottle at it and it seemed to be mollified, when out of nowhere, an a giant, fat, red-faced, red-assed baboon of a monkey charged right for us, screaming and baring its fangs. It wrapped itself around April’s (now rapidly retreating) calf and sunk its teeth into her ankle. At least, that’s how it appeared from my vantage point as I frantically tried to keep April in between myself and the mad monkey (yeah, yeah, I’m no hero); but after she escaped, it turned out it hadn’t managed to break the skin. For the rest of the day, we huddled down the beach, waiting for someone else to be attacked (no one was) while the monkeys threw the water bottle back and forth, and sat on it and stared at us. So, turns out monkeys are bad news.
On the other hand, the preserved carcasses of dead dictators are great fun for the whole family, as I learned when April and I attended the requisite viewing of Uncle Ho’s corpse. Like everything in ‘Nam, this is quite the procedure: we first had to go up to a little office and have our bags checked. April carries a tote, and the woman told her she had to carry her cameras, wallet and film, but they would keep the bag itself, as it was too big and thus a threat to HCM. But the stuff they told April to keep was everything in her bag and she couldn’t carry it all without some kind of tote. There was much discussion in Vietnamese, and then the woman knotted her bag up so that it looked like a smaller bag, and gave it back to her. After that, we had to wait in some room where a filmstrip played on a loop (in Vietnamese) until a big enough group had assembled, at which point we all filed through a security checkpoint, had our bags x-rayed, and were instructed to place all our cameras and cell phones in special red bags provided for the purpose. Then, we went through yet another bag check office, where we deposited the red bags. Then, we arrived at the actual mausoleum, where guards looked through all our bags yet again. At long last, we were admitted to the crypt, where we quickly filed past Ho, serene and waxy under glass, and reemerged into the sunlight to go collect all our bags from the various places where they’d been deposited. Frankly, I think Uncle Ho looked fake.
So, I’m still in Hanoi. My flight out isn’t until Sunday night, so I get to stay the longest in the place I’ve enjoyed the least. April flew to Japan this morning. She stayed in Hanoi just long enough to have her wallet stolen out of her bag last night – all her money and credit cards. Helpfully, everyone at the restaurant knew exactly who’d taken it; less helpfully, they didn’t think it necessary to alert April at the time. We had a long, trying night that involved a surreal visit to the police station, an extended hunt through the city for a copying machine and a dreadful time at a bank the next morning. I’m in such a grumpy mood, I can’t even write all that into funny stories. I’ve been going to the movies every day, watching crappy American comedies and half dozing in the air-conditioning. I’m really ready to move on.