Here we are with our old classmate Lin Liu, living in Hanoi as an American diplomat. Right below us (we’re in her apartment) is the lake where John McCain was shot down and captured.
We’re spending February in Vietnam. We’ve been here twice before, first for three or four weeks in late 2001/early 2002 and then again almost exactly 10 years ago early in our big adventure. We’ve long described Vietnam as one of our favorite countries – great food, friendly people, interesting history, beautiful beaches, and some lovely cities – but we both wondered if we would like it as much this third time. Maybe we’ve kind of seen it all already and we would just be reliving some Greatest Hits experience. After a couple days in Hanoi, though, I’m inclined to think we will really enjoy it. Simply put (and something I would never have imagined saying growing up during the war) I love Hanoi.
If you have to take a flight half way around the world, might as well do it in Business Class with a bottomless glass of champagne, right?
First, though, we had to get there. It was supposed to be straightforward: Qatar Airways, one stop in Doha, a modest layover, then on to Hanoi. Everything was fine until we got near Hanoi when the pilot announced that due to weather conditions we would have to circle for a while. And another while. Until finally he announced that we would have to divert to Bangkok. OK we thought, we can sit it out for an hour or two until the plane is refueled and the weather clears up as the forecast certainly showed it was to do. (Even then, at one point the plane did a big loop, turned around and headed back to Hanoi. Yay!! Except the celebration was too soon: the weather fogged up again and we turned back to Bangkok.)
So we go on to Bangkok, land, and hang out on the plane for a couple hours while the airline tries to figure out what to do. Eventually the weather in Hanoi cleared, but too late: the crew had “timed out” and they couldn’t take the plane back to Hanoi. They tell us instead we will deplane while they figure out if they can get another crew or if we’ll have to spend the night.
Mark and I then tried to decide whether we should just buy a one-way flight to Hanoi so we could be sure to get there (and the pre-paid hotel room!) that afternoon. Seats were available and they were pretty inexpensive. One problem: Qatar Airways insisted – insisted! – on holding our passports when we went through immigration. They said it was the Thai officials and maybe it was, but it made no sense: Americans can go into Thailand without a visa so what’s the problem? Just have us go through immigration like anyone else. Absolutely no way: we had to give up our passports. It was only for a couple hours, though, they explained, as we’d be flying out between four and five that afternoon.
That was just a big old lie, though, to get us to quiet down and give them our passports. Instead they took us to a hotel maybe 30 minutes from the airport and nearly an hour away from the center of Bangkok. And there we stayed overnight with nothing to do and nowhere to go.
While the diversion to Bangkok was a fiasco, we tried to make the best of it. There was nothing very interesting around our airport hotel, but we did find one tiny local restaurant that got good reviews so we tried it. Colorful, local, and cheap, yes, but … not as great as we’d hoped.
The next morning when we got to the airport it was an unbelievable zoo. Somehow no one had figured out how to get our passports back to us so when someone went to the check-in counter – dedicated to our delayed flight – the staff would just start looking through the passports one-by-one, trying to match the name or picture with whoever was standing in front of them. Apparently no one had ever heard of “alphabetization.”
And speaking of stupid, the new boarding passes they issued still had yesterday’s date, since that was the scheduled departure. So when I got to the security line they didn’t want to let me through – my flight had been yesterday. Eventually a supervisor came over and showed the agent a little scribbled note that explained the discrepancy. Even then we weren’t free, though. Thai officials didn’t want us to go through the normal passport line since we’d come into the country without having our passports stamped. Instead they herded us, one-by-one as people gradually worked their way through all the hoops, into a holding area. When could we go through? Once all 174 people had made it through. That was insane and was going to take hours … and who knew if someone had gotten lost or went through a different line or whatever. So finally they realized the stupidity of that and when there were maybe 30 of us let us through.
OK, fine. Eventually they got that sorted out and we flew on to Hanoi. And within about an hour of checking into the Metropole Hotel – the grand dame of Hanoi’s luxury hotels – I was over all the frustration. Around the center, French Quarter, and old town, at least, Hanoi is just such a beautiful, exciting, vibrant city that you fall in love immediately or, in my case, fall in love again. The weather was pleasant, temperature in the 70s and overcast so not too hot. The street life is alive. And right in the middle of everything, just a block from our hotel, is Hoan Kiem Lake, where the people of Hanoi run, walk, take pictures, play badminton, exercise, and just enjoy life. I’ve gone out for early morning runs and walks every time I’ve been in Hanoi and this trip was no exception. It just makes me happy.
We took a break while walking through the old city and sat on a second-floor balcony of a coffee shop watching a random intersection. The noise, the chaos, the colors … it was exhilarating. Watching cars, buses, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians pushing through with little or no traffic controls you wonder how people survive but somehow they do.
Sadly though, we’d only booked three nights in Hanoi, in part because we weren’t sure we would really want to stay longer. But since we lost a full 30 hours to the Bangkok fiasco, in fact we only had one full day to enjoy it. We made the most of our time there, spending much of the day with a former classmate who is part of the American embassy in Hanoi. She showed us around a bit, including a spectacular street-food lunch, a local coffee shop, and a great place for dinner.
Lunch with Lin was a special treat. She took us to a popular little “restaurant” that was mostly just stools on the sidewalk, where they specialize in Bun Cha, a Hanoi specialty of grilled pork patties, grilled pork belly, in a divine broth with rice noodles and tons of fresh, local greens. Oh man.
One of the things we noticed as soon as we got into the city that it just seemed cleaner, nicer, wealthier than we remembered it. And as we walked around you could see unmistakeable signs: nicer restaurants, five-star hotels, a Four Seasons under development. People were better dressed with maybe just a little more spring in their steps.
And sure enough when I looked it up, Vietnam’s economy has been on a tear. Inflation-adjusted per capital income is up nearly 75 percent over the last 10 years. And given the challenges of addressing rural poverty, and especially the historic interest autocratic governments have always had in keeping people in the capital happy and complacent, I suspect income growth in Hanoi is measurably larger than that. It seems as though things are going well here, at least so long as you don’t do anything to promote democracy or anything stupid like that.
It was all over too soon though and after just a day-and-a-half we were flying down to Danang for a few days at a resort near Hoi An. We have four weeks here so there’s still plenty of time to soak up Vietnam.
The people of Vietnam are always so friendly. These kids were doing some assignment with their teacher so a couple of them interviewed me. Very cute.
It’s the start of Tet here, and the Sunday we arrived there were hundreds of mostly young women and girls dressed up, posing, and having their pictures taken. Very colorful.
Here’s a classic Vietnamese picture. The local guy taking a break, napping on his scooter. We’ve taken this picture on each of our trips here.
The bridge to Ngoc Son Temple in Hoan Kiem Lake in early morning fog
I love walking or running around the lake early in the morning where you see every kind of exercise imaginable. Here we have a group of older women pounding each other on the back. Looks like fun!
More women exercising
Yet another group of women out early. I suspect they were practicing something for a Tet celebration.
Mark on one of the crazy colorful crowded Hanoi streets
While Vietnam is modernizing rapidly, untold millions of people still make their living the old fashioned way.
Me & Lin at a very pleasant little coffee shop/art studio. It’s the sort of thing that I just don’t remember from 10 years ago and certainly not from our first visit 23 years ago.
And finally, how happy do I look stranded here in Bangkok. Fortunately though as they say, all’s well that ends well. And this ended well. Eventually.