Escaping the weekend from Hong Kong I bought a cheap ticket to Hanoi.
The first adventure was trying to - quickly – get cash from an ATM. I was doing this quickly because I had a cab waiting for me and I didn’t know that one US dollar is equal to 22,400 Dong. The machine says enter the amount you want in local currency, and there are lots of zeros. Do you want 100,000 or 1,000,000 or a max of 3,000,000. So I choose 100,000 and get back the equivalent of about $5 USD!
Supposedly the traffic in Hanoi ranks with the worst, but it is mostly motor scooters. One the ride from the airport I noticed that although there was lots of road activity we were driving slowly and carefully. (This was good knowledge for tackling street crossings later).
I get deposited at the Metropole Hotel, an amazing throwback to the French colonial era right in the French quarter, and an oasis in the middle of nonstop activity. The jolt of being greeted by attractive young Vietnamese women speaking perfect French is one of those cultural quirks that makes traveling fun. A friendly place full of ex-pats, tourists from all over, and some locals and highly recommended for any of you going that way. And the best surprise of all, the croissants and baguettes and macaroons are better than those I found in Paris!
I have to say it was a little weird being in Vietnam after the American experience, even though I wasn’t there. The Vietnamese people seem to just take that “event” as one more in multiple tries at occupation, but of course, we don’t see it that way.
The Metropole hotel was home to Jane Fonda, Joan Baez, and foreign correspondents in the early 70s, and there is an historical exhibit of them staying there and of a bomb bunker found under the hotel.
The next day I went to Maison Central, aka Hanoi Hilton, a prison with a long history before American pilots were held there. Besides being a grim place, the exhibits of American pilots were strange, and undoubtedly pure propaganda. The literature and guides insist the pilots received excellent treatment. There are photos of pilots eating pineapple or decorating Christmas trees and funny bits about how the Americans made fun of their forced prison clothes by calling themselves “pilots in pyjamas.” They “enjoyed” basketball and volleyball, and all the photos showed smiling guys.
The advice for walking is – look straight ahead and walk at a deliberate pace when crossing the street. It takes faith, but it works. (And it took faith again at the beginning of the second day to step off the curb).
Walking around is the way to go. The streets are leafy and tree lined, with low, two and three story buildings. The French quarter shows lots of French architectural influence, and the old town is the same, just crammed with sidewalk shops. You wouldn’t know that the city got flattened during the Vietnam war. Once you leave the old town or the French quarter the place is like any other third world city.
Monday morning I pay my 30 million Dong hotel bill and head for Hong Kong for one night then flying off into the Pacific, Fiji, on Tuesday. The peacefulness of a tropicaI playground is becoming very appealing after too much city exposure.