Thursday, January 19, 2012

Vietnamese Journey - Part I: January 17 (Home) to January 19 (Hanoi)

We had planned a trip to Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand in August; by December, Pat’s hip had become so painful that she felt that she would not be able to participate in the tour, which included several walking tours of cities. She insisted that I continue as planned, so on January 17th, I started to Los Angeles to board THAI Airways for the first leg of the trip. Traffic was light, so I arrived at the Hilton, where I parked my car and boarded the shuttle for the Bradley Terminal. I arrived about ten minutes before the counters opened to accept passengers for the flight.  Shortly I was relaxing in the lounge waiting for the boarding announcement.
Food Counter in Bangkok Airport
The first leg to Bangkok went smoothly. There is a period of about eight hours between the first and second of three meal servings on the flight and I was able to sleep fairly well through most of that. We arrived at Bangkok about 45 minutes ahead of schedule, so there was plenty of time to catch my flight to Hanoi. In Bangkok, transiting passengers had to go through another security check, but did not go through Immigration.
My first view of Ha Noi from the plane
The new terminal in Bangkok is immense, and I had to walk at least one km to change planes through long concourses filled with shops and restaurants. We boarded and were soon on our way to Hanoi (In Vietnam it is broken into two distinct words, Ha Noi).  On landing the field was totally socked in. The plane had had a short delay before takeoff and I wondered if that was to obtain a landing slot.
Intercontinental Hotel in Ha Noi
Then through Immigration and the walk through the Customs green lane and I was officially in Vietnam. I obtained Two million Dong (VND) at the ATM, or about $100. They really need to have a 1:1000 reverse split of their money here. The menus at the hotel and the taxi meters all assume the last three zeroes anyhow.  As instructed by my tour leader, who had sent me an email beforehand and the signs in the airport, I ignored the “independent” drivers in the claim area and went across the street to find a dispatcher.  He offered to take me to the hotel for $16, which was two dollars less than I had expected, if I paid US$.  I had planned for this and got in after telling him the hotel for the second time.  This is actually quite reasonable as it’s over 10 miles to the hotel from the airport.
I had told the hotel that I was arriving early, planning to store luggage and then go out. They actually had my room ready, so I took my luggage up. The view is not one of the better ones; whether that was because I was early or they save those for tour groups I don’t know. However, inside it was fine with a nice king bed and a large bath and plenty of room to stretch out.

Purchasing a tree for Tet

Taking a tree home for Tet

After I arrived, I decided to take a walk in the general direction of the restaurant where I had planned to have dinner. The Google map said it was about 2.5 miles, so I started out with my camera. As noted the fog, which I decided is smog, was dense, which sort of ruined the picture opportunities. I took some pictures of buildings and many of the traffic and the people going by on scooters. Most of the traffic consists of mopeds, scooters, or motorized bicycles, with a few cars thrown in for good measure.  There appears to be no traffic control. No lights, no stop signs, no police. A few times, I tried to cross a street. You need to wait for a break; good if it’s in both directions at the same time and then time your path through the break. Fortunately, the streets are narrow, barely wide enough for two cars.  After walking for a while, I decided that I wouldn’t make the restaurant by walking and turned home. The whole trip was about an hour and a half.
On the way from the airport and during my walk, I saw many people with small trees, mostly orange, on the  back of their scooters driving around. I guessed that this may have something to do with the upcoming Tet (New Year's )holiday. My guess was confirmed by an article in Friday’s Vet Nam News about the demand for plants for Tet.  It seems that there is a thriving business in these plants both for sale and rent. In HCMC (Saigon) a florist is renting plants “from 2m high for VND 20 to 35 million ($1,000 to $1,700). This price does include transportation.
I went back to the hotel, showered, did email, and went out to eat at about 5:30. Given my experience of the afternoon, I took a taxi.   It seemed to take forever and the ride was 100,000 VND ($5). Looking at the map this morning, I think he took the long way around the lake.  The trip back was only 40,000VND ($2), which was consistent with my expectations. As a matter of fact the way back was pretty familiar from my earlier walk.
Mushroom Hot Pot at Sen Tay Ho Restaurnt

The trip to the restaurant, which came at a busy period was just a little hectic. Every so often we would meet a car coming in our direction on a road that was only one car wide. There was a lot of light flashing and horn honking. The amazing thing is that between my walk and two taxi rides, there were no collisions. I think that oddly there is a certain restraint and that traffic doesn’t move very fast and that the drivers are used to this and are prepared.
I went to a restaurant called Sen Tay Ho. It is a large establishment with several dining floors. The host took me to an outside table in the buffet area. I think they have table service on the upper floors. The buffet was about $15 and a large bottle of local beer was a little over a dollar. The buffet was spread out over a large inside room and the outdoor porch where I was sitting. There was a large variety of shell fish, BBQ chicken, pork and fish, vegetables, spring rolls, and other local dishes.  I had a mushroom hot pot which had several kinds of mushrooms, vegetables, and meat in broth. It was hot both in temperature and spice, and I finished about half the bowl.  However there was plenty to eat and a large table of small French pastries for dessert. I was full when I left.

Interesting House overlookng the lake

Typical Ha Noi traffic

Interesting building and wetland

A foggy day across the lake

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