Friday, February 12, 2016

Safe on the Ground in Hanoi (for the umpteenth time)!

Hanoi--February 13th, 2016
Many things in life should not be boring, but among those things I would suggest is not the unrelieved boredom of repeatedly perfect trans-pacific airline flights, flights where the airplane is actually at the gate when wanted and the boarding process is smooth and easy and the meals are delicious and served by lovely sweet people who don't seem to get tired even on a ten-hour flight, flights with essentially no bumpy air and a great selection of movies to watch, flights where the headwinds are only just strong enough to make your transit time in Korea pleasantly short (as opposed to desperate), flights for that matter on which your bag emerges at baggage claim in Hanoi almost before you clear Immigration (and for that matter, a flight after which the Immigration official (while doing a marvelous "great stone face" imitation) was nonetheless quick and used the right stamps on the back of your visa).   So, it was like that, another boringly flawless performance by Asiana Airlines.

It just got better from there. . .instead of the usual phalanx of $21 per trip taxi drivers at the door, somehow last night the first man who got to me a) spoke fine English and b) only asked $15 for the ride into the city.  It's a long ride, half an hour more or less, though less these days since the new bridge and freeway from the airport to the City is complete. . .and anyway, that close to midnight the traffic isn't bad anyway.  And, I'm not exaggerating, he knew the quickest way to take a car to the dentist office with my hotel behind it and understood my Vietnamese pronunciation well enough that we went to 70 Hang Bo Street not 70 Hang Bong Street the first time.  You should know, perhaps, to understand the marvel of that, that the streets in the Old Quarter were (ages ago) named for the trade practiced therein, and change, sometimes with amazing abruptness from one to the next. Hang Bo is only 3 blocks long, between Hang Bac (silversmiths) and Hang Mam.  Hang Bong on the other hand goes on for blocks and blocks and has far more hotels than Hang Bo (though I don't think it has a dentist's office in front of any of them).  In any event, the older dentist had been detailed to crawl out of bed and let me in, and the new house maid (Miss Dinh, 17 years old and perky, even at midnight) showed me the full length of the hall, deep in the heart of the city block) to my old (tiny but first-floor) room.
This funny little hotel (I haven't measured, but it must be all of 18 feet wide, six meters perhaps, though it goes halfway through the block from front to back and is four stories high) has been my refuge from the crazy roads and traffic as well as my bolthole at midnight on arrival day for what now, the past ten years.  The people of the place are as familiar to me as family and best friends, though mostly I've never kept all their names straight. . .there are currently four generations in residence, though several have grown up and moved on while I've been visiting here, still, the core of family is the same, from the old Grandma who started the place to the youngest 4-year old who is the cutest kid I know.  For some years Grandma would hand me fruit or cookies every time she saw me and I'd bring her flowers whenever I came in off the road (though once the stiff stems of the flower bouquet stuck under a bungee cord on the back of the bike caught my pants cuff and wouldn't let go until I'd fallen over with the bike and flowers on top of me and furnished amusement and consternation for. . .maybe a hundred passers by).  Now she's very old and feeble and much of her wonderful quick mind is gone.  She seemed to know me yesterday though and returned my almost formal greeting with a small gentle gesture, hands together. . .and smiled when I touched her cheek with my fingers.  She was the first dentist in the hotel by the way, learned the trade when her young husband died and left her with a house full of kids to raise.  Two daughters are the dentists now, though only one of them usually works on my teeth. . .who knows??  The others?  My good friend, the Physics Professor (he who at some considerable personal risk guided my broken leg down the spiral staircase that had done me in one dark night in 2010), an Engineer (in Germ any normally, but currently here visiting over Tet), a couple of physicians. . .does that cover every one?  Several live here in the hotel. . .their spouses, another engineer, another physician. . .that sort of family.

Did you notice I mentioned "Tet"??  Lunar New Year!  The Roman New Year we celebrate at home is a pale uninteresting holiday by comparison.  Tet in Viet Nam is THE annual holiday.  Everyone who possibly can locks the shop, gathers the wife and kids and goes home to the grandparents for a week or ten days, everyone, including everyone who can from America, Australia, France. . .wherever.  There are several consequences to this. . .most importantly, for the weeks just before Tet, airline seats are sold, years in advance I suspect.  Conversely, the day after Tet, you can get a seat from Seattle to Hanoi for. . .well. . .a lot less than usual let's say.  Everybody who could get here is already here.  You're late.  So that's the good. . .the bad. . .everybody padlocked the shop and went to the grandparents and it's pretty hard to travel or find a hotel or a restaurant or pretty much anything at all for a few days.  This year I came on the 4th day after Tet, and things have begun to loosen up, though I'd guess the City is still running at half or less its normal rate.

My first year in country 2005, I actually was here well in advance and spent Tet in Hoi An. . .still a wonderful memory, though Hoi An has changed so much. . .so much more modern and even more touristic than it was, that I doubt I'll ever be there again for Tet.  I waited four days though, enjoying the wonderful flowers and hospitality (okay, it was simply fabulous then) but then on Day Four I took the mountain road (the splendid, brand new, gorgeous, foggy steep sided mountain road with the terrifying landslides (two of them) leaving only treacherous paths through the red mud wreckage, intending to spend the night in A Luoi, a small mountain town at the end of the wildest part of that magnificent road through the jungle.  Sadly, I squashed my right foot on a concrete post set deep in the ground on a steep curve next to that spot in the road where someone had spread half a load of fine sand (slippery, deadly traction-free sand, to be clear) and I'd kept the bike right way up but not on the road.  The concrete post (with its friends every 10 feet or so) was intended to keep me from riding off down the side of the mountain (where I could have died in perfect peace and quiet I suppose, nobody would have known for weeks if then).  So, the concrete post worked,  I stopped, and avoided a lot of damage to the foot peg on the right side of the bike by softening the blow with my foot.  I didn't look for several hours for fear of finding the toes loose in the shoe, and then not being able to get it back on, which would have made working the gear shift a lot harder.  The toes?  They weren't. . .just broken, and only two of them, not sheared off.  H'mm.  But, we were discussing travel during the Tet holiday, and the point of this part of the story is that the town of A Luoi, which then had two perfectly good hotels.  . .had two hotels closed for Tet.  Dusk was at hand, my foot was beyond my pain threshold by a good bit and there was no hotel, no restaurant and no prospects nearer than Hue.  So we rode to Hue, two hours away, arriving long after dark after what amounted to a psychedelic pain wracked ride through a canyon down an incomparably narrow and winding mountain road, through the suburbs and traffic . . .and to a hotel with an Israeli Army medic in the lobby eager to practice on my foot.  So you don't travel much during Tet unless you're sure of your hotel reservations.

Conversely, wherever you are during the Tet holiday you're likely to  find all manner of interesting things and people to see.  In this case, my chores for day one in country were mainly somewhere near Hoan Kiem Lake, which is always a fine place to walk and people watch. . .and vastly more so at Tet.  It's a smallish lake I suppose in the grand scale of things, roughly a city block wide east to west and three blocks long north to south.  It's a park really, the lake itself isn't quite square, but all the land around is neatly contained by a busy street and manicured and planted to perfection.  You can usually stroll around it, see all the flowers, talk to a couple of college students needing to practice English, maybe even stop and drink a really expensive coffee. . .all in less than an hour without hurrying. Not right now!  Every possible square inch of ground is packed full of flowering plants, the trees are at their springtime best and the people.  Oh my goodness.  Everyone (except a few hundred tourists) is wearing their very best.  The kids are done up as cute as can be in traditional New Year's costumes.  The young men are very smart and the young ladies. . .my goodness.  Let us just simply acknowledge that young Vietnamese ladies these days have amazing taste in clothes, color and cut and high heels (amazing, simply amazing heels) that you won't see in Seattle.  But the families with cute kids make the best photos.  So, on five hours sleep, I found the road atlas I needed and bought coffee, tea, sweet milk and a coffee filter, took care of drinking water, reloaded my Vietnamese smart phone. . .and harassed people with the camera.  You should have been there.
Everyone has a smartphone now. . .and a lot of people have cute kids!

Lots of Tet traditional costumes. . .

More balloons than I've ever seen before

Sweets and bubble blowers

Flower beds jammed full of blooms, and so many different

The year of the monkey. . ."Chuc Mung Nam Moi". . .learn to say it, "May you have a good New Year"  You'll need it a lot for the next few weeks. 

Pop up greeting cards displayed in an umbrella?? And hair down to your knees.  Oh my.

How does this bubble maker really work??

Okay, so not all the kids would smile. . .

But some sure will!

What can you say?  Just met her. . .

Dozens of balloon sellers. . .those are mostly lighter than air. . .she's holding DOWN not up!