Vietnam Part V
Getting About; Lodging
Once inside Vietnam we had two jobs to do: get acquainted with Miguel’s girlfriend (her name is Hao) and her family plus see some of the countryside. We spent all of our stay in the northern portion of the country, so we cannot comment on how things are closer to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). We are told that the south is more developed and has much more of a Western tradition and flavor. For example, when I asked if there was government repression against the LGBT community I was told that they are no longer punished or persecuted, but that LGBT people tend to move to larger cities and to the south where they feel more comfortable in leading an open lifestyle. I was also told that people who wanted a glamorous career such as modeling or acting definitely want to live in Saigon.
Transportation is a bit of an adventure. There are trains, which we never saw. Many locals use them. There are buses within and between cities. Da Nang, Saigon, and Hanoi have large and modern airports. Hai Phong and Cam Ranh Bay have prominent seaports. We chose to travel by private car and taxi.
Within a city traffic mostly consists of motor scooters; cars and larger motorbikes are much less frequent. There are few traffic lights. If you want to cross the street you must kind of put your right arm out in front of you and you start walking. The scooters and the cars will find a way to go around you. Under NO circumstances are you to step backwards, because there is an excellent chance that a scooter has chosen that route to go around you and that you will be hit. It is OK to stop walking, but only if there seems to be no other way to avoid a hit. The standard procedure is to walk slowly in as straight a line as possible. Avoid running across.
Roundabouts are common and interesting. Cars and scooters approach them very slowly; they creep in until they sense that someone is letting them in. The same to exit the roundabout. Very busy intersections have traffic lights. I learned to welcome the sight of these.
Obviously, no one speeds. First, they cannot due to the sheer volume of traffic. Second, even when the street appears empty one never knows when a pedestrian will decide to step into the street. I did not see any speed limit signs. We saw one (toll) superhighway between Hanoi and Haiphong that was equivalent to the best of what we have in the US. Vietnamese people have little extra money, so traffic in the toll highway was scant.
I shudder to think of what will happen as the standard of living increases and more people are able to buy cars. When we were in China we saw massive traffic jams (and pollution) in Beijing and Shanghai. I hope the Vietnamese planners do better than the Chinese did.
Travel between the northern cities: we hired a private car with a chauffeur. The highways are not limited access and in most instances go through every little town imaginable instead of around them. Many times we saw construction crews that shut off both lanes heading into the direction we were heading. We had to use one of the incoming lanes to continue. I did not see any signs to warn us that this was coming; people just knew. No way that a novice should be driving a car under these circumstances. Again, the fact that nobody speeds helped a lot.
We saw many tour buses. These drivers showed undaunted courage, particularly when they were passing slower traffic in the vicinity of a construction site. I had the feeling that they believed that their horn would magically clear the road in front of them. Which it did.
In Hanoi we stayed in an air BNB apartment; in Haiphong and Hué in very nice hotels. The Hué hotel was beautiful; it had a rooftop restaurant with an impressive view of the Huong River. Service to die for; we called because of an electricity problem and someone showed up within seconds. All of this for $45 a day, but I hasten to add we were a bit off season. A three course amazing meal on the roof cost me $25. Tips are not expected and most people don’t give them.
Taking a shower is a challenge. In most Vietnamese households there is no separate stall for the shower. You stand right next to your toilet and you shower. There is a drain, usually behind the toilet, that will keep the floor from flooding.
In the nice apartment and the hotels that we stayed in we had shower stalls, but little effort was made to keep water from leaking out of the shower. Our shower in Hué was inside the tub, and the tub edges were not caulked to the wall. A lot of the shower water ended up on the bathroom floor, which eventually found its way to the ubiquitous drain behind the toilet. It seems to me that there could be a better way, but this is the way they’ve done it forever and a day, so who am I to make suggestions?
The food is mostly vegetable-based. There is very little meat. A lot of soups. Spices varied; bland cuisine is not hard to find. Pastries are not as sweet as Europeans and Americans would like.
Fruit is abundant and fresh. Some of these “things” I could eat pounds of. I found the mangoes to be fresh but not as sweet or juicy (My wife would say “slimy”) as what we grow in the Caribbean.
Very nice people. The fact that we tried to bomb them out of existence years ago was never part of the conversation. Very hard working; they have a clear idea of how hard it is to survive. No matter how difficult their daily routine is, I saw many people laugh. A lot.
I think that we should promote mandatory travel for all. Pack a dozen right wingers with twelve liberal intellectuals in a tour bus and ask them to spend two weeks living as the locals do in a place like Vietnam. I bet you that they will find common ground in a big hurry. It may also help for them to realize that our government is not as inefficient as they think it is, and that maybe we cannot stop burning coal overnight if we are to stop the Third World from starving or freezing to death.
Common Ground Through Travel; that will be the name of this organization. Because no matter who wins, if we don’t learn to compromise with and respect each other we will soon be worse off than Vietnam or any other place in the world.
May this moment come soon.