Monday, November 18, 2002

Hanoi !!

Friends: And here we are in Hanoi. Bangkok to Hanoi via northern Thailand and the mountains of Laos, some 1,500 miles. This has become a significant journey. Five days in Vietnam and we have to keep reminding ourselves this is the Vietnam of all those movies and books and tales of friends who served here. Fortunately, neither of us knew anyone who earned a spot on the Vietnam War Memorial. If we let our thought drift back to that distant past, we can feel the nightmare this place was at one time. There is no evidence, though, of all the carnage of that time, other than the occasional glimpse of an older guy lacking a limb.

There is no animosity to speak of, rather the opposite. Several times a Vietnamese of my age, in his 50s, has approached me, offered his hand and then walked away, without saying a word. I don't think it has anything to do with how far we have traveled by bike. Rather, it is assumed I'm another returning vet who has come back for some sort of catharsis, and they wish to let me know they appreciate that I've returned and that there are no hard feelings. Some simply ask if I've been to Vietnam before, a polite way of asking if I'm among the six-and-a-half million Americans who served in the military here.

As we closed in on Hanoi my thought began dwelling more and more on where we were. The last 20 miles before the outskirts of this city of three-and-a-half million were on a divided four-lane highway with little traffic. There wasn't much need for horn blasts, though an occasional driver couldn't resist, even from the opposite direction across the divided highway, as some sort of welcome. With such relative calm, our thought could wander. We had a minor skirmish going ourselves warding off the chills from a cool wind from the north and an all day drizzle that had our speed below tens miles per hour. Each kilometer post with Hanoi written on it wouldn't let us forget where we were headed.

I could feel a welling of emotion not unlike what I felt after the seven days I spent in a courtroom attending the trial of the SUV road rage murderer of a messenger friend of mine. When the first degree murder verdict was given after two days of deliberation I felt empty. And when reporters asked for my reaction afterward I found myself choking on the emotion of the moment. I could feel a similar welling now. But only because I dug for it. We have seen nothing so far in our five days here that would cause them. Maybe when we start going to the various museums and memorials devoted to the war, such feelings will be stirred. What minor hostility we have experienced wasn't from anyone who knew our nationality. We have yet to encounter another American here, just Europeans among the Western set, so the locals do not assume that foreigners are Americans. People always seem pleased, however, to learn that we are Americans.

We arrived in Hanoi less than five hours ago, an hour before dark. It took us most of the last hour of light to find a hotel, as the first two recommended by Lonely Planet were full and several others we checked weren't up to our standards, at least when we had options. The traffic hasn't been as horrendous as we had been warned, especially compared to that of Bangkok. The majority of it is motorbikes. They clog the streets wheel-to-wheel and shoulder-to-shoulder flowing at a similar steady speed as if they were a steadily moving current of water particles. They are so dominant, a Dutch couple traveling by bicycle we had dinner with last night told us that there were no bicyclists in Hanoi, just motorcyclists. We couldn't believe that to be true, and it wasn't. But there are so few, we could understand that by Dutch standards, there appeared to be none. Bicycles once dominated not so long ago, but with affluence, they have been choked out by the motorcyclists. There are still a handful of bicyclists, so the motorcyclists have experience in accommodating those of us on pedal bikes.

We found a hotel in the old city. We are eager to explore its narrow, windy streets and its many shops and sidewalk sellers. There is at least one building of 20 stories or so, unlike the capital of Laos, which didn't have a building of more than three or four stories, other than a monument or two. But like Ventiane, it could be a capitol city free of American franchises. We have seen none so far in our wanderings. Maybe there will be a McDonald's or KFC or some such thing near the skyscraper, not that were interested other than as a symptom of its Westernization. Thailand had plenty. In fact 7-Eleven was its most popular grocery store in any town of more than 10,000 people. We were always happy to see one, and in fact were eager to, as they were air-conditioned and had a self-serve drink machine that dispensed crushed ice just like back home. We were hoping there'd be 7-Elevens in Laos and Vietnam as well, but so far we have yet to find one.

We've had nine straight days of biking since Ventiane and are looking forward to several days of rest. We plan to take a two-day trip via bus to Halong Bay, 100 miles away. That seems to be what every traveler does in Hanoi, just as everyone who visits Chang Mai takes a three-day trip to visit the hill tribes. We're nearing the half-way point of our two-and-a-half months away and are beginning to feel the pressure of time to do all we'd like before we return from Bangkok the day before Christmas. We're hoping to meet up with the Aussie cyclists we spent a couple days with in Laos and also the Dutch couple we dined with last night in Ninh Binh. They were just a week in to a six-month bike ride from Hanoi to Singapore. This was their dream trip. It was inspired by a one-month bike tour of Northern Thailand two years ago. They knew that wasn't long enough. We closed down the restaurant, breathlessly gabbing away, extolling the bicycling life. Our conversation was so animated and lively, I was aware of others in the small restaurant of travelers listening in, as I would have too, and then resumed our gab-fest over a prolonged breakfast this morning before we set out in the rain, they south and us north.

The few of us who travel by bike are instant friends and share a camaraderie as if we've known each other for years. I've had many a tour when I never encountered another touring cyclist or just for a few minutes on the road as we passed going in the opposite direction. The handful we have met on this trip has each been one of its highlights. We delight in checking out each other's gear almost as much as we love hearing about each other's love for what we are doing. The Dutch couple had super-insulated water bottles that even had a temperature gauge built in to them. They registered 45 degrees after spending the night in the refrigerator. They also had two kickstands on their bikes, one on the rear stay and the other on the front low-rider rack to prevent the front wheel from swinging around. They were enthralled by my spare tire stuffed between the spokes of my front wheel. I have yet to meet another cyclist who knows that trick. They don't have to worry much about dogs as the husband is a police officer who trains police dogs--Belgian shepherds, as they are meaner than German Shepherds.

Dogs are the least of a touring cyclist's worries in Vietnam. The few that are to be seen are remarkably well-behaved. If they're not, they could well end up in the frying pan. I was startled today to actually hear a dog barking, but it was a puppy who didn't know better. The honking motorists, unfortunately, more than make up for the lack of dog barking. They yelp at will with their horns, and, as with dog barking, it is contagious and competitive, and for many, once they start, there is no stopping them. It is beyond annoying. It is infuriating. In India it nearly made me cut my planned three-month trip short. Vietnam is no where near as aggravating as India. The incessant horn-blowing was just one of the travails of traveling in India. Almost as aggravating were the swarms of people who continually mobbed me. We had been warned the Vietnamese could swarm as well and give us no peace. But those warnings all came from people who had been here a while ago. The locals have become accustomed to Westerners and are no longer so curious. We still attract people here and there but only a thimble full by India standards. We drew the attention of several young men this afternoon when we stopped on the divided highway into Hanoi under an overpass, the first we had encountered since Bangkok. We wanted to get out of the rain and have a bite to eat and there'd been no place to stop for miles. A couple of guys on motor bikes pulled over to check us out, and several guys from some nearby fields came over. They were shivering and were surprised we were in shorts. A couple of them were bold enough to put their hands on my legs to see if they were cold. They weren't at that point, though after 15 minutes or so we had cooled off enough for Laurie to have goosebumps, which a couple of them pointed out. Another stroked my beard. But these were gentle, friendly gestures that we didn't mind.

Vietnam continues to surprise and enthrall us. One must ever have his camera at the ready to capture the odd sight or moment. I could have shot a dozen rolls already just of all the wide-ranging loads we have seen carried on bikes. As we sat sipping our fourth smoothie in little more than 12 hours two towns back at one of the typical intersections without stop sign or stop light or traffic cop in the middle of a town with a non-stop stream of all manner of traffic converging from all four directions, I wished I had a video camera to capture the spectacle of it. No one slows their speed, but all still pass through unscathed. We saw pony and cattle-pulled carts along with scores of bicyclists, some carrying a half-ton load on a front-loaded transport bike, and all the usual motorized vehicles and pedestrians, too, some carrying a pole on their back with two overloaded baskets at either end, too wide to be on the sidewalk, trotting along in the road. It had to be seen to be believed. We could have spent all day watching it without becoming bored.

Later, George

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