November 23, 2010
Greetings from the North,
Well my cement-mixing, brick-chucking days are over, at least in Southeast Asia. I said goodbye to my building crew Friday after work, caught a car back to the Ho Chi Minh City guesthouse, caught another taxi to the airport, had a two hour flight up to Hanoi, and around 11:30 p.m. got a ride in to a very posh hotel for the night. I was most excited about using a full-size bath towel again, because I’d been using my little camp towel for two weeks (see also, Skin Exfoliating Water Pushing Not Super Absorbant Towel). I had planned to take a cooking course Saturday morning before meeting up with my tour group in the evening, but unfortunately I was not feeling well when I woke up, so after some agonizing consideration, decided to rest instead. Also, it’s hard to make spring rolls with your head in the toilet. Friday had been a long and intense day, and I think I was a bit worn out and dehydrated.
My tour group is terrific. Stumbling around Hanoi on my own didn’t feel much better than stumbling around HCMC, and knowing how to say “brick” and “concrete” and “Shannon is Number 99” doesn’t really help with the practical matters like food and directions. I was also lugging all of my belongings in my backpack, less what I’d tossed out after the building trip, like my cement-caked shoes (not the mafioso kind). Eventually I decided to get a taxi to the meeting point hotel and have a sleep. I was tired and sweaty and ready to be led around and shown pretty things.
And what a revelation that is!! Our Intrepid Tour guide is a Vietnamese man named Bon. He grew up on a farm outside of Hanoi and taught himself English, and is very excited to share his country with us. He *loves* to talk. Loves. Which is great, actually, because he can actually explain all kinds of cultural and historical references that we can’t get from a book. The experience is quite different, and at first I was a little put off by being part of a tourist parade into restaurants with English menus, but it is also a huge relief to have someone giving suggestions and organizing the logistics. Let’s face it, no one will mistake me for anything but a tourist anyway, so my feeble attempts at speaking the local language (newsflash: “noodles with beef” said with the wrong intonation is “prostitute’s train station”) were not terribly successful anyway.
We’ve visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which honestly I found a bit creepy and intimidating (security was more serious for that building than for the airport), but we’ve also seen The Temple of Literature which catalogs the top students of Confucianism, taken a cyclo tour around the Old Quarter, and most importantly, spent a night on a junk on Ha Long Bay. It’s an incredible place, mysterious and beautiful and stirring to the soul. And the boat had a full bar! Woohoo!
In a few hours we’ll board the Reunification Express train and head south overnight to Hue, where we’ll visit some other cool stuff and eat more wonderful food. I don’t know exactly what the plan is, and I don’t have to figure it out, which is glorious. The people in my group are really friendly, and surprisingly the American contingent is the largest, including two guys from San Francisco. There’s also a few Australians and a couple from outside of London, and we all get along famously. We’ve really lucked out and are enjoying each other’s company immensely. Part of our time is structured with activities and part of it is free, where Bon gives us suggestions and ideas for things we could do, and then lets us do our own thing. He’s really on the ball and I look forward to everything else he will show us.
So, the few photos I’ve attached: A bridge across the lake in central Hanoi, the stone tablets listing the students’ names (I think) in the Temple of Literature, me on the deck of our boat on Ha Long Bay, and finally a Dragon Kiln, which is a long line of kilns built into a hillside so that the heat from the bottom kiln (the hottest) flows upwards and into the next kiln in a succession of steps, gradually reducing the temperature at which the ceramics are baked. We saw the women painting the designs (amazingly quick and talented) and of course had the opportunity to support the local economy.
There has been serious flooding in the central areas of the country, so we may have some rainy days ahead of us, but things should be fine. I stopped at a bakery and squirrelled away a baguette, an almond croissant, and some little cookies for snacks tonight and breakfast tomorrow in case our train is slowed by the rainfall. We’re not really sure what to expect with the sleeper cars, but that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?
To paraphrase some wise person, “Adventure is merely inconvenience properly regarded.”
Here’s to more wine and less shoveling….
P.S. The best news is that I will have the opportunity to take a cooking course down in Hoi An anyway, so missing the class in Hanoi and sleeping in Saturday morning was the right thing. I love it when a plan comes together!