Vietnam & Cambodia travel blog

March 11

This first day is, as first days always are, a day of displacement and settling in, a day of opening, a day of over-stimulation, a day of unraveling. We try to a make it a day of senses and making sense, and we're doing okay with that.

It is so hard to stay open to a new world, so full of new contexts and new behaviors, signs, wonders, meanings. I begin to shutdown, say to myself, wait, I need to absorb this before I can take that in. and it's true, sometimes we need silence, at least a quiet place, away from the new and strange-to-us bustle to take in and make sense out of the new bustling, and to rest our senses enough so our minds can be freed again from constant filtering and we can let the noise back in, and find the music.

But sometimes there is no quiet place – we've chosen to dive into this panorama and we will leave it soon enough, but I imagine what this must be like for a refugee or other emigrant. We forget what courage is, and pain, to dive into such a foreign place and struggle to make a home there.

It may be too soon to fix impressions on paper, but here goes:

today we saw a modern, efficient airport, a competent warm friendly guide and skilled hired driver, Ha and Kien, politeness, piled provisions, of water and schedules, motorbikes, motorbikes, motorbikes. Everywhere. You cross the street like a fly through a spider's nest, trying to look bold but terrified of the sticky silk threats, and the only way to pass safely is to look supremely confident, as if to say to the spider, this is my air, too! Every street and market passage, every time we enter and exit and walk though, motorbikes carrying families, suitcases, bags, cartons, eggs, vegetables, and a great sense of purpose and haste. I would say haste for its own sake but who knows what pressures there are, that send motorbikes threading through clouds of people and cars.

There are people on every stoop and doorway, slicing fruit, plucking chickens, chopping raw beef into chunks that might or might not be definable 'cuts.' There are vendors of trinkets and notions spread like little kingdoms at their feet, stacked in displays, carried in baskets balanced on each end of a pole. Underwear, clothing, pots, toys, and pans. Almost every street in the Old Quarter. Some are clearly market streets, awaiting their shoppers at the end of a work day, some are just streets, where people sit alone or in groups, waiting but not waiting to make a sale. Our guide says though that this is how and where Vietnamese buy what they need. Little of it is fancy, but there is a great profusion of goods. The parts we've seen of Hanoi feel like one big John's Bargain Store, the place where my family shopped when I was young, with wooden bins filled with a similar array (no chunks of raw meat or raw whole naked chickens.)

At night, though, Hanoi glows like a little Manhattan, its garbage hidden, the streets liven up with people out for the night, streetlights and store lights and headlights all shining. But our feet were full of walking all day and our heads were full of raw naked impressions. We ate at the hotel, and went to bed.

Writing more later about the same day:

Today it's Tuesday, March 13. We flew out of JFK at 9 pm March 9, landed in Qatar on March 10, and 2 hours or so later, flew to Hanoi, where we landed early in the morning on March 11. I write this out in detail because it's impossible to believe. We've seen so much and done so much in a place so different and so familiar that I can hardly begin to describe or react to anything.

At the beginning, then. What do I mean by different and familiar? Certainly the language people speak, the sound and the rhythm of it, is new. Hanoi was a mixture of old and new but some buildings that looked old were fairly new – I had no context to judge by. There were new buildings in typical urban commercial styles, there were new buildings with balconies and colors and carvings that were just different than anywhere else I've been, but they also sagged a bit and looked dusty or dithered with gray. I only know they were new because our guide, Ha, told us so. We have not been without a guide since we exited through Customs at the airport. We walked through back alleys in Fez and drove on the wrong side of narrow highways in South Africa with no guide but I don't think we could have found our way out of the airport here without help. And I'm not sure why.

People are friendly when you have contact with them. In Hanoi, like any city, people were most often intent on their own business, their own path. But in traffic, this was raised exponentially to a unique kind of gladiator driving. Motorbikes are everywhere. Imagine a beehive where every bee is mounted on a two-wheeled vehicle and each one of them is headed in a different direction through the same space. Imagine a Manhattan in which half the pedestrians, half the bicyclists, and half the drivers were mounted instead on motorbikes, and they all drove them like cab drivers, on the streets and sidewalks and through the buildings. And in Hanoi, the cars are driven the same way. At an intersection, the driver without fear acts as if they have the right of way and challenges everyone else to disagree. And with short quick beeps of their horn, they do. Just keep moving, straight ahead or looping around, working the gas, the brake, and the horn all at once. In some way, I haven't quite recovered. Not that I was afraid. Traffic operated by its own logic. But I felt like I was being driven through a kaleidoscope. And I'm still bouncing off other brightly colored objects.

People working with tourists are extra-friendly. So much of the tourist industry is new, and seems to be booming. Our room in Hanoi was quite comfortable but smallish, but the front desk and lobby were teeming with staff, three black-suited men and women always at the front desk, waiting to answer a question, at least five men in long Asian buttoned brocaded robes, waiting to carry something or open a door or get what you needed. All with gracious politeness and smiles and passable English.

That first morning, we dropped our luggage off at the hotel, well before check-in time. Ha, our guide, took us as planned on a walking tour of Hanoi, the area closest to our hotel. We were in the Old Quarter. Up and down streets, sidestepping parked motorbikes and motorbikes in the midst of deliveries to the front door of stores, sidestepping women trimming and sorting and stacking all manner of vegetables, slicing hunks of meat, plucking or shaving the feathers off chickens, while sitting on the ground or on stoops, in small groups or alone, everywhere. Getting ready for people leaving work to buy food to make dinner. Some streets were market streets. There, you'd see men and women in similar postures, but also working on crafts, holding eggs, cutting fruits into angular patterns, and I don't remember what else. One man had an array of machine parts. There were stores, some with food or kitchen utensils, one with wedding dresses, some with toys, underwear, shirts, all the rest of daily necessities you can imagine. But for all these people sitting and waiting, during the morning there were very few buyers. Morocco had markets and booths and stores and holes in the wall where people did similar work and similar waiting, but nobody sitting on the street in the same way. It didn't seem like this was just poverty though people certainly were poor. It seemed more like how food and goods could be sold, without booths or stores. But it was a bit disconcerting, to see food handled at ground level this way.

We walked through the Old Quarter, and we walked to the Temple of Literature, across several blocks, and many streets, and many motorbikes, vans, bicycles. Ha made the place come alive, showing us each of the five sections, explaining the history and the rituals and the culture transmitted there. We were fortunate enough to see a group of secondary school students there for a graduation or recognition ceremony, dressed in uniforms and then caps and gowns, clearly thrilled to be there, clearly similar to their peers in other countries, in their social groupings, facial expressions, and antics. It is, was and still is, Confucian with a Vietnamese flavor. Do I remember the purpose and rules for each of the sections – all with gardens, most with structures? No. I remember the turtles, the dragon, the phoenix, the altars to ancestors and, it seems, to learning itself. I remember the excitement in the air from the Vietnamese visitors, and from the impressed tourists like us. It felt somehow like visiting the Washington Monument, Lincoln Memorial, and the Smithsonian for the first time, all at once. When I look at the pictures we took I'll remember more. If we had any consistent internet access, I could look it up online (bless you, Wikipedia), but we don't. And when we do, we haven't always had time when we weren't either out and about or asleep.

Because, you see, as I write, I realize how we arrived in Hanoi in the morning, before we could check in, so quickly immersed ourselves in a new place and a time zone twelve hours earlier. Hence the feeling of dislocation.

I'm writing this second half of this blog posting from a mountaintop hotel in Lao Cai Province, at 2:45 in the morning, and later today we'll (1) be at the main lodge where we can upload to our blog, (2) take another hike, and (3) take the five hour drive back to Hanoi. As we catch up, by which I mean get through describing where we've been so we can start describing where we are, as well as meaning as soon as we catch up to the time differences, as well as meaning catch up to myself when my head stops spinning, I will be a bit more reflective, I think.

For now, let me add a few other impressions. In Hanoi, we had lunch with Ha in a local storefront serving soups and rice dishes to locals and tourists alike. My close friends will know what a picky and restricted eater I am. I had the pho – chicken and rice noodles and some green vegetable in a clear simple broth. I ate the chicken and vegetables, didn't much like the chewy rice noodles, added red chili sauce to the broth. Now back at the hotel I had spaghetti Bolognaise for dinner, but on the whole I've been doing quite well finding Vietnamese food to eat at each meal. With, a bit awkwardly but successfully, chopsticks.

At night in Hanoi, before dinner, we went to a recommended cultural performance, using acrobatics and juggling and music and dance and huge bamboo sticks to create a picture of village life. I fell asleep for about half of it but very much enjoyed what I did see. Hanoi at night became like many cities at night a glittering palace humming with street sounds and people, and motorbikes.

More of our trip later. I think from the disjointed nature of this post, you can feel a bit of the kaleidoscopic sensation I've felt. And if you want a more coherent version of events, as always, read Robin's post.

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