We’re starting to get a complex. The Secretary of State seems to be following us. First she showed up in Seoul on our one day there. Then she followed us to Beijing a few days later. Now she’s mysteriously shown up in Hanoi at precisely the same time we have. Condi, we dig you, but this has got to stop. Her boss, President Bush, arrives tomorrow to play his part in the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Forum, and since he’s going to make a mess of the already nutty traffic scene here, we’re skipping town for a 3-day cruise of Halong Bay.
The current abundance of international dignitaries in Hanoi is yet another testament to the perils of planning a trip of this magnitude. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago we discovered that Vietnam was hosting the APEC Forum, which much to our surprise, is a huge deal here. Vietnam is slated by year’s end to be the newest member of the World Trade Organization, and the forum is being touted as the country’s economic “coming out party.” Though we won’t be attending any high level meetings, the ripple effect of the forum for us is that once again we have arrived in a city at the absolute worst time for finding a hotel. The participants have filled up all the high-end hotels, pushing tour groups and tourists of the two-week vacation variety down to the middle tier hotels. The stinky places still have rooms, but even though I love hostels (if they’re clean), I have a stinky aversion. We spent the better part of a day scouring the town for two rooms at a non-stinky place but to no avail. The owner of one finally took pity on us and coughed up a single room when some pre-arranged guests didn’t show up by the appointed check-in hour. (They got walked to another hotel, I hope not a stinky one, when they finally made it.) We felt a little guilty when we begged her this morning to let us stay one more night, but when another hotel confirmed she could walk someone else tonight, she was more than happy to accommodate us. It’s a brutal, dog-eat-dog world for Hanoi hotelseekers this week and we’ve fallen into the fray. We booked our Halong Bay boat trip now in the hopes that when we return and the forum has ended, we can enjoy our room at the lovely little Golden Sun Hotel without remorse. That is, if we don’t get walked.
Difficulties aside, our first 24 hours in Hanoi have been a kick. Tom and I are smitten with this city. (The kids are just happy there’s English language TV in the hotel room.) There is a crazy kinetic energy here that literally crackles through the streets. Thousands of motorbikes zip to and fro, carrying families, cargo, and drivers engrossed in cell phone conversations. Defying all the laws of physics and probability, they effortlessly weave their way around intrepid pedestrians who brave the purely decorative crosswalks. Food stalls and street kitchens line the sidewalks pumping out a steady stream of mouthwatering soups and stir fries while friendly, smiling women ply the avenues, carefully balancing baskets of exotic fruits and Hanoi’s famous breads. Like a giant college dorm, everybody here is living together, eating together, walking together, hanging out together. At night, they put on their pajamas but continue to chill in front of their buildings, which quite often seem to double as their businesses. People are busy, cheerful, and every bit as surprised to see a Western family with four kids as are the Chinese.
We can’t accept this new, exciting Vietnam, however, without reconciling our countries’ controversial and violent past together. We plan on visiting the state history and military museums when we get back next week and the DMZ a little later. To start treading this difficult territory today, we visited the notorious Hanoi Hilton, the prison where Senator John McCain and other American POWs were held during the Vietnam War, or as they call it here, the American War. The brunt of the museum is dedicated to documenting its use by the French during their colonial rule to punish Vietnamese nationalists and communists, with a scant two rooms devoted to its use by post-colonial Vietnamese jailers. There was an old rusty guillotine the French used to behead unlucky prisoners (yuck), but the highlight for us was McCain’s flight suit and gear. Our mood was heavy as the guys posed next to what might one day be a critical piece of an American president’s past (wishful thinking for 2008?). The portrait the Vietnamese paint of a comfortable, caring facility where pilots amused themselves “raising poultry, growing flowers, and playing with the pets” is not overly convincing. With our country’s own recent prison fiascos, we are in no position to throw stones. All we can attest to is that the remains of the prison are a bleak reminder of the horrors of war, regardless of the identity of its participants.
For the time being, we’ll leave the heaviness and the hubbub of Hanoi behind to experience Vietnam in its natural splendor. Condi, in case you’re thinking about a cruise yourself, I hear the Carribean’s lovely this time of year.