Street life, Hanoi and HCMC

People sit on the sidewalks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Children, old people, working men, teenage girls. Everybody is on the sidewalk, often squatting on teensy plastic stools, about 10 inches tall.

Jodi asked Cong if all of these people are selling stuff, or are some of them just sitting outside their homes? Cong confirmed that yes, many of them are simply in front of their homes, relaxing. Drinking tea. Playing Chinese chess. It can be a little hard to tell because often there is a small plastic table with bottled soft drinks, or a clear pitcher of golden iced tea, and it’s not so different from the people who are selling stuff — including the women who carry two baskets, one on each end of a long bamboo pole, and set up a hot kitchen on the curb. They dish up bowls of steaming hot soup, or grill meat or fish over red burning charcoal. The cluster of diners slurping around a makeshift restaurant is hard to distinguish from a family hanging out. Barbers cut hair on the sidewalks. We even saw a man welding metal, sparks flying, in the middle of a city sidewalk in Hanoi.

Today I watched a video about an old neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, and I realized, suddenly, that American cities are no more than two generations removed from that same street life.

It looked a little different in New York — I saw the tail end of those days in the 1980s when I lived there, when whole families would still sit on the stoop (the front outdoor steps) of apartment buildings in Hell’s Kitchen and on the Lower East Side — before all the gentrification. Old people or young guys would play cards there, on the stoop. Sometimes they would sit in lawn chairs on the sidewalk. They might have a coffee cup on a saucer, or a glass of cold beer. In those days, I lived in an apartment without any air conditioning. Summers were brutal. We sat outside in the evenings, hoping for a cool breeze off the river.

In Little Italy, the old Italian men would sit on metal folding chairs in front of their social clubs, a tiny cup of espresso on a small wooden table, looking like characters in an early Scorsese movie.

Yeah, people in American cities used to sit on the sidewalks too, back in the days before air conditioning, before condos, before gentrification.

The Vietnam I saw this year will slowly disappear. Already the government has announced a ban on street restaurants, but I heard that public outcry has forced a reprieve. No doubt that will be temporary.

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Boat ride to Siem Reap

Back in May, I was on a tour in Cambodia, and we traveled for several hours in a very simple motorboat from Battambang to Siem Reap. I wrote a bit about this earlier. Now I’ve posted the photos — see the slideshow to get a sense of life along the river in northern Cambodia.

Motoring upriver in Cambodia

This was not a standard tourist excursion, but it’s typical for trips with Intrepid Travel. I like their low-budget, low-impact, highly local approach to group travel. There were only eight people in our group. No big buses, no crowd scenes. The boat ride was long, hot, and not terribly comfortable — but it was fabulous. We got to see people in their normal environment, working on boats and in the padi fields. We saw dozens of cattle, boats, and small children who shouted “Hello!” and waved when they spotted us.

House on the river, Cambodia

I was struck by how small and simple most of the houses were, especially in comparison to the huge shining wats (Buddhist temples) in their midst. Some of the houses were temporary, constructed for the rice harvest. The annual flood was near, and some families had already packed all their belongings onto long, low wooden boats and were moving on to their rainy-season homes somewhere else. We saw motorbikes and bicycles lashed to the boats (which aren’t all that big). We also saw multiple boats strung together, floating in line like a mother duck and her ducklings.

From Battambang, we traveled by river to the Tonlé Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia and something of an ecological marvel — during the monsoon, the lake grows in size from 2,700 sq. km. to 16,000 sq. km., as the Tonlé Sap River reverses its flow. Water from the Mekong is pushed into the lake in the process. There is great concern that dam projects in China will effect this process, which is vital to rice production in Cambodia.

To view the trip itinerary, see this page at Intrepid.

Air travel in and to Vietnam

If only I had found out about Jetstar before I went to Vietnam!

Flights on the national carrier, Vietnam Airlines, are nice enough, but booking is a giant pain in the neck — because you must pay cash. Yes, the national airline does not accept credit cards! Even inside the country, when I booked a flight through my hotel, I had to get 2 million dong in cash to hand over for my ticket. (The same hotel accepted my credit card for my hotel bill.) Ridiculous. Especially because many of the Vietnamese banks’ ATMs would not give me cash, even though they recognized my card.

Jetstar is a budget carrier, a joint venture between Australia and Singapore. Like the fabulous AirAsia (which I recommend very highly!), Jetstar offers bare bones service, charges for extras, and has nice new planes that make travelers feel perfectly safe. I have flown on AirAsia at least six times, including recently from Kuala Lumpur to Phnom Penh — check out their wonderful fares. Unfortunately, they don’t fly domestic legs within Vietnam.

I guess I didn’t search hard enough, because before I left the U.S., I didn’t find out about Jetstar. We flew from Danang to Saigon on Jetstar last week, and it was a perfectly nice flight — for about US$40. (The hotel charged me $103 for a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Saigon to Hanoi; Jetstar has it for $53 t0 $84.)

Vietnam Airlines does not publish ticket fares on their Web site. This enables travel agents to totally gouge travelers — like the taxi drivers in Hanoi, I might add. (All the taxi drivers I encountered in Saigon were honest.) The first travel agent I contacted in the U.S. to try to buy a ticket on Vietnam Airlines from Phnom Penh to Ho Chi Minh City wanted $198 for it. Another agent (TNK Travel) wanted only $110 for the same ticket, same day and time. (Oddly enough, the first travel agent, VINA Travel in San Francisco, was recommended by Vietnam Airlines, which will not sell tickets directly in the U.S.) I had to wire TNK the money via Western Union because they too do not accept credit cards (unless you fill out a crazy form with way too much personal information on it and MAIL it to them — yeah, right). They wanted a bank transfer, but my U.S. bank charges $35 for that; Western Union charged $4.

Jetstar (like AirAsia) permits you to book on the Web site and pay with a credit card (like any normal airline, ahem).

Watch out for extra baggage fees if you fly on the cheap carriers — weight limits and number of bags are strictly enforced. Both AirAsia and Jetstar make this transparent on their Web sites.

Back in the U.S.A.

The strangest thing about traveling is that as soon as you’re home, it seems as if you’ve never left. Of course, there’s a lot to process, to digest — much will be integrated into my world view over time. But day-to-day life can return almost immediately to normal routines.

I was in the Saigon airport at 3 p.m. Thursday to catch the first of four flights that brought me to Florida. A late afternoon flight on a weekday, Saigon to Hanoi, a lot of business travelers, traveling light. What caught my notice as I stood in line to board the bus that would take us to the plane: Almost everyone was carrying a big vinyl-sided briefcase with a metal rim. I haven’t seen that style of briefcase here in about 10 years. (I used to have one.)

I looked around, searching for other styles. I saw two people carrying something more updated. Thinking back, I realized that U.S. business people carried those briefcases before we all had laptop computers.

I had a lot of thoughts about development (as in “developing nations”). Many times I thought, while in Cambodia or Vietnam, this must be what Malaysia looked like 25 years ago. The traffic in Phnom Penh and Saigon and Hanoi did much to explain to me why roads are designed as they are in Kuala Lumpur — motorbikes lead to cars, and cars are bigger, and then new roads are needed. But pedestrians were not considered in the plans when Malaysia modernized the arteries in its largest city, and as I walked in the gutters of streets in Hanoi and Saigon, I understood why it’s so hard to walk around in KL’s famous shopping area, the Golden Triangle.

In Hoi An, to preserve the old part of the city, the government is forbidding all but foot traffic, one day at a time. Eventually it will be a wheels-free zone all week long, to the benefit of tourism — brilliant.

Another thing I considered after spending time in Cambodia and Vietnam was the retarding effect of war. Cambodia held its first free elections in May 1993 — before that, real economic development was not possible. Vietnam “opened the door” in 1986-89, but I would estimate Vietnam is at least 10 years ahead of Cambodia on the development scale. Other Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Thailand have been able to focus on economic reforms, infrastructure, and education instead of cleaning up after a country-wide destructive conflict. When I thought about the chaos in Vietnam and Cambodia only 30 years ago, I had to judge their progress as pretty remarkable.

Vietnam has a mission right now to improve the education system at all levels, so it can properly train the next generation of skilled workers and information professionals. Night schools for learning English are everywhere, and many of the 60 journalists I met were enrolled in one. Our Intrepid Travel trip leader, Cong, had studied Russian in school for many years, but started learning English when he was 24 — about eight years ago. The level of English right now in a lot of the hotels where I stayed was poor, but with the government’s emphasis on tourism as one of its income centers, I would bet that will change soon.

I posted some new photos today on Flickr.

Another departure, with regret

Sitting in the business-class lounge in the Hanoi airport, using free wi-fi and drinking a can of passionfruit juice imported from Malaysia (huh?!), waiting for the second leg of the seemingly endless journey from east to west (although my route is eastbound, from Seoul to Atlanta). I’m sorry to be leaving Vietnam — would have liked more time in Hue, in Hoi An, in Saigon.

Tuesday night in Saigon, I walked around and watched people eating, drinking, and just generally hanging out on the sidewalk, as they always do. While I felt pretty fed up with the helter-skelter motorbike traffic and the almost impossible task of walking on the sidewalks (too crowded with seated people and motorbikes to permit much walking), I also thought I could really get to feeling comfortable in Saigon. Much more so than Hanoi. Saigon seems warmer, less harsh. Maybe I just didn’t spend enough time in Hanoi.

Our Intrepid trip leader in Vietnam, Cong, lives near Hanoi. He said if I had one month in Hanoi, I would grow to like it. But he also said, as we sat in the giant colonial-era post office building in Saigon’s District 1: “If I could live anywhere, I would live here.”

Ha Long Bay, Hue, and Hoi An

Since we left Hanoi, we have been seeing some of the most famous tourist attractions of Vietnam. All three of these locations are UNESCO World Heritage sites, meaning they are “considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” (Photos to come later.)

Right now I’m in an Internet cafe in Hoi An, at 10:45 a.m. local time. Hoi An is a beautiful old city, filled with small old Chinese-style shop buildings along narrow streets (there is one street like this in Singapore, as I recall), formerly a major trading port for seafaring people from all over SE Asia, as well as the foreigners who traveled here for the spice trade, silk, and other goods. I am the only female and the only Westerner in a room with about 25 computers and about 22 young men and boys, most of them playing online games with intensive graphics, wearing headphones, and simultaneously checking several highly animated chatrooms. They are typing very, very fast. A country on the verge of a high-tech boom, for sure!

We came here on a very nice air-con minibus from Hue, where we had two days of fantastic tour-guiding by a local man named Thanh — including a day on motorbikes, zooming around backstreets no wider than about eight feet, smoothly paved with concrete. (Note: Dirt roads still prevail in Cambodia. Better roads, more paving, and fewer potholes in Vietnam.) The citadel of the Nguyen emperors impressed us, even though we were melting from the heat.

From Hanoi to Hue, we traveled on an overnight train, four beds per compartment, very comfortable and nice. The train left the station about 11 p.m. and arrived in Hue about 11 a.m. the next day.

To see the cliff-islands of Ha Long Bay, we went out on a wooden junk (with a motor) that was well-appointed for about 20 people to dine and sleep overnight. Each cabin had two beds and a private bathroom with toilet, sink and shower. The food really surprised us — the crew prepared and served delicious Vietnamese meals to us. The sky was cloudy but we had a clear view of the many tree-covered islands, other boats, and fish farms tucked away in coves. The boat dropped anchor in the late afternoon and we stayed put until morning, when we ate an early breakfast and sailed back to port.

Today we are flying from Hoi An to Saigon — then tomorrow, a tour of the Mekong Delta.

Two nights ago, Oliver Stones'”Platoon” was on HBO here. Very weird to be watching that in a room only a few hours south of the DMZ.