From Hanoi to the Sea

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By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  12/31/06

HANOI – I stand on the curb and wait for the traffic to pass, and wait some more, until it feels like I could spend the rest of my life lingering on the edge of this small street in the capital.

There are no lights, no crosswalks, no stop signs. Just an interminable growl of passing motorbikes, nearly all beeping their high-pitched horns. I’m with a scrum of tourists in something of a pedestrian’s purgatory, stranded in front of a parade that won’t end.

It takes a few days to learn the proper road-crossing etiquette: barrel ahead (even if death seems likely); don’t stop; and never retreat. The motorbikers, who have de facto right of way, expect human roadblocks, but they expect them to move forward. Stopping or changing direction tends to throw off their high-speed adjustments.

How to avoid becoming roadkill was one of many lessons from a spontaneous trip last year to North Vietnam. My girlfriend and I had come on a whim from Hong Kong, where we realized it was only a two-hour flight to Hanoi. We had only vague ideas of what to expect, beyond cinematic visions of communists in conical straw hats spouting propaganda about Ho Chi Minh.

On the road from the airport, we find a flat, Nebraska-like landscape marked less by rice paddies than factories and skinny, regal-looking homes. Old propaganda fades next to flashy billboards advertising cell phones. Merchants pack narrow sidewalks, hawking everything from socks and roses to shoelaces and warm baguettes, leaving me wondering how many of these people fought for a cause opposed to such unbridled commerce.

We spend the day taking in a millennium of history in the Old Quarter, a densely packed district of “tunnel” houses (built tall and slender to avoid real estate taxes), murky lakes lined with willow trees, and everything from low-rent hotels to street-side noodle bars to stores selling lacquer ware – all catering to the thousands of tourists who now visit every year.

We devour a $3 spread of noodles, vegetables, fried rice, and fruit juice. We pass rickshaw peddlers, sidestep motorbikers selling rides, and ignore touts pushing “massages” and forged copies of the Lonely Planet. We watch a water-puppet show, a bizarre poolside opera with fireworks and ear-splitting arias.

After an exhausting day struggling to pronounce xin chao (hello) and cam on (thank you), we return to our “three star” hotel – relatively expensive at $40 a night – and collapse. But sleep doesn’t come easy. As soon as we shut the door, we realize the mistake of choosing a room a few floors above the street. The din of the pollution-choked city fills our sleepless dreams with bright green waters, the placid sea we saw in all the windows of Hanoi’s many travel agencies.

So, in the morning, we slurp a breakfast of steaming noodle soup, lug our backpacks into the street, and find a van headed to Halong Bay, the tourist industry’s most aggressively advertised slice of paradise.

It’s a three-hour ride over flat farmland and pot-holed roads. We make a mandatory stop at a shop hawking crafts allegedly made by victims of Agent Orange and then arrive at a port where swarms of tourists are loaded and unloaded from an armada of sampans.

Our boat is a large, wood-paneled vessel with a dragon’s head carved into the bow. It’s really a floating restaurant, with sleeping cabins and a crew dressed in white. We climb aboard and sit for the first of a succession of three-course meals, variations of shrimp, tofu, rice, French fries, and watermelon, all washed down with Tiger beer. (Courtesy of the avian flu, Chicken was nixed from the menu.)

The engines rumble and the boat cuts through a film of haze. As we pass all the tourists in the harbor, I wonder whether we’ve made a mistake, confining ourselves on a boat for the next three days. We putter along for an hour, and as the other boats disappear and the smog evaporates, my doubts do, too.

Gliding over the glass-like water, an otherworldly horizon suddenly reveals itself: a forest of giant limestone karsts and ancient rocks of all possible shapes, which erupt through the sea like moss-covered sculptures.

Between meals and visits to caves, we swim in the smooth, cold water, glide over it in a kayak, and spend hours staring as the sun sets and the emerald expanse turns from lime to jade. It’s hard to imagine how the US Navy once mined these same waters, which are part of the Gulf of Tonkin.

We chat up our crew, who pass the first night rapt to a state TV documentary outlining the US government’s “human rights abuses.” They say they know they’re watching propaganda, though it’s hard to argue with some of the charges after all the alleged torture in Iraq.

Ngoc, our 28-year-old guide who carries a cell phone, criticizes his government’s controls on speech, and admires the United States, tells us why he doesn’t regret the North’s victory over the South: Most Vietnamese supporting Uncle Ho, including his father, fought the French and Americans for the same reasons they spent centuries fighting China. They wanted independence and unification, he insists – not communism.

But his understanding of history seems gilded by the victors. He professes little knowledge of the purges after Saigon fell in 1975 and insists some 1 million US soldiers died in the conflict, far more than the 58,000 tallied by the US government.

The next night, Christmas Eve, we dock on the rocky shores of Cat Ba Island, which is surrounded by floating fishing villages and a rising tourist industry. Later, after a large feast, we join scores of locals in a variety show, in which we dance with a Vietnamese Santa, compete in pear-eating contests, and watch a succession of crooners belt out American and Vietnamese ballads. (About 10 percent of Vietnam’s 82 million people are Catholic, the highest percentage of Catholics in Asia outside the Philippines.)

With only a day left, we return to Hanoi in the afternoon and try to cram in as much as possible. For $2, we take a 20-minute taxi ride to the well-manicured grounds around Ho’s mausoleum and the One Pillar Pagoda, a replica of a man-made, millennium-old lotus. There’s also a parade area for the troops. We peek through gates at the old presidential palace, which is yellow, the color of power in Vietnam, and walk to Ho Tay (West Lake) to watch people play badminton in the dark.

We walk for hours along the city’s cracked sidewalks, browsing at the crowded night markets and avoiding rats scurrying through rain-soaked streets. We explore fluorescent-lighted slums, where families cram into small apartments, many with TVs, coal-fired stoves, and elaborate shrines to ancestors.

The next morning, we hire a driver to take us to see more caves and limestone peaks, where we find conical hats selling for $1 and a teenager with a “US Army” patch on his acid-wash jean jacket who guides us through reedy wetlands on a bamboo raft.

Our final stop comes at the end of a muddy, unpaved road crowded with packs of livestock and children in uniforms. Three hours south of Hanoi, we reach Cuc Phuong, a rain forest, where we spend a few hours ogling langurs, gibbons, and other monkeys at the Endangered Primate Rescue Center.

When we return to Hanoi, it’s pouring. But we don’t want to stop; there’s so much more to see.

We pass the old opera house and other restored colonial buildings, tramp along the wide, embassy-lined avenues in the French Quarter, and haggle for silk and lacquer ware. We slog through ankle-deep puddles, until drenched and cold.

We try to hold on to everything we pass – the old women balancing baskets of bananas from their shoulders, the mad motorbikers splashing past, the red, yellow-star flags flapping in the wind.
David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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