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Headed home, Reflections

November 1-2.  Left for the airport at 5PM for our 8:30 flight, arriving in lots of time.  All of us are coughing from exposure to Hanoi’s air pollution.  Not good.  We say a fond and sad goodbye to Hoan, who has been a terrific and fun guide and has greatly enhanced our enjoyment of Hanoi.

Despite the fact that we have an overnight layover in Hong Kong, our check-in lady at the airport checked our bags through to Chicago.  While all of us are a bit skeptical as to whether this in fact will happen, frankly, I don’t give a damn.  The bags are out of our hair and, if they don’t arrive, we’ll deal with it then.  Our agent also said that the painting we’d bought was too large to carry on, so Hoan got it wrapped further and we checked it.  Again, we’ll see what happens, but, in any case, nobody is going to die.

Through the concierge at our hotel, I had arranged for a wheel chair, first to the business class lounge and then to the gate.  That helps.

Our flight to Hong Kong is only an hour and a half.  I pass up the airplane meal, except for Haagen Daz cookies and cream ice cream, which is rock hard, but I get the flight attendant to soften  it by heating it slightly.  I also continue the therapy for my back that Chet prescribed for me in the Business Class Lounge–drinking screw drivers, vodka and orange juice.  This may or may not actually cure my back, but may well get me to the point where I don’t give a shit.  And, right now, that sounds pretty damn good to me.

Arriving in Hong Kong, we’re met with a wheel chair and zip through, avoiding lines and waits.  Except for the pain, this is a great way to travel.  We are wheeled all the way to the airport hotel, which connects to the airport through a corridor.  There I’m transferred from an airport wheel chair to a hotel wheel chair and, after checking in, I am wheeled up to my room.  Chet, Nancy and Carol all get the chaperoned benefits of my injury, without the pain.  Now, is that fair?

Slept quite well, despite pain in standing, sitting down.  Cough from air pollution also aggravates back.  Morning, wheeled from hotel to business class lounge (where we catch part of Game 7 of the World Series) to plane for last, long leg of our journey, the 14 1/2 hour flight to Chicago.  Since we pass back over the international date line, we arrive back home only a couple hours after we take off.  Don’t ask me, it just works out that way.
REFLECTIONS.

Okay, let’s start with the easy, concrete stuff.  Hotels, in general were excellent.  Ironically, our least favorite was the most luxurious and expensive of the places we stayed, The Four Seasons in Hoi An, the Nam Hai.  To be sure, it was beautiful and luxurious and its location on a lovely beach was great.  But the place seemed to have been designed by an architect who never considered that real people might actually stay there.  As a result, it was unsafe and lacked obvious features, i.e. a large desk with no accessible electrical outlets.  We’ve already cautioned our travel agent against putting clients up there, and she is changing reservations she’d made for a group of six in a couple months.

Favorite hotel was the Hotel Des Arts in Saigon, which was an “A” in all respects.  The Metropole in Hanoi was excellent, especially (to our surprise) the new wing, in which we stayed on an executive floor during the final two nights of our stay.

Carol and I do not travel for the food, but the food on this trip was way above what we normally experience.  Meals were excellent, in general; we (over) ate very well.  And a few of the meals were memorable, or almost-memorable.  The Vietnamese food was varied enough not to become boring, unlike what I found in China where every meal seemed to be pretty-much the same.

Physically, the trip presented some challenges.  Nancy was ill and had to miss several days.  That was unfortunate (for all of us), but she handled it all with good grace.  My back was intermittently painful, but didn’t materially affect my ability to enjoy the trip, overall.  The pollution in Hanoi definitely got to all of us, in varying degrees.  Chet, correctly, I think, pinpointed the event that was most troublesome, the hour-long bike rickshaw trip in Hanoi in which we inhaled motorbike exhaust as we traveled.  Had that bike trip not almost killed us, both from the exhaust and from the terror of riding in Hanoi traffic, exposed, it would have been quite an interesting way to experience Hanoi.  And the heat and humidity we encountered in the south of Vietnam definitely slowed us down considerably.

This leads me to a more general point about comfort.  I’m prepared to concede that, however much I may wish or pretend otherwise, my days of roughing it are over.  Business class travel and lounges, drivers and guides everywhere, first class hotels and restaurants, and air conditioning whenever possible may interfere with authentic experiences, but I’ve come to believe that authenticity is overrated.  Even being wheeled around the airports and hotel, with the ability to bypass  lines and check points, had its distinct  benefits.

Shopping.  We’re just not into shopping.  So, except for the relatively small amount of art we purchased, we have, as they say in customs, “nothing to declare.”  Apologies to children, grandchildren and friends.  

Photography.  I need to look over, and work on, my photos back at home, but my definite sense is that it was only a fair trip photographically.  If there are ten I’m really happy with, that’s probably about it.  I did not take as many photos as I usually do, and most of them were things I thought might go on the blog.  And I took many more photos with my iPhone than I have in the past.  That’s okay, because photos for the blog are definitely part of what I’m trying to do.  In fact, as I know the iPhone camera has been improved a great deal in more recent models and that there are telephoto lenses for the iPhone, I’m going to explore whether upgrading my iPhone and using that as my camera is a viable option for future trips.

In my first post on this trip, I mentioned that we were relatively recent friends of Chet and Nancy and that, by the end of the trip, we might either be much better friends, or not on speaking terms.  I’m happy to report that we’re still speaking.  Chet and Nancy were comfortable, flexible companions whose interests and predelictions seemed to coincide quite perfectly with our own.  We shared a great deal of good fellowship and wide-ranging conversation.

We covered a great deal of territory.  As is true on most trips like this one, our ability to interact with the people was limited.  We talked with our guides, with the Vietnamese woman, Than Trinh, who had worked for ABC, three Americans in Hanoi–Mark and Jane Rappaport and Suzanne Lecht.  We also spoke briefly with two artists in Hanoi.  That was hardly a representative sample, and even from that sample, we had some conflicting viewpoints. (Please don’t take that wrong. Each of those interactions was very interesting and well worth having.)   And we were presented with alternative facts from time to time, with population estimates varying by millions of people and tax rates quoted that varied by a factor of four. 

We learned most from two of our guides, both named Hoan, one male and one female, the first in Saigon and the second in Hanoi.  The second Hoan, our exuberant young artist, was a complete breath of fresh air and materially enhanced our enjoyment of our time in Hanoi and of our trip overall.  Here is the email that she sent not long we left her at the airport in Hanoi (and after I’d emailed her saying that we missed her already).

Hi Arnie,

I do missing you a lot .

Anytime I have to say goodbye to my clients I always feel a lot of missing and you are even more. I even feel cry when I gave you a hug :(

When I was on the car I am on the way to write you but I lost battery and I have just back home in a second and charged.

I am happy that you have good memories here. I am very happy that the karma bring our path connect.

Please keep in touch and welcome you you or your family go to Vietnam anytime.

Next time I would love to invite you stay with us.

Send you all super big hugs again from a missing heart.

Hug hug and kiss kiss kisss

Hanoi_ Hong Kong kisses, Hanoi- Chicago kisses.

Hoan

Now, just tell me, how can you not love her?

Despite our limited access, I did emerge with certain impressions.  Vietnam does not feel like a backward, third world country at all.  I had a general sense of a rather prosperous place, relatively clean and, so far as we felt, completely safe.  There was no evidence of a strong military or police presence.  People are certainly still wary of (avoid entirely) speaking out in public criticizing the government, but they did not seem hesitant to talk to us.  And, our guides, at least, seemed relatively content with the government, despite the feeling that corruption was a big problem.

Saigon seemed rather bland and somewhat generic to me.  It’s the center of business and had a “businessy” feel to it.  Hanoi, by contrast, gave me a sense of a “real” place that embodied a real culture.  It felt more different than Saigon, less capitalist.  These may seem like stereotypical views of those cities, but stereotypes, after all, are not created out of whole cloth.

The places we visit in the middle of the country all had character–Hoi An, Danang and Hué.

The Vietnamese seem focused on the present and the future, rather than on the past.  So, they are far more concerned about the looming presence of China (which controlled them for a thousand years) than the role of the French and Americans in French and American Wars from  last century.  We had no sense of hostility toward Americans, or even America.  Even the differences between South and the North Vietnam, capitalism and communism, which still exist, seem to be fading.

On any trip like this, there are a bunch of stops that you pretty-much need to make, some of which are terrific and some, not so much.  For me, I’d summarize them as follows:

War Remnants Museum in Saigon–a must.  Very powerful experience.

Cu Chi Tunnels–a must.  Great sense of how the north attacked the south.

Mekong Delta, particularly the sanpan ride, definitely worthwhile.

Cham Art Museum in Danang, My Son Holy Land, The Citadel in Hué, Ho’s Mausoleum Complex, Hoa La Prison (Hanoi Hilton) all worth seeing, but not as good as the Saigon sites

Hanoi Water Puppets–commercial, but fun, so worth doing; we particularly liked the music

Ha Long Bay–very beautiful and definitely something to see, but might not need to spend a night on the boat.  Lots of boats out on the bay, but that’s unavoidable.

Best things on the trip are generally those that are least heralded–visiting small markets, seeing folks out dancing, doing tai chi and playing badminton early in the morning in Hanoi, street scenes encountered at random and the two great non-touristy days we spent in Hanoi.

Gotta close, again, by recognizing what a privilege it is to be able to experience the world like we have been able to do and to expand our horizons, at least a little bit.  Thanks for following, and especially to those of you who commented, either on the blog, or by email.  Hope to see you again in January, when we head to Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

8 comments to Headed home, Reflections

  • Sharon Silverman

    Thanks, Arnie. As a fellow blogger, I know the diligence and patience it takes to keep posting. Much appreciated.

    Hope you get a full recovery of your back. Sending this from the Air China airport lounge in Beijing on my way to Delhi. 12 hours flying down on 8 more to go. Yes. Business class is the way to go!

  • Paul Woo

    So enjoyed your narrative and photos. Do hope your back will recover quickly. Mel and I send you our fondest affection.

  • Gil Cornfield

    Thanks for the summary and for continuing to look in the bright side of things from your wheel chair.

  • arnie

    I signed on to follow, Sharon. I love India. We have a really fabulous tour guide in Delhi, if you’re in need. We’ve used her on two different trips, and live her.

  • Ruby Bendersky

    Dear Artie and Carol
    As unusual I enjoyed your blog each day
    Have you thought about contacting a travel media company? I think they would love it (and you)
    Ruby Bendersky
    Rick Feferman

  • Ruby Bendersky

    Arnie not Artie. Typo obviously

  • Bob Heywood

    Your blog provided a unique look at a place so central to our history and personal experiences in our formative years. Thanks so much for the time and effort you spent sharing this trip with us. I really enjoyed the posts!

    GOAT Bob Heywood.

  • arnie

    My pleasure, Bob. See you in Dec, as Nov meeting does not work for me.

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