14. Southeast Asian Rescue

  1. 01. To The Rescue
  2. 02. Last Minute Minutia
  3. 03. Spiritual Me
  4. 04. A New Approach
  5. 05. Cruising Cambodia
  6. 06. Ox Cart Aerobics and Buddhist Blessing Yoga
  7. 07. My Great Cambodian Depression
  8. 08. A Day on the River Limbo
  9. 09. Lies, Damned Statistics, and Tourism
  10. 10. Saigon Reunification
  11. 11. The Way to Huế
  12. 12. A Hot Time in the Old Town
  13. 13. An Hanoi-ing Experience
  14. 14. Southeast Asian Rescue

[The final post in the series Smiling Kodiak to the Rescue]

It was my last full day in Vietnam — the first of May, International Labour Day, or May Day. It is a holiday of significance in socialist nations, and Vietnam is no exception. At six o’clock in the morning we set out for our morning constitutional around Hoan Kiem Lake. The crowds exercising around the lake had grown even bigger, the activities supplemented by a half dozen badminton games being played with real zeal.

As you would expect on a holiday honouring the worker, most businesses had closed for the day, although most retail shops were open with slightly reduced hours. IMG_9600We were in the market for propaganda posters, having started a small collection with some fine specimens purchased in Shanghai a few years back.

We had wandered all of the old town failing to come across a poster shop. Then, this morning, we found one directly across the street from our hotel, literally right under our noses. Some hard bargaining netted five posters at three bucks each, most we purchased as gifts for our fellow travellers. Of course, once we bought the five, suddenly every second shop in old Hanoi was a propaganda poster store selling them cheaper. Strange, that.

The map of Hanoi provided by the hotel depicted the city as being on the banks of the mighty Red River. It struck me as odd that after two days of walking around the city at some length, I had not seen so much as a glimpse of the river. The map indicated it was less than a mile away, so we headed that way, not knowing what to expect, determined to lay eyes on it.

We dashed across a major highway, dead-reckoning our way eastward through a maze of alleys and laneways. Before long we were well off the beaten tourist track, in a shabby, semi-industrial part of the “real” Hanoi. The locals regarded us warily, our presence seeming something of an intrusion.IMG_9607
At long last we came to the top of a lush green cliff, a sewer outflow flushing down its side. Before us lay the river’s flood plain, more jungle than river, trestle bridges without end traversing above. The only thing that was missing was water – there was no actual river in sight.

We followed the clifftop for about a half mile, the only water being more sewer outflows. Frank observed that at some point we left what felt like a road but continued, in effect, wandering through people’s backyards. Now we were most definitely intruding. We retreated, back to the hotel. I concluded that Hanoi has no port — or if it does, it is miles from the city centre.

That final evening we took a Hanoi Street Food tour. Hanoi is said to have some of the world’s best street food, but to know what to order,IMG_9619 and where to order it, particularly such that one doesn’t get a “surprise”, well, a tour guide comes in handy to say the least.
There were ten of us on the tour, including two young ladies from Korea who spoke almost no English, and eight Americans. The Americans included two gay American-Australians (us), another gay male couple living in Hong Kong, and two mixed-gender couples from San Francisco and Los Angeles, which admittedly are only part of America in the most technical sense.

The guide was a pleasant young woman who liked the phrase “I show you how to enjoy.” She showed us how to enjoy five or six restaurants I never would have stepped foot in on a dare. Each restaurant offered a couple of dishes to sample, mostly soups, dumplings and spring rolls. By the end of the three hour tour, we had eaten a truckload of tasty tidbits. I wished we had taken the tour earlier. We might have applied what we had learned – but a very worthwhile experience.

Speaking of tasty tidbits, days earlier, after first checking into the Essence Palace Hotel the gracious young lady who showed us our room had indicated the mini bar was “complimentary”. I was shocked. “All this, the snacks, the beer, the drinks, is all complimentary?” She nodded. The moment she left, though we found a mini bar price list. Although it was cheap – the fake Pringles were the most expensive item at $2.50 – I had concluded that the young lady simply misunderstood the meaning of “complimentary” in this context. So we made use of the minibar, and assumed we’d get charged the token amounts indicated on the price list.

That evening, before retiring for the night, Frank got our bill from the front desk. Lo and behold, the minibar WAS free! The line on the bill for minibar read “complimentary” – an absolute first in my considerable experience with minbars. Despite not being hungry, I devoured as many snacks and beers as I could stomach, stowing much else in my luggage for the trip home. In retrospect, it is a good thing for all involved I didn’t think it was free earlier!

I have the highest praise for the Essence Palace Hotel, who took care of us in every way from the moment we arrived at the Hanoi train station until their driver deposited us at the airport. I cannot think of a thing to complain about, except that I love to complain and I cannot think of a thing to complain about. Nowhere on earth have I experienced such thorough, thoughtful, prompt, quality service and accommodation at any price, and here is was about ninety bucks a night. Who knows, maybe all the hotels in Hanoi are this good – but this one is splendid.

Saturday our Southeast Asian odyssey came to a close. A final walk around the lake, a final pack up, a final taxi ride to the airport. The taxi ride included a crossing of the Red River on a massive suspension bridge, eight lanes wide and miles long. Finally I managed to lay eyes on the river in all its mercenary maritime glory. It is a big river, I imagine it is a scary one during the rainy season.

Hanoi is just completing a new airport terminal to justify the superhighway they’ve built to it. All indications are that they expect big things from Hanoi in the near future.

I have visited a number of places that were obliterated by indiscriminate aerial bombardment and other scorched-earth tactics: Berlin, Atlanta, Hiroshima, London, Pearl Harbor, Hanoi. Military folks can point to the “benefits” of these obliterations: a war effort supported, net lives saved, even out-and-out victory. Further, each of these places has subsequently recovered, even flourished. These results have been used to justify more recent such actions – Baghdad, Gaza, Kabul.
IMG_9584Yet — I observe that the culture of places subject to indiscriminate aerial bombing develop and maintain a resentment, a sense of having been done wrong, and the perception of holding the moral high ground — no matter how egregious their leaders’ or country’s transgressions might have been. These attitudes persist, if not fester and grow, for generations, if not forever. I am no military expert, few things are more certain – but as a keen observer of human behaviour I have to question whether such actions are ever truly in the long-term interest of the obliterator. It seems very short-sighted.

Overall, the highlight of this trip to Cambodia and Vietnam has been the food. Both the quality and diversity of the food surprised me, particularly in Cambodia, but also in Hanoi.

Another highlight has been coming to understand the striking differences between the Cambodian and the Vietnamese peoples. That subject alone fill volumes, but simply over-generalised, the Cambodians have tailored much of their culture from those to their west (Thailand, India), whereas the Vietnamese carved theirs out of more northerly influences (China). Both have a strong recent overlay of French influence. The Vietnamese reflect the hardworking entrepreneurial zeal shared by the Chinese and Americans, each of whom have historically pushed Vietnam around. Predictably, the Cambodians and the Vietnamese are said not to like each other very much – but it is hard to say how much of that is the respective governments, and not the people. No doubt, though, that each of these countries clings to its unique culture more dearly than to its government of the day.

Flying back home to Melbourne, I took a moment of consideration for the Malaysia Airline flight crew who toiled to serve me well. Between flight MH370, lost in the Indian Ocean (maybe) and MH17, blown out of the sky over Ukraine, every one of them must have lost one or perhaps a dozen, friends and colleagues, doing the same job. Were the passengers being kinder than usual? Was I being kinder than usual? Did that explain why the service was so good?

Cambodia had been pre-disastered by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, and came out of it gentler, kinder, and more welcoming.

Vietnam had been pre-disastered by the war, and came out of it more determined, harder-working, and prouder.

I came to Malaysia Airlines, Cambodia, and Vietnam with all sorts of pre-conceived notions about them, their problems and their causes. I had come away with most such notions dispelled. I was more understanding, a little kinder, and a bit humbled.

I hadn’t come to their rescue. They had come to mine.


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