Friday, February 6, 2009

Off to Hanoi

Wednesday January 21st 2009

It was time to leave the calm of Hue and head to Hanoi. One more great breakfast at the La Residence and it would be off to the Phu Bai Airport - a short taxi ride away.

As we headed back to Phu Bai, this time in daylight, the roadside was much more familiar than when we arrived. Rice paddies on both sides, the familiar tombs and the many water buffalo doing their jobs in the fields and paddies. Again, so much had changed, yet so much had remained the same. The once two lane road was now a four lane highway. The poverty still remained but the fear of being shot at was gone. The people were seemingly at peace and have forgiven or forgotten the role of Americans in their country some forty years before.

I was about to leave Hue, the memories of Camp Eagle, of riding to and from Phu Bai to pick up supplies or new soldiers arriving in country to take them to their duty station at the 501st. I was going to the North, to what had once been enemy territory, I was going to Hanoi.

The flight to Hanoi via Vietnam Airlines would only be less than an hour but the seats were cramped. AS we took off, I could see the rice paddies below, the same rice paddies I had photographed, on my last visit, from a helicopter on its way to a firebase or other destination to deliver its cargo.

The coast was visible from the plane. It was a warm day, as three inches of snow was falling back at home. Although it was warm, the beaches were empty. 75 degrees was too cold for the locals to be lying in the sun at the beach.
We arrived in Hanoi. The airport – Noi Bai -- was a definite upgrade from Phu Bai. The airport is about 28 miles from the Hanoi Hilton Opera where we would spend one night. It was kind of ironic that I would be staying at a Hilton Hotel in Hanoi, knowing that the Hao Lo POW prison was given the moniker of the “Hanoi Hilton” during the war.

Upon arrival and after checking in, we proceeded to go to the Old Quarter. We found it difficult to follow the map until we discovered that A majority of the street names in this part of the city start with Hang, meaning merchandise or shop. The streets were named for their product sold there. For example, silversmiths occupy Hang Bac Street. Han Gai Street have vendors with silk clothing either ready-made or tailored. Hang Ma displays shiny paper products, such as gift wrappings and wedding decorations.

We did a lot of looking but not much buying on this first day in Hanoi. Hanoi seemed to be much more developed than Saigon but the old quarter seemed to be an anachronism for the rest of the city. Being the capital, I would assume that more effort would be spent in making Hanoi the new pearl of the country. It had progressed but still had a long way to go.

We stopped for appetizers in a small cafĂ© in the Old Quarter. This was a mistake, for me anyway. Although Stacy’s food was good, mine tasted like it had been cooked in motor oil. I could not get rid of that awful taste for hours. Even a Hanoi beer could not help. Although Carlsberg beer was making inroads in Hanoi, I wanted to continue my quest of sampling a local beer in each city visited. So I used my Hanoi Premium beer to try and rid my mouth of the awful taste of the oily appetizer.

It was now dark as we headed out of the Old Quarter in search of a taxi. On the way, we came across a Bia Hoi Bar. WE had to go in since seeing an episode about Bia Hoi on the Travel Channel. It was an amazing place. There were westerners sitting on plastic stools outside the place but we wanted to experience the inside of the heavily crowded place. It must have been happy hour because all those inside looked as if they had just left work, still dressed in business attire. A small television grabbed the attention of all as Vietnam was playing China in some sort of Football (we call it soccer) tournament. We ordered two fresh Bia Hoi and quietly chanted “Mot, hai ba, Yo” and clinked glasses. We were the only non-Vietnamese in the place.

We paid our bill of 40,000 VND for the two beers – about $2.30 and proceeded to leave. As we approached the door, the Vietnamese team scored a goal to tie the game and the whole place erupted. It was a definitely unique moment and experience. Where was Anthony Bourdain when you needed him.

We went back to the hotel to grab a light dinner and as we entered the lobby saw an end of year party going on. The sign told the story – HP (Hewlett Packard) end of year party. The New Year was approaching so companies were celebrating. I guess the economy must be better in Vietnam

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