My son Steve has been traveling the world most of the time since he was 19 years old. He has visited 25 countries and has enjoyed extended stays in Nepal, India, New Zealand, Australia, Fiji, and now Vietnam. This is my fourth journey across the globe to catch up with him for a visit, 23 days this time. My daughter (Steve’s sister) Tobi joined us for 7 days in the middle of my stay. Last summer we three were together on a remote island in Fiji.
Some people take pictures when they travel and so do I But I also write a journal. Looking at photos from past trips triggers memories. Reading my old journals brings back sounds, sights, smells, people and feelings. It’s an indelible memory of my favorite moments. Rather than a chronological journal, I prefer random chapters focusing on the novelties I encounter as an American in strange lands.
Most cars on the Hanoi streets and roads are taxis but 99% of traffic is on two wheels or two feet. Bicycles and motorbikes are everywhere and are often used like pickup trucks with impossibly huge loads strapped on the back. They load up their bicycles with freight like a miner’s mule until the driver can only walk alongside and push.
Motorbikes can carry bigger, heavier loads than I ever thought. Some motorbike cargos I have seen: six huge (100 lbs?) bags of rice, 2 sheets of 4 x 8 plywood hanging out over the tail, massive cages filled with live chickens, long firewood stacked sideways and towering up behind the driver, an actual motorbike being ferried presumably for repair. I refer to these vehicles as motorbikes because “motorcycle” would be too strong a term. Most have engines between 50 and 100cc, too small to be allowed on a U.S. interstate highway.
It’s not uncommon to see 3 grown passengers on a motorbike, or a mom and dad with three children. This works best with a Vespa style scooter that allows for a small child to ride standing in front of Dad driving. Mom is behind Dad with an infant sandwiched between them and an older child on the tail, hugging mom’s back for dear life. Any collision would result in the family’s inertia crushing the front child against the steering post. They tell me there is a helmet law here… but it does not apply to children!?!? Many adults ride sans helmet but by far, small children are most likely to ride bare headed.
Rules of the road: none. Red lights are generally ignored. One way streets are just a suggestion, there is always at least one vehicle going against the flow. Steve does it, “It’s closer this way, Pop.” If traffic comes to a stop?…not a problem for motorbikes if the sidewalk is open. Drivers beep their horns a lot but never in anger, only as a safety measure to say “coming through.” They don’t seem to even give dirty looks to poor drivers. It’s a much more calm and polite society than I am accustomed to. Car horns in L.A. are used to punish other drivers.
On wider roads the lanes are delineated by dashed lines, but it is unclear why. If the flow is heavier in one direction it will swell to claim most of the oncoming lane. Passing occurs equally on the left, the right, and between moving vehicles. Cars tend to avoid sudden changes of direction, perhaps as not to incur damage from motorbikes that assume the car’s steady trajectory in their split second passing calculations.
A steady, predictable pace is also the best advice for the pedestrians who cross amid heavy traffic. They say that an old lady with a cane could creep steadily across a busy intersection and never be touched… but I’m not an old lady. Crossing a road with Steve, I made the mistake of looking at the oncoming vehicles, which froze me like a head-lighted deer. I quickly learned to get close to Steve and look only at him when crossing busy streets…. he moves, I move. Looking at the traffic might get me killed. Once Steve slipped across a busy street thinking I was ready. He had to wade back across to save me like a puppy afraid of a swollen stream.
And then there are thousands of very busy unmarked and unsignaled intersections. Yikes! All drivers act like they have a green light. Perpendicular traffic flows simultaneously, missing crossing vehicles by the thinnest of margins. They slow down a bit for safety but it’s hard to believe that I haven’t seen one collision. I would be terrified to pilot a vehicle in heavy traffic here. For Steve it is nothing (he has driven in India).
Vietnam may be considered a developing “third world” country, but they are way ahead of the USA in one very important technology… one that is very near and dear to all of us. Next to every toilet I’ve seen here, there is a small hose with spray nozzle… and it’s actually faster and easier than using paper. It is definitely does a better job. I can see no need for toilet tissue here at all except perhaps to blow your nose. There will surely be those who feel the need to dab the tiny water droplets that may remain after a refreshing douche de derriere, but that could be accomplished nicely with one square from the roll.
Think of the trees have could be saved and the reduced load on sewage treatment facilities if our country adopted this method. It amazes me that these handy gadgets aren’t already as common in the U.S. as flush toilets. At any rate, it is clear to me that in this critical arena, it is America who is a third world country.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and nearby HCM museum are popular shrines that draw big crowds daily. A friend of Steve’s had told us about her visit to the mausoleum. She was denied entrance because of her bare midriff. I checked the website which states that short pants on men and improper footwear are also prohibited. Every day thousands wait in long lines to gaze upon the remains of their national hero who led the Vietnamese to victory over imperialist oppression and brought about the reunification of their homeland.
The area around these attractions is the first place we’ve been where beer isn’t sold on the street. We joined the throng to walk the course of the exhibits, art and artifacts in the HCM Museum. It is a very impressive memorial. Every informational plaque includes an English translation, but very little reading is necessary to understand that the Viets love Ho and hated the French colonials. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the French controlled this land with an iron fist and filled prisons with dissidents. The guillotine was used as needed to enforce French rule and perhaps relieve overcrowding in the jails. There’s nothing quite like photos of severed heads to convey injustice and oppression. There is no greater moment in Viet history than their military victory over the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, “The first victory of the glorious revolution.” I need to better understand how the French got out of Vietnam and the American involvement began. But clearly, the French were the focus of a generational hatred for the Vietnamese people. American intervention and millions of bombs were treated like a terrible disease that they survived. The American War is a small chapter of the Ho Museum.
The same is true for the next Hanoi “museum” we visited, the 19th century Hoa Lo Prison or “Maison Centrale” as the builders named it. Americans know it colloquially as the Hanoi Hilton where John McCain and other American aviators languished as guests of the revolution until their release in 1973 pursuant to the Paris Peace Accords. The theme of this museum is the decades of subhuman treatment the French inflicted on the Vietnamese people in this prison. This theme is ingrained through photos, drawings and life-sizes sculptures of starving prisoners in leg irons lying in their own waste until, in many cases, they were pardoned by fatal illness.
A much smaller section of the museum deals with the American detainees who were, by the evidence on display, treated very well as “guests of the revolution.” There are photos of smiling Americans in prison garb playing volleyball, basketball and chess; tending chickens and gardens to ‘help provide for their healthy nutrition’; being treated by smiling Viet doctors; enjoying a hearty Christmas dinner complete with presents and decorated tree; and being warmly sent off with souvenirs as they were released in ’73. We all have heard a somewhat different story from our captured servicemen such as John McCain.
But let’s stop and think. Most Americans feel that punishment couldn’t be too brutal for the Islamic terrorists that crashed planes in suicide missions that killed our innocents in 2001. We all saw the gruesome evidence on television and we were enraged. Contrast that with the North Vietnamese who for years heard and felt bombs from the sky. Many lost loved ones. They all saw first-hand the broken bodies in the aftermath. How might those Vietnamese have reacted to capturing a well-fed, foreign invader who had until that day delivered their worst nightmares from the comfort and safety of a jet cockpit. In that light, it’s amazing that any of our airmen survived to reach prison
Hanoi, especially near the river has it s fair share of rats. They are usually only seen scampering away from approaching headlight. Steve and I were in the Old Quarter today. While using the john in a restaurant, I heard a scratching sound nearby. My attention was drawn to an open hole in the wall just as a cute little fella poked his nose and whiskers into the room. He was about half revealed (not big but not small) but he froze when I spoke. “ Well hello there,” I said in my friendliest tone. Never taking his eyes off me, he backed calmly into the shelter of the sewer pipe. He waited politely for me to finish my business and leave the room before making his rounds. It’s probably a good thing that I didn’t have any cookies with me.
Steve’s House in Hanoi
My son Steve lives in Long Bien, a suburban section of Hanoi across the wide Red River from the downtown congestion and pollution. The house he rents is nicely furnished, has 3 stories, four bathrooms and 5 bedrooms. The second and third story rooms all have a small balcony. The 1st floor living area, kitchen, and all baths are nicely tiled. The staircase and other floors are dark hardwood. On the second level is a roomy common area with sofas and chairs. The 3rd floor has a huge covered outdoor room with a panoramic view up and across the river (less than a block away) and the Hanoi skyline beyond. One can see a series of bridges upriver and the parade of small barges that constantly chug downstream with loads of sand and rock to feed the construction that is booming in Hanoi and most of Vietnam. With binoculars, we spotted 26 construction cranes across the river.
Steve has one bedroom and rents out the others. Roommate are easy to find among the many thousands of English-speaking teachers who are in Vietnam on work visas. Currently his guests are Owen from Ireland and Rob from Manchester, UK. Owen and Rob are pleasant fellows who both enjoy regular visits from their Viet girlfriends. Steve’s current lady-friend is Gabby, a visiting teacher from Brazil who speaks excellent English.
The bathrooms in this house are strange to me. They are long and narrow like 3’ x 12’ shower stalls (floors and walls are tile and a drain in the floor). First there is the sink, the toilet at the far end, and in between is the shower. No door, no curtain just the shower head. Anyone using the toilet simultaneously would get damp. A small water heater above the toilet is only flipped on when needed; wait two minutes, hot shower. There is a pressure pump switch that provides for an American style (water wasting) shower. This is only needed on the third floor. Without this boost it’s only a gravity dribble from the water storage on the roof. First and second floor showers have adequate pressure without a pump. They seem to use a lot of PVC here for plumbing, but no worries….even the locals won’t drink anything that doesn’t come from a bottle. Steve has drinking water delivered in 5 gallon water jugs. He gets 8 jugs at a time and has dispensers on every floor.
His Long Bien neighborhood is a labyrinth of narrow roads, narrower roads (barely big enough for 1 small car) and even narrower walkway/bikeways (the only access to many homes). Several families along the main arteries have converted their street-side room(s) into small businesses; motorbike repair, home cooked food, drinks and snack, beer and billiards. The homes range widely, large and small. Some are simple one-story dwellings that consume every square inch of their tiny lot (take one step outside the front door and be struck by a motorbike). Other homes are walled and gated compounds with open areas and well-appointed houses such as Steve’s. Plants are everywhere. Even properties with no exposed soil might have 100 potted plants; in the windows, on the roof or hanging wherever they can. It’s common on larger homes to see big trees growing from huge pots on upper floor balconies.
Steve’s street is closest to the river. Across from him is jungle that slopes perhaps 50 yards down to the riverbank. Flood risk probably discourages building on those lots, but banana trees, guava, starfruit and more grow there, first come first pick. Several paths lead down to the river’s edge where some go to fish.
This neighborhood feels safe. I base this on the way people leave their homes standing wide open at all hours. Airflow in this humid heat is important, but passersby can see these families like fish in a bowl and could walk right in. No one I’ve talked to has heard of any problems with theft, robberies, muggings, etc. Apparently this is not the case for Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south where the effects of American involvement and the associated vice and crime still persist 40 years later. The streets are safe in Hanoi, they say, but not in HCMC.
There are more birds flying about at night than during daylight. They seem to be attracted to the streetlight near Steve’s balcony, but these night birds never tweet. This is because they are not birds. Bats by the millions begin reducing the flying insect populations of Hanoi as soon as darkness begins to fall.
Daylight hours at Steve’s bring constant strains of music from just down the road. The Temple of the Water Goddess is a Buddhist shrine at the river’s edge. The music is performed live by the monks, not amplified, mostly drums and squeaky flutes… very Asian to my ears. It has actually become soothing to me after two weeks here.
Hanoi hot dogs
Many families in Hanoi have dogs, mostly as intruder alarms. But dogs aren’t necessarily considered family pets in Vietnam. Dogs generally stay chained outside. I have yet to see a dog in a Vietnamese home. Many American families allow the family dog in the house, even on their bed. Most Vietnamese would as soon have a pig in bed with them.
It is rare to see a dog being walked on a leash. Rarer still are stray dogs. The reason is simple: in Vietnam dogs are food, not just food but a delicacy that fetches a higher price than pork. Farmers in Vietnam raise dogs and sell them like any other livestock. Eating dog is considered lucky by many Vietnamese. But curiously this good luck only seems to effective during the waning moon, never the waxing moon. Restaurants that serve dog meat usually remove it from their menu during the first half of the lunar month.
Most Americans will probably find the whole idea of dogs-as-food to be disgusting, even criminal. But many who would passionately object to anyone eating dog meat have no problem consuming the flesh of other mammals on a daily basis. Given the same environment and training, pigs are generally found to be more clever than dogs. They same bunnies can be cherished at Easter but barbecued on Memorial Day. And what could be more precious than a baby lamb?
The China consumes millions of dogs annually. Many Chinese prefer what they call the “fragrant meat” over pork, beef or mutton. I saw Vietnamese restaurants butchering fresh carcasses (pigs, goats, etc) so passersby can see that the meat is fresh. The sight of a half-dismembered dog was a bit unsettling for me, but I was curious…… and ordered the special. I’d thought I was hungry but after two bites really didn’t have much of an appetite. Maybe if I hadn’t known it was dog…. Meanwhile, at the American Humane Society, thousands of healthy dogs are euthanized every day. Their carcasses are disposed of in landfills, all while millions of humans around the world suffer malnutrition that could be improved by the consumption of any type of meat.
Steve developed an ear infection during our SaPa excursion to Vietnam’s highest elevations. On our way back down the mountain, his eardrum ruptured. Steve, ever the trooper, suffered through this with little complaint as not to dampen the vacation spirit for Tobi and Dad. Back in Hanoi he was reluctant to seek medical assistance, “this has happened before… it will get better by itself.” He also had headache (sinus pain) and a sore throat. He also admitted a partial hearing that gets worse with each episode.
I had a puffy lump on my elbow as a result of my Segway scooter backflip days earlier. I asked the boy to give me a ride to the clinic/hospital to get it checked out….. and as long as we’re there, let a doctor evaluate his ear problem.
Unlike other countries I have visited, very few Vietnamese can communicate effectively in English. A hospital where English is spoken was searched for and found. Our motorbike arrived at mid-afternoon. There seemed to be a traffic jam around the hospital. An ambulance with siren blaring was inching through the jam to deliver a casualty. Steve initially tried to drive into an open driveway but we were blocked by a uniformed officer and directed down the street for parking. Skirting the gridlock on the street Steve carefully negotiated pedestrian traffic on the sidewalk past hundreds and hundreds of motorbikes parked 4 deep. An officer took the 10,000 dong (50 cents) parking fee and a younger uniform pushed Steve’s bike away to find an open spot.
The hospital reception area was filled with Vietnamese but there were surprisingly short lines at several reception windows. Luckily for us, there was also an information kiosk with an expediter who spoke adequate English. This clean-cut young fellow translated our situation to the person at the reception window. We learned there is a different fee structure for non-Vietnamese and that we would have to pay 100,000 dong ($5) each to see a doctor. The expediter was good enough to escort us through the corridors to our appropriate treatment areas. I entered a room where several people stood about. A large square table was surrounded by four seated doctors and their patients who might lay on the table as necessary for examination. Within a few minutes, a seat opened up and I was talking with a doctor. His English was sketchy but after examining the elbow said he doubted there was an abscess and thought it would probably heal on its own. He suggested an X-ray and MRI just to be sure nothing was seriously wrong with it. I inquired as to the cost for those procedures. The form I carried to him stated I was USA, so he clicked into his laptop to find the “non-member” prices for those procedures. I have heard of $1,500 charges for an MRI in L.A. and X-rays aren’t exactly free for the uninsured. I was already deciding to tough it out with the elbow for the 5 days until I could get home to Kaiser when the doctor gave me the grand total for my X-ray and MRI …… 550,000 d. Less than $25. I asked how long my wait might be, he said “fue meenet, mah be haff owar.” I was beginning to believe the Vietnamese healthcare system is more about treatment than profit.
But my first concern was Steve’s progress and whereabouts. I found our expediter friend. He was happy to desert his post and walk me through the many turns and corridors to where he had taken Steve. Some corridors were poorly lit. People sat on the floor along the walls. I might have tripped over a stretcher on the floor and the woman in laying on it. A fresh arrival was wheeled past us; unconscious with terrible face trauma.
We found Steve in something like a dentist’s chair talking (trying to communicate) with an older Viet doctor. I had been impressed with Steve’s Vietnamese language acquisition but it wasn’t holding up well in a medical conversation. Steve and doctor were relieved to see the expediter arrive so that they might learn what they had been trying to say to each other. The doc allowed me to look through the scope at Steve’s eardrum. I thought it looked like a bullet hole surrounded by angry red tissue. Steve’s wish was to do something that would keep this from ever happening again. His ear problems have a long painful history. Shunts were implanted at age 2 but fell out on their own after a time as expected. The doctor’s translated advice to Steve was, “Get well first, then come back.” and “no water in ear….ear plug when showering.” There were 5 items on the prescription sheet he gave us; an antibiotic, an anti-inflammatory, a bottle of medicated gargle, medicated ear drops, and ear plugs. The hospital pharmacy only had the 4 medicines, not the earplugs. We went to a nearby pharmacy for those. They saw our bag of meds from the hospital and told us we paid too much, should have come to them for everything. The 4 meds from the hospital totaled 560,000 dong (about $25). I have probably overpaid more than that for medicine a few times back home.