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Read Hanoi, part I here.
We take a cab to the train station in Hanoi and it’s like we’ve entered a different world. A third world. Shanghai was bright lights, pristine streets, street signs with English translations underneath. Here it is nighttime, and the roads—when paved—are padded with a thick layer of dust. The swarms of motorbike riders wear bandannas and masks to keep from swallowing it. Whole families pile onto a bike, Dad driving, mom behind him, baby in between them, and any older children standing up front in between Dad and the handlebars. Helmets are a rarity.
Through this dark, dusty mist, we see signs in another language. It’s desolate. It’s dirty. I feel we could be anywhere—Haiti, Iran, a border town in Mexico. We pass lots of roadside stands and open air shanty restaurants where the only seating is plastic children’s stools. We see open fires on the side of the road.
We get to the train station and no one’s there. Yet somehow, I refuse to believe we’ve gotten had. Through the grace of God Scott learns we’re at the wrong train station—apparently there are A and B stations with the same name. Our train leaves in 15 minutes but the taxi driver we find says we’re close. It doesn’t seem close enough. The traffic here is as maddening as it is confusing.
We make it to the proper train station and see a person out front holding a sign with our name. Sweet relief! He rushes us through the station, across the tracks (no platform here) and into our sleeper cabin. Seconds later the train takes off.
When you leave a city like Shanghai, where you drive thirty minutes to the airport and never once lose sight of skyscrapers in any direction, any city would seem meager in comparison. But when you go from a city like Shanghai to a city like Hanoi, where the buildings lean precariously onto one another and everything from homes to street signs to people are clouded in a thick cake of dust, it feels like you went back in time. And when we landed in Hanoi we were feeling even more lost in time—or maybe in translation—because we were in one of those inevitable travel situations where you feel like the fate of your trip is hanging by a thread. Our thread was dangling precariously by the hand of a swindling Vietnamese desk attendant at the Hanoi airport’s tiny travel information booth. Here’s what I wrote in my travel journal the following day:
Off the plane and the journey begins. What a difference a few hours make. Compared to the pristine goliath of PuDong Airport, Hanoi is the stinky small town bus stop. We have to deplane (my new favorite travel word) on the tarmac and then take a crowded bus to get to the airport. Scott waits for baggage as I find an ATM, where I get $1 million dong, thinking it’s $500 and will last me almost to the end of our trip. Later I realize it’s $50. Doh! There’s just too many zeros.
The flight landed late, so we now have just over an hour to make the overnight train we need, and the station is 40 minutes away. We don’t have a ticket and I’m nervous. I go to the travel information desk to see if I can call the office of the train rep I’d been emailing with. Instead they try to sell me a ticket themselves. I’m skeptical; I know these people are hustlers. They’re selling “taxi vouchers” into Hanoi at twice the rate my guidebook says and they’re giving the hard sell on everything to anyone who will listen. Nothing seems legit.
He makes a call and says there are only 2 tickets left on the train we want. I’m sure he’s lying but buy the tickets anyway. It’s not worth the risk—or the time—to try to figure out the purchase on our own. Better to get where we need to go, even if it means getting taken for a ride.
Of course there’s a catch. The attendant wants us to pick up the tickets at an office in town but I refuse—there’s no time! He finally promises to have someone meet us with the tickets at the station. We leave the airport with nothing but this promise and a handwritten receipt.
To be continued…
Shanghai’s Maglev system uses magnetic levitation to propel trains 270 miles per hour into the heart of Shanghai. Scott almost peed himself with excitement; the lady on the right put her bags down and promptly fell asleep.
In Shanghai the parks are their own ecosystem, their own city. You almost need a map to read them. Dancing lessons are in one corner, with couples in neat rows showing off their carefully practiced steps. In a nearby field adults determinedly practice spinning metal wheels on string, using two handles to maintain a precarious balance. Near the entrance is the gambling—men crowded tightly around each other, whispering bets in serious tones—and along the walkways are karaoke stands, where groups of 10-12 sing loud and proud as they read lyrics off of scrolls hanging from clotheslines.
Everywhere in between there’s Tai Chi and endless varieties of exercise; whether it’s sword fighting or walking backwards or just standing in place doing high kicks.
The park by my house is lucky to see a few dog walkers on a sunny Saturday; on an average Tuesday the parks in Shanghai look like full-blown gym meets.
You know that feeling when you’re staring at the ocean and you suddenly feel so small? Standing in Shanghai is exactly like that, except the peacefulness that you might get from staring at the waves is replaced by a heart-thumping, hair-raising symphony of car horns beeping, motorbikes revving and people hocking massive loogies (a popular pastime, apparently). Shanghai is a city of hustlers, a city where the skyscrapers come by the dozen and yet people are still bursting out onto the street and into the parks, restaurants and shopping centers. Everything is always busy. There is sure to be a line at the ATM, predictably a crowd in the restaurants, constantly a throng of traffic on the streets. It all feels impossibly modern.
And then you take a step in, and you notice the wiggling fish in a basket on the street, where an old lady sits waiting to make a sale. You see the twisted palm fronds that have been fashioned into a streetsweepers’ broom. You pass a pharmacy where seahorses and ginger root are sold as remedies. You walk into a temple where incense is burning.
If China is a study of contradictions, of the pull between old and new, then Shanghai is the Cliff’s Notes.
10 planes, 4 trains, 5 boats and countless buses, cars vans and cabs later, Scott and I are back from a whirlwind three-week trip to China and Vietnam. It was the trip of a lifetime: we saw things we’d never seen before, tasted things we’d never heard of, and met people whose lives we could only imagine. We kayaked, biked, hiked, snorkeled and sunbathed ourselves through nearly 2,000 miles of culturally mind blowing terrain, and laughed through a few hairy situations. We lived to tell about it.
We arrived home late last night and collapsed into bed. After I take a few days to get settled back into everyday life, I’d love to share some stories and photos with you from our trip. Do you want to see?
I’m so, so glad to be back! xo