The roads out of Beijing weren't nearly as clogged as they had been coming in the previous night and I actually got to the airport on Friday too early to check in. When I did after about an hour of sitting around, I only got to sit around more in the boring-est airport gate ever (no shops, no food, not even a free plug to recharge my iPod at). On the plane I sat across the aisle from one of China's famed Awful Phlegmatic Old Men, who rearranged the contents of his sinuses every twenty minutes or so through the course of the flight and bossed at the stewardesses. I was also unable to avoid the bad Hong Kong teenage-pregnancy drama (she's the spoiled daughter of a rich lawyer, who's furious! he's the son of a poor laborer! can they make a life when they run off together?) on the in-flight entertainment because they actually broadcast it over the PA system. I got some subtler entertainment in Guangzhou, where we stopped for a connection, as everybody stampeded off, pushing past the two hapless girls checking our onward tickets, in order to reach... closed emigration desks. The officers showed up eventually, but further delays there meant I didn't get a chance to burn my last renminbi at the cafes in Guangzhou airport, which looked to be considerably nicer than Beijing's.
Flying into a strange airport somewhere in Asia late at night definitely ranks up there with my least favorite past-times. When I saw my flight from Beijing wasn't scheduled to get into Vietnam until 9:20, I made arrangements with the hostel I'm staying at here, an Aussie outfit with pretty good referrals online, to pick me up at Hanoi airport. Unfortunately, when I got through customs (the immigration officer gave me a sort of smirk when he looked at my passport... getting old, or maybe just scruffy) and out into the terminal, there was no one there.
In the course of flying out of Beijing I had hooked up with another guy, a fellow ex-English teacher (in his case, Seoul) from New York City named Greg who as coincidence would have it was going to the same hostel in Hanoi. We wandered around the small terminal for a bit in search of a payphone that we could use to call the hostel and have them send someone out; but the only phone kiosks were trying to sell us SIM cards for cell phones we didn't have, and none of the "helpful" tourist information desks would let us use their phones. So we bit the bullet and decided to try a taxi.
Pretty much everything that the guide warned us about ended up happening. After cutting our way through the crowd of touts, we picked out a guy with a shiny new minivan who assured us he could take us straight to where we wanted to go. "How much?" I asked. "Metered!" he replied. Well, no worries then. Except that a minute after pulling out he explained that we would need to pay $2 per person for a ticket to get on the highway. Unless we would prefer to pay him $20 flat without the meter? This is a ride that shouldn't have cost us more than $12 or so, but the other fellow I was traveling with got him down to $18. We cruised through the oh-so-important ticket gates without stopping.
Well, we passed through the dark on the highway into Hanoi. After about 15 minutes we entered the city proper, and shortly afterwards we pulled up in front of a hotel. A young Vietnamese guy came to the door, "Hanoi Backpackers' Hotel?" he asked in English (most people here speak it, it seems, at least if they have something to sell you), flashing a fading business card with the hostel's name and address on it. Except that.. this pretty clearly wasn't the place. Lonely Planet explicitly warned of copycat hotels paying airport taxis to take unsuspecting guests to an overpriced imitation, so we weren't about to get out the cab. Not that we would've been in danger or anything -- just resoundingly ripped off. I attempted to get the cabdriver to tell us what address we were at -- it clearly wasn't the one on business card the guy was waving in my face -- while Greg insisted to them that we weren't staying here. "The main hotel is full, we built a second place!" the guy with the business card said at first. After a minute or two it became, "We moved!" Then, after a few more futile tries, "New name!" Yeah, right. We weren't buying it, and eventually the cab driver, who was not a particularly good actor, made a show of "confusion" and wanting to check the address we had first showed him again. Eventually we extricated ourselves and left the fake hostelers to the rest of their evening, and our cabdriver pulled out a cellphone to call the real place and get directions. He took us there in about five minutes and we grudgingly paid him the $18 (he hadn't exactly earned it), then checked into the hostel, which the missed pick-up aside has been great.
All part of the adventure!
Hanoi is a very pretty city, thanks to the French colonial legacy; lots of old ochre-yellow buildings, tree-shaded boulevards, and a lake near the Old Quarter where I'm staying. Unlike China, where the car is taking over, here most people still get around on two wheels -- Yamaha and Honda scooters fill the streets, with two or three people clinging to the back as they zip around. (Coming in from the airport, I saw one with a huge load of roses, easily four feet by four feet, bundled on top of the back of one; another, carrying several sacks of miscellaneous junk, had a woman crouching down on the running boards between the driver's legs as they hurtled along the highway.) They're cheaper and many times more numerous than car taxis (not to mention more persistent), so I've already taken a ride on a few of them -- it's mildly terrifying but also a fun way to see the streets.
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, which I had been planning to see, was unfortunately closed for Friday; so I'm 0 for 2 on my Embalmed Former Communist Leaders checklist. I did pass by the front of the monument, which is massive and which has huge red-and-yellow-starred flags lining the ground. Ho himself apparently expressed wishes for a simple cremation, but I suppose the party knows best. I went to a few sights here, including the old French prison where John McCain, along with several other downed American pilots, was imprisoned during the war. They still have his flight suit there, in addition to the guillotine used by the French colonial regime on Vietminh insurgents prior to their victory in the north. I also checked out the Temple of Literature, where old Confucian students got their doctorates engraved in stone stelae mounted atop statues of turtles. Lunch was at a nice little cafe near the market district; if nothing else, I can thank the French for introducing cafe culture. They even have Orangina! My last stop this afternoon was the Army Museum, full of captured French and American war materiel and lots of exhibits about the Vietnamese wars; heavily slanted to match the official line as you might expect, but still interesting.
This evening I wandered around the lake area for a bit and bought a pair of cheap flip-flops, then went to watch roi nuoc, or Vietnamese water puppets. The show was about an hour and full of traditional music and vignettes of Vietnamese village life, interspersed with mythical creatures and a few ancient legends. Most of the puppets were not too elaborate in their decoration but they could perform some pretty clever tricks with them; it was a fun outing.
Overall my first day in Vietnam has been pretty good, the only exceptions being the initially unfavorable introduction and the humidity, which as you would imagine is omnipresent. Tomorrow I'm going to go out to Halong Bay, an inlet full of towering limestone pillars and caves; the trip should take the full day, and I think there is a bit of kayaking involved in addition to a boat cruise. I also got a flight on to my next stop, Hue; I'll leave for there on Sunday afternoon and the continue south with stops in Hoi An and Quy Nhon over the course of the next few days.
For now, though, it's time for shower number three of the day.