You know those experiments where the scientists put the lab mice into a cage that’s just a little too crowded, and subject them to loud noises, erratic movements, flashing lights, etc? And then they watch to see what happens? And within a short time the normally docile lab mice turn into tormented, snarling beasties? Well, take that scenario, add abysmal air quality, and you’ve got… us in Hanoi! Yes, the gentle Oregon mice you know and love were quickly transformed into bitter misanthropes in this uniquely challenging environment. It’s a good thing we were only there for a week; any longer and we’d probably be writing from a Hanoi jail cell, thrown in the slammer for kicking over one of the countless motorbikes that vroom along on the sidewalk honking at pedestrians.

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[Help us!!]

Ah, Hanoi; we wanted to love you, we really did. To be fair, there were some things about Hanoi that we appreciated. It’s the first place on our trip with free WiFi offered in many cafes (which we would’ve utilized to email y’all if we hadn’t been so depressed!!). The coffee was good, and the pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup) was delicious, much yummier than any we’ve had in the U.S. Also, a few people were friendly! (Yes, a few! Everybody else seemed just as disheartened by the cacophonous environment as we were, and/or solely intent on selling us something whether we wanted it or not.)

As a city, Hanoi seems to still want to be French, although one wonders why, after being treated so poorly as a French colony. There are “boulangeries” everywhere, and the cafes are adorned with fin de siecle Parisian posters. Baguettes are sold on the steet, but unfortunately compress to almost nothing on first bite. Beneath this faux European patina lies the bedrock of the communist government. Ho Chi Minh is still the (north’s) father figure, but the militaristic posters and red banners do not seem to be able to compete – the exactly correct word – with rampant capitalist energy. The face-off between Uncle Ho and Coca Cola at a major intersection leaves little doubt which engages the real passions.

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Let’s zoom in a bit…

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[Ho Chi Min’s side of the street…]

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[…and Coca Cola’s side of the street]

In fact, the communist struggles for independence have themselves become commodites: propaganda posters are now sold to tourists, along with Zippo lighters with U.S. military insignia (most appearing newly counterfeited) and even U.S. military dog tags.

There’s much more to Vietnam than Hanoi, of course. Though we had only a week, we did get out of town a couple of times — once for a day trip to the countryside around Tam Coc, and once for an overnight trip to Halong Bay. One thing travelers note about Vietnam is that it’s difficult to travel around independently; instead, most people sign up for organized tours, which is what we did.

Our day trip to Tam Coc included a pleasant bike ride through picturesque rural villages, which would have been significantly more pleasant on bikes that weren’t falling apart. This was followed by a rowboat tour on a slow river through rice paddies, limestone outcroppings, and caves. Each rowboat in this “rowboat parade” held two tourists, two rowers, and an ominous metal chest.

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[Before the opening of the chest]

Halfway through the trip we learned what was in the chest when one rower stopped rowing, opened it to reveal innumerable souvenir “handicrafts,” and launched a timeshare-intensity sales pitch. We had to be very assertive and persistent about the fact that we did not need any souvenir handicrafts, no matter whose brother’s mother had supposedly embroidered them. By the end of the ride we were both rowing enthusiastically to extricate ourselves from this uncomfortable situation!

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[No handicrafts, thank you!]

Our trip to Halong Bay was better. The bay is stunning — a sea of calm blue-green water sprinkled with 3000 limestone islands.

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We travelled in an eight-cabin junk, spending the night onboard in a lovely, comfortable cabin and eating excellent meals. Interestingly, more than half of the 15 passengers on our boat were Vietnamese or of Vietnamese origin. (Even for Vietnamese people, it’s easier to see the country on an organized tour rather than traveling independently.) There was a group of eight college students from Hanoi, a woman traveling with her European husband, and an Australian couple whose families had emigrated there from Vietnam in the 70s.

The boat chugged along among the islands, passing little floating villages complete with laundry lines, kids, and dogs. (But no motorbikes! πŸ™‚ )

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We stopped at a large inhabited island for a bike ride through the countryside. (Lovely, but again with the falling-apart bikes!! 😦 )

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[A chicken coop with great cell reception]

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Later we were set loose in kayaks to explore a bit, paddling around one island and INTO another — through an arch and into a lagoon in the center! Cool.

We’re relieved to be back in Thailand now, none the worse for wear. Like most folks, we aspire to be the kind of people who maintain equanimity regardless of fluctuating conditions — you know, able to retain your peace of mind and goodwill toward humankind even when you’re in a situation that doesn’t agree with you. Alas, not always! Having so many buttons pushed by an environment like Hanoi (or Arkansas) is humbling. Well, tonight we board the night train bound for Laos, and we’re very curious to see what it’s like. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned….

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