Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Hanoi I

The bus ride was smooth all the way from Hue to Hanoi. A few hours after beginning the trip we stopped for dinner at a small open-front restaurant that was accustomed to catering to passing tourists. There was a cute dog about the size of a small labrador that wandered from table to table attempting to guilt scraps of food from customers using a carefully calculated demeanor of wretchedness. He would stare until he could no longer deny that his ploy wasn't working and move on to try his luck at the next table. When he came to us I restrained myself from making cooing noises and giving him hugs (I was not immune to his pathetic-ness), and it was a good thing I did. I looked down at the creature and noticed that his nose was glistening. My brow crinkled and I looked closer. A dark drop fell to the floor, right from his panting mouth as he looked back and forth between Mom and me. It was blood. The poor thing was bleeding from his mouth. I looked in the direction from which he had come and there were a few more blood spots leading towards our table in an erratic path. I felt bad for him, but didn't have a clue what I could do to help. I figured that at the least, having a blood drooling dog wandering around your restaurant might be kind of gross so we pointed out the problem to one of the waitresses. She got a broom and shooed him out of the restaurant. Of course, once the coast was clear he came right back. Back to his old tricks. We three just looked at each other and gave a mental shrug. Whatever. Once we piled back on the bus they turned the lights out and it was off to dream land for me.

I slept decently through the night given the fact that I was on a bus and squished into a small cavity of a bed. We were already near the heart of Hanoi by the time I woke up. What a great way to travel: unconscious. Mom and Chuck informed me that I had slept through the street with all the dog carcasses. You know, for cooking. Cause some people eat dog in Vietnam. I was a little disappointed that I missed it while Mom on the other hand wished she had been the one who had slept through it. We eventually came to a stop in front of a tourist agency on a busy, power-line riddled street. Everyone was ushered out and our backpacks tossed to the sidewalk. We were meant to have a taxi pick-up waiting, so I took a look around while Mom and Chuck jostled with the other passengers to claim our baggage. There was quite a bit of activity going on with taxi drivers and hotel representatives trying to entice travelers to their accommodations. When I spotted our taxi driver, a computer printed sign of our names in her hand, I laughed out loud. It read "Charlet & Janine." It certainly wasn't what I had expected them to write, but I recognized it none the less. “Charlet” was obviously meant to be Chuck's real name, Charles, but with a 't' ending because the Vietnamese language doesn't have 's' endings. But the "Janine" was so out of the blue that I had to laugh. It was my Mom's middle name. Why they decided to use her middle name off her passport, I have no clue. We never refer to her by her middle name so it was awkwardly funny to see it being used on the sign, right next to "Charlet." We gathered around the sign holder who led us into the travel agency rather than to a car. As it turned out, she wasn't actually a driver, just our contact person. She called us a cab though, which happily took us to our hotel. The hotel was run by the brother of the owner of the hotel we had just stayed at in Hue (did you catch all that?). The Hue hotel had called the previous day and set us up with a good deal on our rooms. The lobby was small enough that it was cozy, but the decorations lent it a bit of a fancy feel. The receptionist was one of the most helpful and knowledgeable people we had met in Vietnam. And cute. He checked us in, and once we were settled we came back downstairs to have him help us with getting visa extensions (Chuck and I needed a few extra days) and finding an international hospital (Chuck had been having some lower back pain for a while now). He knew just where we needed to go for both of those issues. He even called the medical clinic to check that they were open that day. We foolishly didn't follow his advice about our visas though – we didn't yet realize just how deep his wisdom ran. We figured we would be able to go to the immigration office and fill out a form and bam, visa extended. We went to the office, but instead of forms and "bams" we were told we had to go through our hotel or a travel agency to do it. Just as our receptionist had told us. We headed back to the hotel feeling a bit deflated. I felt silly telling him that we had been turned away, but he was all courtesy and no smug-ness. He happily took our passports and sent them on their way to be extended. Chuck and I were rather nervous about the process because it would leave us without passports for our trip to Ha Long Bay. With Vietnam's love of holding passports hostage when you check into a hotel we were worried we would have problems during our three day side-trip. The receptionist gave us copies of our passports and current visas as a temporary replacement. He even wrote a little note informing those whom it might concern about our situation. It was the best we could do. Next we tackled the medical issue. A short taxi ride brought us to an upscale building full of expensive designer shops. We spotted a sign that pointed downstairs: "International Clinic." The lobby was clean and modern but not fancy. The girl behind the counter spoke enough English that we could communicate Chuck's problem, albeit without any details. Back pain. He filled out a form and we were told to come back in an hour-and-a-half to see the doctor. We killed the time by having lunch, wandering into Nine West (their prices aren't much better in Vietnam than the States, sheesh), and finally resorted to sipping on expensive coffees and teas in a busy restaurant. When the time came, Mom decided she probably didn't need to stick around for Chuck's check-up so she went back to the hotel while we headed back down into the bowels of the building. As soon as we announced our presence we were escorted in to see the doctor (they let me come along for moral support). He was surprisingly old. And although he supposedly spoke English, it was mostly unintelligible to Chuck and me. We concentrated intently on the flapping of his wrinkled mouth in an attempt to lip read the explanations that he offered. Between the two of us I think we managed to pick out most of it. He began by examining Chuck's back with eyes and hands. Then he sent us off to the various other stations around the clinic for more specific testing. After an hour Chuck had gotten an ultrasound, an x-ray, and blood work. I thought it was a pretty comprehensive check-up for lower back pain. Back in the doctors office we once again focused on lip-reading the meaning out of the old man's words. Chuck had a clean bill of health. The only possible reason for back pain was a little lipoma lump in his lower back, which was apparently nothing to be worried about. This didn't solve any of the pain problems, but it did at least give an explanation. Good to know. And the total price? $65.00. I don't know what the prices are like in the US at the moment, but I thought it was a pretty good deal. We headed back to the hotel and shared the update with Mom. That evening we headed into the downtown area on the recommendation of our trusty receptionist. It was incredibly busy, reminding me of Las Vegas at night, only replace the prostitutes and drunk people with Vietnamese folks out for dinner, or taking a jog around the lake, or walking their dogs (not the eating kind). It was great for people watching. We took forever deciding where to eat because the restaurants were all respectable looking places and slightly pricier than our usual dingy plastic-table dives. The one we chose was probably about as good as any of the others. It had a decent environment, relatively friendly staff, below average service, and satisfying food. We stayed and chatted for a little while, but headed back to the hotel fairly early because we had a big day coming up.

We woke up and did the check-out song and dance, had breakfast downstairs, and waited for our tour van to pick us up. We were headed to the beautiful (and expensive) Ha Long Bay. We would spend 3 nights in the bay before returning to Hanoi and finishing our time in Vietnam. More importantly, this would be our last excursion with my Mom. She was flying back to the States after our Ha Long Bay visit. Our van arrived and as we climbed in I thought to myself that this last trip was like the grand finale of her visit. I was looking forward to the last few day at the same time that I was dreading them. I settled into my seat and resigned myself to let it be what it would. My thoughts and feelings passed through me as though I were a sieve, washing away to be replaced by the exuberance of our spunky tour guide as he began his introduction speech. I had time to be sad later. Off to the bay we headed.