Yes there actually is a "Hanoi Hilton" (called the Opera Hilton of Hanoi). For those who are from a younger generation; During the Vietnam war in the 1960's the American Prisoner's of War referred to the prison in which they suffered as the "Hanoi Hilton". My how times change.
After a mere 31 hours (door to door) and 12,000 miles I arrived in Hanoi. The airport was a surprise; spacious modern and clean and very efficient. A driver from the hotel picked me up and we headed into the city in a Toyota van. The rain came down on and off and gusts of wind rocked the van. I said to the driver "I didn't know it was rainy season" he replied "no no.. not rainy season, only typhoon". That explains why the landing was unusually bumpy and bouncy.
On the left were houses. Small and tall is the best description I can think of (seems land has gotten quite expensive here). They were narrow and squarish but 3 or 4 stories tall. You got a sense of the history from their pale shades of mustard yellow, blue, purple and green topped by cheery red tile roofs. On the right were rice fields as far as the eye could see. The shock was the way they supplemented their incomes by renting space to tall billboards and cell phone towers emblazoned with advertising. While part of the trip was (kind of) expressway, much of it wound through village like streets lined with small shops spilling onto the street with everything from auto parts to steaming buckets of noodles in broth with people in pointed straw hats squatting around with bowls and chopsticks.
We zipped past the five star western hotel chains (with prices my per diem cannot afford) and on to the four star Sunway Hotel. It came by surprise as well. It was like the hotel had been dropped from the sky into the middle of daily Vietnamese life with stalls and shops on either side amid broken sidewalks with the occasional electrical code dangling between power pole and shop. Take three steps from the hotel lobby and you are in a different world.
The hotel is quite adequate and service is good. Have Internet access in my room 24/7 for free and clean and neat room. Service is a welcome change. Young men in clean pressed uniforms opening doors and asking how they can help. Young ladies in long flowing traditional Vietnamese dresses popping up to assist. Not much English spoken here and to understand the English they do speak can be challenging. Ran into an Oriental woman who greeted me with Bon Jour (today's tour group is French) and found out she is from Wheaton IL. Small world...
This is a country trying to be Communist while becoming a capitalistic free market. The Chinese have done it pretty well, the Vietnamese have quite a way to go. My first week was spent bashing headlong into the bureaucracy that wants western like efficiency and results but still acts like it always did. We need official letters to be sent and approved just to go to a meeting. My compatriot is Steve W so were confusing them with the Steve & Steve show which always fun. There is another project going on with two Canadians (Steve W is British) and I'm going to dinner with a New Zealander Thursday. Also attended the "Canadian Social Club" held at a Vietnamese restaurant and hosted byt the owner who is South African
I was a millionaire last week. When arriving in a new country it is always wise to convert some US$ to local currency, in this case the Vietnamese Dong. I became an instant millionaire as 1,000,000 Dong = about $63 US. Paying 10,000 Dong for a taxi ride seemed shocking at first until I did the math and realized it was about 63 cents.
There are offically about 3.5 million people in Hanoi (estimated to actually be over 5 million) and about 800,000 "registered" motorcycles with many more on the streets. So Hanoi is a city of a "million motorbikes". My unscientific obervation at the street corners is that for every vehicle there 20 or more motorbikes. It not unusual to see father mother and two children on the same motorbike together. Picture Grandma zipping down the street in the midst of a sea of motorbikes. It is not unusual to see motorbikes with bags, boxes and even a refrigerator strapped to the back navigating the streets and sidewalks. In the US we have made ramps in the curbs for handicapped access, here every store or house has a metal ramp up the curb for the motorbike to use and some have ramps up to the front door so the motorbikes can be driven inside.
Vietnam has traffic lights and plenty of traffic laws which cars and busses obey however motorbike drivers appear to regard them as "traffic suggestions". Crossing the street can be an adventure. One does not walk in front of a car or bus, or even a bicycle (since they cannot change course as quickly), but one walks boldly through the tidal wave of motorbikes as they swerve and dart around you. A bit unnerving at first but otherwise I could never cross the street. The war may be over but there is brisk business in souveniers including Viet Cong army helmets (which is the closest most people get to motorbike safety gear). Still I have seen only one motorbike accident in three weeks and it was minor. Many folks stopped to help the lady and child up and make sure they were not hurt.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCM) [alias Saigon] had a different feel and energy, especially after dark. Just as crowded and twice as many people (and motorbikes) but more developed and cosmopolitan with color and variety I did not see in Hanoi. Also many more foreigners as HCM is more a center of commerce.
Normally I rebel at paying the hotel for laundry since they charge western prices and you know the person doing the work is getting little of that. Here I walk out the door of my hotel before breakfast and stip at a little shop (about 4 ft wide) that does a full day's laundry for my for about a dollar. They also sell postcards, soda, cigarettes and Scotch. There are a lot of strange product mixes in these little shops which seem to be the cornerstone of life on the streets..
What a difference forty years has made.