Chaos and Calm

A busy street in Hanoi

A busy street in Hanoi


If I could use only one word to describe Hanoi, chaos would be it. I can picture those who know me laughing at the irony of me, one of the most order loving people, being here. I mean… I’m a data analyst for pete’s sake!

The painted lines that run down the center of roads are merely suggestions of where lanes should be. As I look down from the safety of my balcony I can see that almost nobody pays any attention to them. It is common to see cars going on the wrong side of the street honking the whole time.

Speaking of honking. As much as I can tell, he who honks first is not at fault. For this very reason, people are quick to honk or even ride the horn. Intersections are another place where horns are used. I believe it is because the lack of traffic signals necessitates letting oncoming traffic know that you are about to blast on through an intersection.

Imagine this… you are trying to cross a very busy street (think Hilltop and Cypress at 5 o’clock). There are no signals. Cars just go when they feel like it. You need to get from Jack in the Box to Del Taco. How do you get across? If you are like me, you “Frogger” your way to Black Bear Diner then on to Del Taco. How do the locals of Hanoi do it? They walk with purpose, often taking the direct A to B route, never looking anywhere but straight ahead. Talk about courage!

Scooters are by far the most common form of transportation. I ride a scooter at home. I have even found myself holding 3 takeout boxes and a 40 ounce soda between my feet as I drove back to work after lunch. I thought I was pretty cool. I have been humbled. Here I have seen people ride with 3 on a scooters… they ride with cages full of chickens on scooters… ladders… huge bags of rice stacked higher than the driver… and I have been told, water buffalo. I promise if I see a scooter with a water buffalo I will take a picture, until then I will dismiss that one as someone trying to figure out how gullible the tourist is.

Botanical Garden

Botanical Garden

So, with all this chaos, be proud of me that I spent 4 hours walking around Hanoi with my Dad. We walked by the Botanical Gardens, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, schools, hundreds of restaurants, dozens of government buildings (which we found you are not supposed to take pictures near), statues, water fountains, street venders, and places that offer Pho To Co Py. Dad thought we could buy noodles at these places since Pho means noodles. No, this is where we could have our passports copied.

We also went to the military museum, but I think my Dad could describe this much better than I could so I will leave it to him.

As for me, I am back in the hotel room getting ready to tackle my homework and glad to be out of the chaos. I am happy to stay in my hotel for what remains of the day. As for my Dad, he is back in it, exploring another part of the city.

and Calm

We both got up early this morning, and enjoyed a fine buffet breakfast in the hotel. They make their coffee strong, just the way I like it, and the bread choices were excellent. I remember “French bread” from the last time I was in Vietnam, and I tried a few other varieties of muffins and pastries. Laura went for a slice of something she described as what a twinkie would be if it was freshly made, a light cake with fresh whipped cream.

I saw the same traffic as Laura, but saw calm as much as chaos. The thing that impressed me was the relatively sedate pace. They kept moving with a purpose, but there were no angry gestures or verbal comments of any kind, no speeding away from a congested spot. Even the horns were handled with tact, more friendly beep (hey, I’m here, you know), than get-out-of-my-way, I’ve-got-somewhere-I-need-to-be. Laura mentioned this morning that you don’t see any vehicles with body damage either.

She was a good sport and we went through the military museum. I was prepared to be impressed by a bicycle that was used to carry 700 pound loads of materials to the south, but have to wonder how someone could manage that. Their path wasn’t a paved road on level terrain after all. It was a single speed, steel framed bike that was reinforced with bamboo, and still looked kind of fragile. Ok, someone else would be impressed with the Russian and American jets, but that bike impressed me, and the guy who rode it, even more.

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A Pleasant Surprise

View From a Window

We started the day early, up and ready to leave the hotel and fly to Hue this morning, but the planes were running late. The tour company figured it all out ahead of time, and we waited at the hotel instead of the airport.


On the way to the airport

On the way to the airport

Processing at the airport was quick and simple, no one had to take their shoes off, and I carried a water bottle on board without problem. Laura dissuaded me from taking a picture of contraband taken from prior passengers. Just past the security checkpoint, there was a container much like an aquarium, filled a foot deep with scissors and knives and other sharp objects. I would have broken out my camera, but Laura thought it was a bad idea, and even asked another member of the group, who turned pale at the idea, so I caved to peer pressure.


As we were deplaning in Hue, the pilot stopped to chat with Laura and I, and explained that the delay was because they don’t fly in limited visibility, for lack of advanced instrumentation. He was a little apologetic about it.  

As we landed these buffalo were along the runway.  No fence seperated us from them

As we landed these buffalo were along the runway. No fence seperated us from them

On the way in from the airport, our guide explained  differences in rules of the road here vs Hanoi; the biggest difference being that here people followed them.

So what was the big surprise?  Our lodging – a spectacular, four star hotel.  Laura said she’d never stayed anywhere as nice, and I had to admit it was better than anything I’d experienced the last time I was here.

View From The Ground

I find it interesting that Dad forgot to mention the part about us being forgotten.  

We were to meet the tour guide promtly at 8 am for a ride to the airport.  By 8:30 several tour guides have come and left, but none of them was ours.  Finally Dad asks the front desk to contact our guide company to see what is going on.  The only message we get back is that they will come get us at 9:15.  The flight leaves at 10:55 and it is at least a 45 minute car ride to the airport.  

Admittedly I was getting a little anxious because I was ready to leave Hanoi behind and get to the next part of the adventure.  To help pass the time, I break out my laptop.  As I do so a woman across the room notices that I have a bike helmet in my bag and asks if I am part of the bike tour.  Turns out, the flight had been delayed and we were the only ones not to get the updated schedule.  Alright, I feel better now that I have that off my chest.

I love Hue.  Scooters and cars stay in their lanes, the streets are clean, the powerlines don’t hang down in tangles, everyone seems friendlier, and all the colors are vibrant.  It is the difference between black and white and color TV.  Oh yeah, and it helps that we are staying in a hotel that is unlike any other I have seen.  To say that it is palacial is an understatement.  Our room is bigger than my first apartment AND they have Pringles.  I just hope I don’t get too spoiled.

The view from our balcony

The view from our balcony

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Royal Dinner

Before dinner we had a meeting of all 14 riders and six support staff, to hear the way the ride would be organized. Impressive group of folks. We have two mechanics and four drivers, so that members of the group can ride at different paces, and stop along the way as they please. I’m anxious to begin riding. But before that, we get to experience Hue.

Laura as Nguyen Dynasty Queen

Laura as Nguyen Dynasty Queen

Our first night in Hue the group was treated to a “Royal Dinner”. We were given attire appropriate to the court of the Nguyen dynasty; Laura as the youngest woman was selected as Queen.

Spring Rolls fly off the plate

Spring Rolls fly off the plate

We had a half dozen singers and musicians performing between courses, and each of fifteen courses was elaborately presented.

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Singing in Vietnam

Yesterday was our first day of cycling. It was a beautiful ride and I took lots of pictures, however, we can only access the internet on one of the hotel’s two computers so I will save the stories for a time when I can show the pictures with them.

But, I will tell you a Vietnamese story…

There was a little boy who was sitting with his grandfather when the grandfather’s friends came for a visit. They visited for a long while and after a while the boy needed to go to the bathroom. The boy tried waiting, but couldn’t hold it any longer so he asked his grandfather if he could go to the bathroom. The grandfather blushed, then told the boy to go ahead.

Later after the grandfather’s friends had left, the grandfather spoke to the boy and chided him for being so rude as to ask to use the bathroom in front of company. The grandfather asked that next time the boy simply ask if he could go sing. The boy took this to heart and agreed.

That night after the family all went to bed the boy woke up and needed to go to the bathroom. He woke his grandfather up and asked if he could please sing. The grandfather, being groggy, said that he could not as the boy’s parents had worked hard all day and the boy would wake them up if he sang.

The boy tried holding it, but couldn’t so he once again woke his grandfather up and told him that he just couldn’t wait, he needed to sing now.

The grandfather sighed and told the boy alright, but that the boy must sing softly into his ear.

Thanks to our guide, Nhan, for sharing this story with us and for letting me “sing” on China Beach.

– Laura

Just one observation for today – Obama is very popular here. When I was scanning google news, the lobby attendant noticed his picture on the screen and excitedly said his name. We talked about him a little, and the attendant was very enthusiastic. It wasn’t the first time he’s been mentioned, and Laura had a similar experience elsewhere. It’s an encouraging sign.

– Jim

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Mr. Magoo

It’s pretty easy cycling in traffic here, bikes can just about keep up with the scooters, and cars don’t travel much faster. But it takes a little practice to be comfortable crossing the road in traffic. Laura described her approach as playing “frogger”, but I try to use the approach locals use, just pretend you don’t see anyone else, walk at a predictable pace, and let the traffic avoid you. Takes a little getting used to, but seems to work.

– Jim

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Into the countryside

We biked quite a while through the countryside today. Here, even the scarecrows wear silk (sometimes). There were lots of scarecrows, some were single sticks with a rag tied to the top, some were crosses with billowing cloth, and we even saw some that were sticks with styrofoam takeout containers attached. Lots of rice paddies, but also corn and sugar cane, peanuts and vegetable gardens.

Riding Down a Country Road

Riding Down a Country Road

A significant portion of the ride was on a dirt road, very lightly traveled, and it was fun to pick the best line through the bumps, but ideally I wouldn’t have had quite so much air in my tires (about 80 psi). I was thinking this might be why they need two mechanics, because some of us might qualify as clydesdales, and not be experienced in riding in the dirt, but I don’t think any spokes were broken or other damage done.

We took a tour of ancient ruins at My Son, and saw where the Champi people built structures with bricks so closely aligned, without mortar, that 1500 years later, the ones that weren’t bombed in the American war are still standing.

My Son Ruins

My Son Ruins

Then later in the day, we were scheduled to see the memorial at My Lai, the site of an infamous destruction of a village and its people. I understood that we would only be able to see it if we arrived in time, so I picked up my pace (but the whole group made it in time).

We ended the day at … a town of about 80,000 people that doesn’t see many tourists, but is undergoing an oil boom. Vietnam opened its first refinery just last week in the area. Gas prices have since dropped locally more than 30 percent.


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Riding along the ocean shore

Today was the best riding so far. We were able to cycle down lightly traveled country roads, either near the shore or slightly inland. People here make good use of the space available – even using these lightly traveled roads to dry crops. I don’t mean on the shoulder of the road, but encroaching a few feet into the main road. We would swerve around tapioca root, shrimp, fish or sesame seeds drying on the hot pavement. They also build houses on stilts over ponds where shrimp and other seafood are grown, letting the surface area serve multiple purposes.

Restaurant on stilts

Restaurant on stilts

There were two climbs in the morning – both fairly short but steep, and the temperature rose early in the day.

At the summit - 10% grade

At the summit - 10% grade

This evening we are staying at a resort even better than the one we described as fabulous earlier. The owner of the resort has a granite processing plant (factory?), and granite was everywhere.

View from our balcony

View from our balcony

Laura took off her cycling shoes before coming into the lobby, it just didn’t seem right walking on the polished granite in them. Tonight they served food american style, knives and forks and not so many courses.

— Jim

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