Thursday, October 1, 2015

Nothing Stays the Same, Living Is Changing - Part 1

Feb 23, 2007 - Red Beer Microbrewery

Dec 9 2007 - Painted Baskets In Old Quarter of Hanoi

Buddhists do not believe in a permanent and fixed reality.  To them everything in this world is subject to change as well as alteration.  Impermanence and change are truths in our existence according to Buddhism.

As a non-Buddhist, I struggle with both the changes as well as accepting many of the changes I realize and encounter in my life.  Change is inevitable - we all know that yet we spend a great deal of time fighting change and spend a great deal of resources to resist the effects of the changes.

The ability and skill to adapt easily to changes are keys to happiness.

Earlier this month, my wife, Duangchan, and I returned to Vietnam for the first time in seven years.   Our last visit to Vietnam in late April 2008 did not go as well as we had expected or even planned.  For that trip, I had planned to visit the Can Cau Market and the Bac Ha Market.  I trusted someone to make all the arrangements for me since they were Vietnamese and involved in the travel industry.  In the end my wife and I adapted to the changes and enjoyed ourselves despite not getting to see the markets.  Duang, based upon that experience and some others while we lived in Vietnam, vowed to never to return to Vietnam.

On the late April 2008 trip, we visited the rice terraces of the Sapa (Sa Pa) region.  The terraces were filled with water and covered with newly planted stalks of  rice.  After seven years respecting Duang's vow, I determined that I wanted to return to Sapa to photograph the rice harvest and to finally visit the Can Cau and Bac Ha markets.  I told Duang that I was going and that she could come with me if she wanted to.  She changed her long standing vow to never return and agreed to go with me.

Unlike eight years ago, I handled all the arrangements myself.  After extensive research on the Internet I had found some highly recommended inexpensive lodgings and restaurants for our entire trip.  Our trip would be 9 days with 7 days in Vietnam.

After flying and staying overnight in Bangkok, we flew on an early flight to Hanoi.

Everything in this world is subject to change as well as alteration.  Impermanence and change are truths in our existence.

Upon arrival at Noi Bai Airport, our introduction to the changes in Vietnam commenced.  We arrived at the newly opened (8 months old) international terminal, "Terminal T-2".  Terminal T-2 cost almost one Billion US dollars to construct. It was bright, immaculately clean, and extremely efficient.  We went through Immigration with no troubles at all.  Duang, being Thai, did not need a visa - since our last visit the ASEAN community has evolved to the point where citizens of member nations do not need visas to enter other member nations.  I still needed a visa which I had obtained prior at the Vietnam Consulate in Khon Kaen, 90 minutes drive south of our home.

Upon arrival in the Immigration area of Noi Bai, there was a large line of people waiting to be processed due to the arrival of several international flights.  Off to the side I saw some officials surveying the situation. Two minutes later, 5 uniformed people hustled through a door into the processing area and quickly set up 5 additional processing stations.  A Supervisor motioned me to stand in line at a station designated "Vietnamese" - it was obvious that their goal was to speed up the processing for everyone.

Processing was quick and efficient - conducted by pleasant and friendly government agents - an unexpected surprise and welcomed change. After clearing Immigration, we went to the baggage carousel and found our two bags circling along  the conveyor - it could not have been more than 15 minutes after docking of the plane at the terminal.

After meeting our car and driver from the hotel, we left the airport to encounter more change in Vietnam.  The old secondary roads from Hanoi to Noi Bai have been superseded by a new super-highway (Vo Nguyen Giap) - wide, smooth and fast.  Vo Nguyen Giap is 6 lanes wide plus 2 lanes for emergency stopping lanes. Rather than crossing the Red River using the old historical bridge Long Bien Bridge, we crossed an extremely modern suspension bridge, Cau Nhat Tan Bridge, 8.93 Km long and cost $639.2 million US dollars.  The bridge was financed by Japan and resembles the modern bridges of Japan as well as the New San Francisco Bay Bridge in the USA.

Surrounding the superhighway are small villages, bright green rice paddies and vegetable gardens.  On small country roads, people on bicycles and motorbikes could be easily viewed going about their daily life.  All in all it was quite an impressive introduction to Hanoi as well as Vietnam ... even for someone who had been there a few times before.

The weather had not changed much from when I first arrived in Vietnam in September 2007 - heavily overcast with scattered showers.  Just as before, the weather was constantly changing throughout the day.  From previous experience and my Internet research, we were prepared physically as well as mentally for the less than "ideal" weather.

We stayed at a small, highly recommended, hotel in the Old Quarter.  Upon checking into our room, I was shocked to find a computer in our room.  I excitedly pointed out to the clerk that someone had forgotten their computer in the room.  Very tactfully, he informed me that we had a "Family" room with free WiFi which includes a computer in the room (pretty darn good for our $21 a night room) $21 a night?  That's correct - that is what it cost us.  Using the appropriate Internet discount lodging websites you can get rooms for 40-60% off listed/walk-in rates!  It is the only way that we travel!

Duang Resting At Our Hanoi Old Quarter Hotel
The hotel staff was extremely friendly and more importantly, helpful.  In the end, they arranged transportation for us from the hotel to the train station on the night of our last day at the hotel.  More importantly they arranged for their car and driver to pick us up at train station 6 days later at 5:30 A.M. and drive us to the airport.  We were charged the going rate for the transportation but without the risk and worries of arranging it on your own.  The increased service and friendly attitude of hotel and restaurant workers was definitely a change that we could easily accept - a much welcomed change!

Some things have not changed ... yet.  A traveler has to be aware and cautious of transportation scams in Hanoi - especially with taxis.  On our last trip I realized that we were being taken for a ride one night when I recognized that we had passed the same location along the lake for the third time. I confronted the driver and when we got to our hotel I refused to pay him.  We ended up inside the hotel with a heated discussion.  He threatened to call the Police.  I said "Good, I want to talk to the Police!"  I then paid him what I thought the trip should have cost it had been direct.  The hotel staff then said some things and the driver left.  Unfortunately, this still occurs in Hanoi. Arranging transportation through a highly recommended hotel is one way to avoid such problems.  I had also determined the names of some reputable taxi companies on the Internet.  On this trip we had no issues - even when got confused, or was it lost, on our walks throughout the Old Quarter - we hired "cyclos", Pedi cabs to get us back to the hotel.

I had developed a walking trip of the Old Quarter from my Internet research.  The end product was a three page Google map with notes added  for what the street was once famous for, locations for specific items, and recommended highlights.

Life Along Hoan Kiem Lake
Early into our first walk around the Old Quarter changes were apparent.  The French pastry and ice cream stands at the southwest end of Hoan Kiem Lake are gone.  My plan was to have lunch a beer or two at Red Beer Microbrewery at #97 Ma May Street.  When we got to #102 or some number close to that, I realized that we had walked by what was THE PLACE in 2008 to enjoy some beer and food.  We turned around and realized when we got to #87 that we had missed it again.  Once again we reversed direction and stopped where it should have been.  Perplexed I asked some people where was "Red Beer".  Most people had no idea what I was talking about even despite my best efforts to pantomime the signature poster for the brewery. Perhaps if I had taken off my shirt when I struck this pose they might have understood.

Signature Poster for "Red Beer" in 2007
Eventually, one man said that he remembered the place, that it had moved, and he did not remember where it moved to.  This was a change that I had not anticipated but I could easily adapt to.  In my research that had confirmed the location of "Red Beer" (????) I found an appealing restaurant with good recommendations called "Moose and Roo" also on Ma May Street.  We were hot, thirsty, and hungry so we went into the restaurant.

Duang With Her Lunch and Eventual Dinner at Moose and Roo Grill
We enjoyed a very nice lunch and I also enjoyed a free beer because of their promotion that day for Pulled Pork Sandwich.

We spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering about following my walking tour map.  Wandering following a map?  Yes.  I know it had to be me but it was like  there was some reversal in the magnetic fields that was interfering with my internal navigation.  For the two days that we were in Hanoi, I was dazed and confused.  I was following the map but after a block or two, sometimes three, I would realize that we were headed in the wrong direction!

Some Things Have Not Changed - Thankfully!

Perhaps my inability to precisely and efficiently navigate the streets of the Old Quarter was attributable to the confusion and distractions all about us.  The narrow streets of the Old Quarter have not changed.  Many of the streets change their name Hang Bo becomes Hang Bao, Hang Be becomes Hang Dau but not to be confused with Hang Dao which is on the west side of the lake and not the east side!

The throngs of cars, vans, motorbikes and buses still clog the streets and constantly honk their horns - honking to tell people to get out of their way, honking to tell people that they are going to turn, honking to let other people know what they think of their driving skills, honking and honking some more.

The sidewalks are clogged with either parked motorbikes or "cafes" set up for people to drink tea out of glasses.  I was often left wondering if anyone actually worked in Hanoi other than shopkeepers and "café" workers.

More than once I have offered advice to people about crossing streets in Hanoi - "Don't expect anyone to stop or even slowdown for you to cross the street.  Watch the traffic very carefully.  When you anticipate that it will be safest for you to cross, make eye contact with the oncoming traffic, and give body language that you intend to cross, then commence crossing the street in a steady and determined pace - do not slow down and do not speed up - the traffic is aiming(?) to be where they have calculated where you will not be when they get to you"  That has not changed and remains very good advice.  However it did seem to be a little less difficult than our last visit - I suspect because there may be more one way streets - less confusing when you only have to be stressed out in only one direction.

On the second day in Hanoi, we went to another restaurant that I had researched over the Internet.  I did not plan to go there but there was an intersection of time and place in our wanderings which made it a good spot for lunch.  In the back of the restaurant, on the wall of a staircase leading upstairs, I saw four old and dusty hand painted baskets - the first ones that I had seen during this trip.  In 2006 -2008 these handicrafts were everywhere, often covering the entire exterior wall of a building.  I asked our server about why I had not seen any and where I could find them now.  She replied that people weren't able to sell them before so now they do not make them very much.  The Free Market making changes - no doubt!

One change that has taken place in the Old Quarter which I do not like, or rather struggle to adapt to, is what I call the homogenizing of the area. Before, even in 2008. the various streets retained their unique craft (guild) identity. Hang Bac - "Silver", Hang Bong - "Cotton", Hang Bo - "Baskets".  Along the streets you would find shops catering to a specific commodity or product.  Today the streets are becoming less and less unique with one street being pretty much as the other street.  One transformation is the proliferation of two types of shops - small travel shops offering tours of Halong Bay and Sapa and specialized coffee shops.

Coffee Shop - Selling Weasel Coffee
The specialized coffee shops sell various coffee paraphernalia, ground beans, and whole beans.  The rage now is selling "Weasel Coffee" - coffee beans that have been eaten by a certain animal (I believe more like a civet than a "weasel"), digested, and eliminated.  The "processed" beans are collected and processed by people to produce a very special and expensive coffee. These shops seem to be on every street ... both sides of the street.

Hat Shopping in the Old Quarter
The quaintness of the Old Quarter is evolving, albeit changing for the worst in my opinion however there are still many pockets, oasis, where a vision and flavor of the past remain.

Bamboo Vendor Enjoying One of the Fruits of His Labor

The Beer Man Cometh
Hanoi Delivery Man
Hanoi, despite the changes, remains an exciting and extremely interesting place to visit.  It remains one of my favorite destinations for people watching and interacting with the people.

The Huc Bridge

There were additional changes to discover during this journey ... changes of places, things, and people - some of them much easier to accept than others, some of them much more personal than others, but all of them offering opportunities, rewards, and alternative adaptations.  But that is for Part 2 to be shared.

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