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Running away from Home

A series of small triumphs

VIETNAM | Saturday, 17 April 2010 | Views [373]

There is no freeway in Vietnam. The buses and trucks have to drive along two-lane blacktops. Sometimes the bus driver will accelerate to get around a truck or another bus and if there is oncoming traffic, he will have to slam on the brakes and pull in again behind the truck until his next opportunity. This is no good when you are in the back trying to sleep. Mostly because the cushioned bunks are covered in pleather and one tends to slide forward when the brakes of the bus are abruptly applied.

It took me a while to get up to speed in Hanoi. It was unseasonably cold and my jacket was somewhere buried in my pack. The bus driver had dropped us on the outskirts of town leaving us to the devices of the hotel touts and the moto drivers. I heard one of them say that we were 10km from the Old Quarter, where I was hoping to find centrally located, inexpensive lodgings. I stood mute and shivered as the other passengers packed up into cabs and onto the back of motos. A moto driver took up a position on my right shoulder and seemed to claim me for his client as he stared at me. The hotel guy came around to me and promised that he had a $10 room. I just had to go to the hotel and look at it. More often than not that $10 room they promise is $12 when you get the hotel, and this time was no exception. It doesn’t even surprise me anymore. What surprises me is that these people will sell their integrity for $2. I let the guy at the hotel have it and this time I did use profanity.

I stormed out into the chilly morning and went to look for a hotel that had been recommended by Lonely Planet and the Australian couple that I had met in Hoi An. Even though I hadn’t had much sleep. Even though the main street changed names on me three times. Even though the hotel was tucked in a back corner of the Quarter. I still found it. This little section has not all been given up to the tourist trade and it was that time of the day for killing, plucking, skinning and de-boning the daily specials that would be offered by the sidewalk vendors. It was a strong dose of reality for a Saturday morning. Perhaps it is a blessing that pedestrians can’t afford to get too distracted for fear of being run down by a motorcycle.

I got a shoe-box sized room for $10 and as soon as I was registered, the receptionist assumed the role of a travel agent. I politely declined all offers for tours, bus tickets, and train tickets. I told her that I would go to the train station and purchase them myself. She had offered me soft sleeper tickets for $25, and then told me that I wouldn’t get any cheaper than that. Besides if I bought the tickets from the hotel, then I could leave my bag there after check-out and even use the internet if I wanted to. When I said that most hotels would offer that anyway, she didn’t respond.

I had risen to the challenge of finding the hotel on my own in this maze of a city, and after getting cleaned up a bit I was ready to tackle the challenge of finding the train station. On the way I stopped at a small café that was frequented by Catherine Deneuve during the filming of Indochine and had a light breakfast. They had a huge movie poster hanging on the wall with an autographed photo of the French film star. The fruit salad wasn’t bad either. The train station was actually quite simple to find. The ticket agents and moto drivers want you to believe that it is the walk beyond hope, but I know better now. My train ticket was only $16.50 and I wanted to run back and throw that in the receptionists face, but instead I visited the Temple of Literature, an ancient center of learning in Hanoi that has been dedicated to Confucius. I thought about visiting another site in Hanoi, but I caught a glimpse of my face in a window and saw an old lady looking back at me with dark circles under her eyes and deepened frown lines from a morning of dealing with liars.

I went back to the hotel to take a much-needed rest. The moment I closed my eyes and exhaled so that sleep could take me, the jack hammer started up on the roof of the adjacent building. These buildings are ancient and far from sound-proof. It was as though they were using the thing in my room. There would be no rest for me this afternoon so I got up, put my street clothes back on and decided to take on another challenge. I wanted to see the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, but with a round trip distance of 14km, this was the walk beyond hope. That left a ride on a moto or a city bus and I chose the latter. The guidebook told me which bus to take and which intersection to disembark, but recognizing the intersection in a city I have only 10 hours knowledge of is the challenge. Okay, so the ticket monger on the bus helped a little, but it was mostly me who found it. I was so thrilled that I told the lady in the ticket booth at the museum, and I could tell that she was trying very hard to contain her excitement for me.

The noisy construction turned out to be another hidden blessing for me because if I had waited until tomorrow to come to the Ethnology museum, there is no way I could have seen it all. The return trip by bus presented another challenge. I thought that if I waited on the corner where I got off, then I could just flag down the passing #14 bus. Apparently not, and you know what? It was a moto driver that set me straight. He knew what I was waiting for on that street corner and he tapped my shoulder and pointed me in the direction of the bus stop. I love the irony! Just when I think I have got a placed figured out……

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