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A Fiction Novelist's Travelogue

By: J.F. Gump, Kings Mills, Ohio, USA
Travel and Transitions travel story contest participant

Vietnam! The word sent a thrill of excitement through me as the plane approached the Hanoi airport. I had never been to Hanoi and had no idea what to expect. My excitement was tempered by a heavy dose of apprehension. I was here to conduct business, but I was traveling on a tourist visa; I hoped no one noticed.

The plane touched down at 7:30 p.m., five minutes ahead of schedule. It was Sunday. I wondered if that meant anything in Vietnam or if it was just another day. Since I would be leaving in five days, I would probably never know for certain.

The immigration officers were efficient and I was through the lines and collecting my baggage at the carrousel in less than fifteen minutes. Outside the terminal a young man approached me with an offer of a taxi to wherever I was going. I accepted before I realized that I had no Vietnamese dong (the local currency) to pay my fare. I asked him to wait while I went to the currency exchange booth inside. He must not have understood because he was gone when I returned. No problem; I hired another taxi.

The Vietnamese dong has clearly been the tragic victim of severe inflation or currency raiders: One US dollar equals 15,000 dong. My $100 greenback netted me 1,500,000 dong. I was a millionaire, even if it was in Vietnamese currency. My happy illusion ended when the taxi driver wanted 150,000 dong -a mere ten bucks -for fare from the airport to my hotel.

The evening traffic was surprisingly light and orderly. The motorists drove on the American side of the road and they stopped when the traffic lights turned red. A sharp contrast to Bangkok, the city I had left less than three hours earlier, where people drive on both sides of the road and traffic lights are merely colorful decorations. The closer we came to the outskirts of Hanoi, the more congested the highway became. Most of the vehicles were motorcycles. I figured that Honda had made billions in Vietnam.

I arrived at the Daiwoo Hotel just as dusk met dark. In the dim light I couldn't discern one currency note from another. I held the wad of cash toward the driver and let him pick the fare. I hoped he didn't cheat me. He made a point to show me what he had taken. I slipped him an extra 10,000 dong note, and then followed the bell boy inside the hotel. By 8:45 I had checked in, washed up, and was on my way to the lounge.

I am not a lounge lizard, but I have learned one thing from my travels: A hotel bar is a great place to meet people with a ready supply of information on whatever city or country I am in. Sometimes they are travelers and sometimes they are the staff. I figured this hotel would be the same.

Clearly I was a new face in the crowd. Even more clearly, I was not a local resident. Typical of the Asian culture I was greeted with friendly smiles. I took a seat at the bar.

"Chow koh, manoi kum (hello, how are you)," I tried one of the phrases I remembered from my ancient past. I was sure my pronunciation was wrong and that I had probably mixed two different phrases into one. I smiled confidently to cover any mistakes.

Their responses were immediate and full of questions. "You speak Vietnamese? You come to Vietnam before? What name you?" I reveled in the attention.

By the end of two beers I had learned that I was twenty minutes from the center of the city, that there were many shops and restaurants not far from the hotel, and that I would be safe as long as I stayed sober and was back to the hotel by midnight.

The main workers tending the lounge were Miss Ha, Miss Hien, and one person whose name wouldn't fit my lips, no matter how hard I tried. In English her name meant Ruby, so that's I what I called her. On the advice of my new found friends I made my first excursion onto the streets of Hanoi.

I wouldn't go far, just enough so I could say I had ventured out. It was ten o'clock but streetlights lit the night. From what I could see, all of the shops, restaurants, and cafes were on the opposite side of the road from the hotel. Hundreds if not thousands of motorcycles and bicycles zipped up and down the street. Cars, minivans, and taxis stood out like behemoths amongst the smaller vehicles, their horns blasting a medley of "get out of my way" as they made their way through the sea of two-wheelers.

I sized up the situation: Getting across eight lanes of rolling death seemed a foolhardy thing to do. Down the street to my left an elderly Vietnamese woman stepped from the curb and into the maelstrom. If she looked either left or right, I didn't notice. She simply moved across the street at a slow pace, as if daring the drivers to hit her. In less than 30 seconds she made the far side and continued on her way.

Hmmm! If an old lady could do it, so could I. I gathered my nerve and waited for the slightest break in the steady stream of traffic. Before a lull appeared, a young girl, maybe fifteen, stopped at the curb beside me. She was wearing one of those conical shaped hats that are common in Vietnam. A long wooden rod with baskets slung from each end was balanced on her right shoulder. She paused but an instant then stepped fearlessly into the middle of the honking, roaring vehicles.

Quickly I stepped beside her on the down flow side of the traffic. The onslaught parted and swirled around us like Moses parting the Red Sea. We reached the median unscathed. The death defying feat was repeated and we were across the street.

"Kum ong co (thank you)," I said.

She looked at me quizzically, smiled, and then walked away. I figured I had said something totally nonsensical, or she couldn't understand why I was thanking her.

I strolled along the sidewalk peeking in at the shops selling suitcases, clothing, and a variety of souvenirs. I passed several small restaurants selling food I didn't recognize. I supposed it was safe to eat, but tonight I didn't want to take the chance. Ho Chi Minh' s revenge is not a good way to start a week in any country.

Before long my western, winterized body succumbed to the tropical heat and sweat poured. At the next sidewalk cafe I passed I went inside and took a seat. It was open-air without air conditioning, but the overhead fans created enough of a breeze that it was comfortable. I quickly stopped sweating.

A young woman, who I guessed to be 17 or 18, came to take my order. She was cute as a button. "Bia Hanoi," I said figuring to keep it simple. It was a local beer that Ruby from the hotel lounge had suggested I try. The girl giggled as she hurried away.

I gazed nonchalantly around the cafe while I waited for the girl to return with my beer. There were fourteen customers besides myself. Mostly they were young, a pleasant blend of male and female. Elusive eyes glanced at me when they thought I wasn't looking. I knew I was an odd sight, a westerner who had ventured into their realm. I figured they were as curious about me as I was about them. Some, I noticed, were smoking.

I scanned my table for ashtray. Nothing! I wondered if I had inadvertently sat in the non smoking section. Not likely, I figured; I just didn't have an ashtray. The girl arrived with my drink.

"Ashtray?" I said, motioning as if I were knocking ashes off the end of a cigarette.

She literally beamed with understanding, then turned and hurried away. In a minute she was back with two cigarettes. She held them out proudly.

I pulled a pack of cigarettes from my pocket, flipped one into my lips, lit it, and again made ash knocking gestures. Her proud smile faded, I think from embarrassment. She hurried away and returned with an ashtray. "Okay?" she asked, uncertain.

I smiled and nodded my approval.

She stood at my table for a long second, shifting from one foot to another as if she wanted to say something more. Finally she spoke in something that might have been English, or it might have been Russian, but it wasn't Vietnamese. Whatever it was, I didn't understand. The language monster had made its presence known.

"I'm sorry. I don't understand."

I may as well have been speaking Swahili, because she clearly didn't comprehend a word I' d said. Her face flushed as she backed away a foot or two and then left my table.

She returned to her post near the cashier but her gaze always came back to me. Her shy smiles lit the room. More often than necessary, she came to my table and offered more "Bia." The way she smiled, the way she walked, the way her eyes played across my face said she was flirting. If she had been a few years older and me a lot of years younger, I would have flirted back. Did I mention how cute she was?

Two beers later I paid my tab and left the cafe. It was almost midnight and I was exhausted. This time I crossed the street like a seasoned professional and returned to the hotel. The lounge beckoned and I couldn' t resist.

Miss Ha and Miss Ruby, my two favorite waitresses, were gone for the evening. I drank one beer, had idle chit-chat with Ms. Hien, and then retired for the night. In all, it was a good start of a great visit in Vietnam.

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