We arrived in Hanoi, in a travel slump. Vietnam was our sixth new country in three months. We weren’t excited to learn a new “hello-thank you-good bye-delicious-beautiful-I am ten years old” vocabulary, or eat a new food. Our tongues and stomachs have been tickled by Southeast Asian cuisine, but the food we find the most nourishing is shared with other people (or elephants). Since the intimacy of the Gibbon Experience and BEEs (elephants), we have met many people, but haven’t really connected with anyone. We missed home, friends and pets.
But, we were landing in Hanoi, so we psyched ourselves up for a big Asian city. The drive away from the airport seemed promising – interesting buildings, old French-colonial style, narrow and tall, with colorful fronts and decorated balconies. The traffic was exotic, with a flow that seemed to follow the laws of fluid dynamics rather than engineering. Motorbikes, pedestrians, cyclos, cars, bicyclists slid past one another, like dense tropical fish over a coral reef. Every player was purposeful, perhaps a feeling we were searching for.
Our taxi driver, though, cast a cloud over our initial enthusiasm. He was a pushy, impatient man, unlike most people we’ve met (both in Vietnam and elsewhere). Once we were safely in his car, he told us the fare would be higher than what we had agreed on originally. He and I argued, but in the end I submitted, as I dislike conflict and sometimes doubt my membership in the subphylum vertebrata. Amy’s instinct for thriftiness is quickly becoming a family trait, so once I agreed to the higher price I had to look straight ahead to avoid six piercing eyes and three furrowed brows.
We reached the street of our guest house, which was too narrow for the taxi to drive down, so the driver stopped the car in the middle of the road, impounding a long stream of hooting scooters and cars. He turned to my and said,
I had only large denomination bills from the ATM in the airport. Mistake. ALWAYS carry small change – as soon as you get big bills, break them down at the nearest convenience store.
“Do you have change?” I asked the driver.
“No!” he barked back, like a slap.
“Small change?” I asked again, wondering if we were having a communication breakdown. This time I showed a large bill from my wallet.
“No!” he staccato berated me again.
Next, he totally shocked me by reaching into my wallet (which I held in my left hand) and literally shuffling through my cash looking for what he wanted! I was momentarily stunned. I pushed away his hand (yes, I actually had to physically remove his hand), closed my wallet, got out of the car, made sure all luggage and family members were accounted for, then ran across the street (remembering to not get hit by a bus in my slightly frazzled mind) into a nearby store to get change through buying a bag of tortilla chips. I returned to the driver and paid him. He sped off in a huff. Not even a “Thank you,” or “Good bye.”
I’d become so used to the kind, open hearted people of Southeast Asia, that it was a bit of a shock to meet a jerk. We’ve realized that “angry, demanding and pushy” is certain archetype of person in Vietnam. We’ve only met a few, but they leave an impression, I now refer to his tribe as “Mr. Angry Pants.” On the flipside, the tortilla chips I quickly bought were some of the best we’ve had – crisp, thick and salty!
Most people we met in Hanoi were friendly. Despite Mr. Angry Pants, we were quite taken with the city. The traffic, as I said, is fascinating. There is purpose and structure behind it, but it is an organic structure. The streets of the old quarter are tight, grimey, overhung by a canopy of electrical wires and business signs – “photocopies,” “Pho,” “Bun chien,” “massage,” “guesthouse.” Every sidewalk is cluttered by parked motorbikes and people squatting on little red, plastic stools (always red!), eating some sort of street noodle dish, or drinking green tea and spitting sunflower seeds. The place feels like a messy child’s closet after he tidies it using the “stuff and slam the door” method.
We had landed in the morning, so our first culinary experience would be lunch. Woo-hoo, Vietnamese food! We stopped at the first crowded collection of stools. A gregarious man ushered us inside to a cramped room with three long tables surrounded by, you guessed it, little red stools. The floor was tile, covered in used straws, a few bones and wet napkins plastered to the floor. Every seat was taken by Vietnamese (I assume) young people chatting and chewing. Vietnam seems a quick country, where movement is favored over lingering, so it was only a few moments before some stools became available. We were invited to sit down around a pile of bones and dirty dishes. The detritus was swept away to who knows where, with more than a bit falling to the ground. We sat down, but no menus. People were getting food, but we couldn’t figure out how. Huh. This is one of those uncomfortable traveling moments that was awesome before kids, but with mouths to feed, my criteria has shifted. Amy and I looked at each other, smiled, and decided to stay put.
Fortunately for us, sitting right next to us were three Vietnamese girls who could speak English. They actually suggested we go elsewhere for Pho, but also told us this place was famous for noodle bowls, or bún ngan. We went for it, and had tasty, but very non-Western some-kind-of-meat and some-kind-of-thickish-noodle soup bowls. Mia and Porter were paralyzed, and did not touch the food. We didn’t even push for a “courtesy bite.” On the way out, the cook noticed that our kids didn’t eat. She waggled a duck head at them with a big smile. Mia basically shrieked, giving the hoped-for reaction, and laugh. Mia was a great sport about it.
We spent a couple days wandering Hanoi, marveling at the pace. Amy started making Mia and Porter navigate us by paper map. It took a long time, and they were a little annoyed, but Porter enjoyed the challenge while Mia put up with it. Even though I have a map.me app (which is awesome for navigation), you just can’t beat old technology for learning new skills.
Story update March 13: We were in Hanoi at the beginning of March, and I am actually posting this mid-March, two weeks later. Mia has turned into an excellent map navigator. In Hoi An, she has grown to enjoy the role of navigator from the back of Amy’s bike. Whenever we reach an intersection, say “the corner of Thai Phien and Tran Cao Van,” I would pull out my phone for assistance. Mia would see me and scold,
“No, put that away! I am navigating!” she commands. Not nearly as angry as Mr. Angry Pants, but just as bossy. Another family trait I love to see emerge. Her routes tend to be wrong according to my app, but with much less traffic and more pleasant.
Back in Hanoi, we enjoyed the “Women’s Museum” and water puppet theater. I found real coffee (wow!) although the local brew, Bia Hanoi, did not crack my top five SE Asian beers. Too bad.
Amy and I debated where to go after Hanoi. As I said previously, we were travel fatigued, and choosing where to go next was getting more and more laborious. Everywhere sounded beautiful but touristy. Ha Long Bay and Sapa are beautiful places in the North, but they were supposed to be cold and drizzly, and very popular (touristy). We opted for warmer climes, south to Ninh Binh. To get us there, Amy eschewed the pricey, “we’ll book you ticket for you” English-language signs, and ran to the train station, where she bought us tickets directly. Success! The train was an enjoyable four hour journey, costing us each $2.75. Yeah baby.
We arrived in Ninh Binh (actually we stayed in a little town nearby called Tom Cok), glad to be in a smaller town. We were staying in a guest house run by Mr. Gia, but really we just called him grandpa. He is married to, of course, grandma. Both of them were absolutely lovely! They could not speak our language, but yearned to communicate with us (fortunately, for practical reasons, their daughter could speak English). Every time we saw either grandma or grandpa, they would chat earnestly at us in Vietnamese. We both would gesture broadly and cast butchered bits of English and Vietnamese words into the air between us, our communication taking shape for a moment before disappearing into the void of senselessness, like soap bubbles floating to pop. After a few rounds of zero understood communication, we would all burst into a fit of laughter and go about our business. Of course, they loved our kids.
On the second day in Ninh Binh, we ran into Mr. Angry Pants #2. We rented motorbikes to go check out some caves nearby. As we approached the trailhead, a guy walks out into the road with a semi-official looking uniform, holds up his hand and commands us to “Stop!”
He waved us towards some parking on the side of the road.
“No thank you,” I said, staring straight ahead, “we are just looking.”
“No!” (Does Mr. Angry Pants know any other words?) “You are here!” Pointing to his little parking lot.
I lightly turned the throttle to move past him, but he grasped my handle bar and started turning my bars towards his parking area. “Here! Free for you!”
Free? No way. Grab my handlebars? No way. Again, I was taken aback by this guy’s audacity. I pulled my handle bars away from his fingers, and buzzed onwards. Amy said as soon as he realized that his bullying wasn’t going to work, his eyes immediately left me and scanned for his next victim coming down the path. We were relieved to enter a gate where a very nice ticket booth lady showed us where we could park for free, and how to buy a ticket to go to the cave. After speaking to several other travelers, we realized that Mr. Angry Pants’s sales tactics, though distasteful, were not without success. Many people had parked at his “parking lot,” and paid the one dollar or so “fee.”
We’ve now encountered three other Mr. Angry Pants in addition to these first two. It seems to be a personality type, but I have no idea why or if it really is a thing. But, we’ve spoken with other travelers who know exactly what we are talking about. As is often the case when I talk with other people about my own challenging perspectives, my judgement of Angry Pants’ behavior has become less harsh.
In particular, I spent some time speaking with Etienne, a French-Canadian man who used to work for the “Fish Police” in Vancouver, BC. He has been travelling for, get this, five straight years!!!!!! He is very interesting, and seems intent to just understand different countries and cultures around the world. Even after five years of travel (his longest stay is two months in Rome), he still woke up early to stroll the markets of Hoi An; diving into who the Vietnamese people are.
Etienne also had some stories about encounters with a few Mr. Angry Pants. But on the whole, he told me that he was just surprised that there were not more.
“After what they’ve been through, and after what other people have done to them, I am shocked that they are not more angry, or that there are not more angry Vietnamese.” He opined.
Interesting. In my Pacific Northwest, nearly Canadian mental sensibility, I see no need for brash bullies in this world. But, I have never lived through war, I’ve never had my homeland invaded by one country after another. I’ve rarely had my freedom trampled upon. Except when a bully reaches into my wallet or pushes my handlebars against my will. It sucks, it feels bad. It makes me angry, like my pants are too tight. Point taken.