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My Vietnam Adventure
by Minette Seate

Friday, March 10, 2006
It's another airport day and we're in the lobby by 6:45am. We've got an 8:30 flight to Hanoi and we're all sitting and waiting to load the buses. Actually, sitting's not really accurate. There are passports to redistribute, equipment to load in the van and hurried breakfasts to have.

Hanoi will be another diplomatic stop for Tony and the FOD and a chance to see more of the country for us.  Once we're off the plane, it's quickly into another van and a trip to downtown Hanoi. Thanh has arranged for another cyclo tour of this new city for us, but we politely decline. Hanoi in bright daylight is twice as busy as Ho Chi Minh City was at night, and I think we've all had our fill of riding.

We walk through the city and check out some of the big attractions. One of the biggest is Ho's Mausoleum, dark granite looking structure that reminds you of the Lincoln Memorial. Hanoi is a government center and where the US embassy is located so there's a much larger military presence than we're used to. Every few blocks there's a guardhouse with a Communist military officer wearing his green uniform and billed cap. We giggle when we pass an official looking building sporting signs for FedEx, UPS and DHL all on the same wall.

We find a nice restaurant to eat in and grab a table outside. It's our first cloudy day since we arrived and the temperature's noticeably cooler. This is more like a Pittsburgh spring, humid and gray with a threat of the hot weather that's on its way. The streets of Hanoi are wide and tree-lined and its buildings are much older. There are more than 3 million people in this city that was once ruled by the Chinese more than a thousand years ago. There are still many Chinese-styled structures and statues in the area and one massive stone gate remains from the four that originally sat at each compass point.

When we walk through that gate it's like walking into another world. It's a world of dark, narrow alleys filled with people living their lives out in public. One woman cooked her dinner squatting over a small iron grill on the sidewalk while at another corner, five men played what looked like dominoes while they hooted at us girls. Another group of old ladies sorted through the shellfish they were selling. Plastic tubs were filled with cold water and what looked to be clams, mussels and some sort of snail.

Mark, Dino and Chris were in heaven, running up and down the narrow streets, taking endless shots of the street life. One of the most interesting scenes was a youngish man whose back and arms were covered in tattoos. He was proudly washing a motorcycle while the old domino guys flirted with Huong. I asked her what they were saying and she said “They want to know if I want to go on a ride with him.” Why is it, not matter where you are in the world, there's always a bunch of smart-assed old men sitting on a corner acting up? We could have just as easily been in Homewood or Bloomfield on a Saturday morning.

Some of you may know that Chris and I have done a couple of documentaries on black barbershops. One was strictly Pittsburgh while the other focuses on shops from one end of PA to the other. Well, the next thing we see is a guy with a chair set up under a tree cutting hair. He had a bowl of water, a couple combs, a pair of scissors and a mirror hanging off the tree. Chris asked him, “so you cut my hair?” and all of his cronies laughed. But when he said yea, Chris jumped in his chair, put on the apron and let him give him a haircut. When it came time to pay, his wife appeared out of nowhere, demanding the right amount. I'm pretty sure that's the first time he gave a black man a haircut in the middle of Hanoi.

We finally flagged down our poor driver – who was so frazzled thinking he'd lost us or that he was going to be late or that we'd been eaten alive – that he almost couldn't see straight. We piled back in the van and started heading toward Ha Long Bay.

Ha Long Bay was going to be everybody's reward for this long hard trip. But before we saw the water or the boat or the islands we had one massively scary drive.  Things change drastically when you leave Hanoi. Green spaces and rice paddies gradually give way to brickworks and power plants and what looked to be some kind of steel or iron mills. The roads literally become black with all the soot and pollution constantly being poured into the air. Our van went from shiny white to a sticky black mess in less than an hour.

And still everywhere you looked were people on bikes. The roads were black with the combination of dirt and darkness, and out of nowhere you'd see the single light of a Honda minibike with three people on it. Cows would still be tied by the side of the road; probably waiting for their owners to finish whatever chore they toiled at. The saddest thing was a lonely horse, his white coat turned dingy gray by the air. He was tied next to the highway and it seemed that his whole life was breathing exhaust and hoping for a place to lie down. He made me want to cry.

What I knew that nobody else knew was that today was Boone's birthday and that everybody was waiting for us at the hotel to give him a birthday cake at dinner. We had spent so much time tramping around Hanoi and now we were riding on a dark, dangerous wet road two hours later than we were supposed to. To say I was anxious is putting it mildly. I felt so trapped in that van and totally at a loss to control anything that was happening to us. I couldn't wait to stand on something that wasn't moving.

But, as usually happens in these situations, we found our hotel in the midst of all the dank mess and found that the FOD guys had arrived only 30 minutes earlier. Here's my biggest complaint about Vietnam: good bourbon is hard to find. And we still hadn't thought of a title for the show yet.