Like a Brit visiting … most places

Let’s talk briefly about The War. As a bleeding-heart left-wing America-apologist, I can’t help but experience Hanoi with a tinge of guilt. I know that that’s reductionist and inarticulate – and hey, at least we’re not the French – but it’s the truth. I obviously lack any memory of the Vietnam war, and don’t have any immediate family experiences, so I have had limited exposure to the American “side” of the conflict (in a personal sense). So, anyways, sorry about that. But again, at least we’re not the French.

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I’m still pondering my thoughts on Hanoi – it’s the most wonderful chaos. For now, I’ll stick with a “travel-log” of the day.

To briefly back up, airport transfer went swell yesterday. I’m glad I “splurged” on the advance reservation with yourlocalbooking as it meant there was a nice fellow waiting at the airport with my name on a sign. My hotel, Indochina Gold is firmly in the “fine for me” category – there’s great wifi, a decent shower, and cheap rates.

Today started with a bowl of pho bo. As any good day should. I experienced a bit of food-anxiety today – not fear of eating something odd, but fear of “wasting” a meal on something less than awesome. I think I did ok though, and the pho was certainly a winner.

After breakfast, I took a wander around Hoan Kiem and visited Ngoc Son Temple. It’s a small temple on an island in the lake – a gorgeous setting, and a chance to pause.

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From there, I went to the Museum of Vietnamese History. Not an upbeat place – Vietnamese history basically consisting of conflict, suffering, more conflict, and eventually some more suffering.

Some snacking ensued – the Vietnamese have a wide variety of items I would term “donut-adjacent.” As a connoisseur, it’s important that I sample them all.

The afternoon involved a visit to the Military History Museum, which presents Vietnamese military achievements with a lot of pride. The most striking bit is the statue made from parts of downed American aircraft.

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Next up was an ill-advised lap of West Lake. Ill-advised in the sense that I did not take note of the circumference of said lake. Did I mention it was 112 degrees today? And humid? It was a pleasant enough walk, but by mile 12 or so, I was contemplating whether there would have been better ways to spend the day.

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Finally, after some more delicious food, I attended a performance of the water puppet theatre. It was … a thing. Definitely a thing.

So, day one in Hanoi. Loud, quiet. Crazy, calm. Delicious, delicious. Sleep now, and perhaps more articulate thoughts tomorrow.

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A bit of a faff

The Shanghai airport may have lots of redeeming values. I cannot say I experienced them. In many ways, it reminds me of all of the things I dislike about CDG, minus the angry French.

Landing in Shanghai, I simply needed to transfer to an outbound Vietnam Airlines flight. However, I was informed that it was impossible to make the connection directly – instead, I needed to clear Chinese immigration, then go to the ticket counter, get a ticket, clear customs and security, then depart.

This shouldn’t have been a big deal – Shanghai offers short term on-the-spot transfer visas. However, nobody seemed to quite know how they worked. The confusion was compounded by the long-expired Chinese visa glued into my passport. The result was a series of somewhat tense and confusing conversations with various security personnel, trying to determine where I’d come from and how I’d ended up there. This process was repeated at the Vietnam Airlines ticket counter, and again at the departure security.

In the end, all was well, and it wasn’t particularly stressful. Good reminder of the potential chaos caused by a mix of bureaucracy and language barriers. Lots of big smiles, confused shrugs and patience proved all that was necessary.

The remainder of my time in Shanghai was similar to my typical experiences in CDG – limited and disappointing food, strange terminal layouts, and an overabundance of duty free shopping.

Now, on a Vietnam Airlines flight to Hanoi. Both flights today (earlier flight was ANA) really delivered in the meal department – I suspect I’m just a sucker for anything slathered in wasabi though. I’m curious to see if the pre-booking I’ve done in Hanoi actually pays off – in theory, there will be a driver waiting at the airport carrying a placard with my name, all set to take me to my hotel. In reality, who knows!

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(spoiler alert: I wrote this on the plane, and I’m now in the hotel, safe and sound. More tomorrow!)

That one song by the Kinks

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I had no reason to think that Tokyo would be anything other than amazing, and yet I left the states feeling a bit silly about the decision to add a layover there. Was it really worth the cost? The hassle?

Turns out, the answer is yes.

Flights from the states went fine and dandy. It’s been a few years since I’ve flown to Narita, and never via Houston. I’d forgotten just how long a near-14 hour flight can feel. A bit too much time to be stuck in ones own head.

Landing in Narita, I took the Narita Express into Shinjuku station. A bit of an aside about Japanese user interface design: I don’t think it’s necessarily bad, but it reflects an entirely different way of thinking about tasks. For example, buying tickets on the N’Ex, you first select the type of train you’d like to ride, then the destination. But not all the trains go to all the destinations, so I was left doing trial and error to narrow it down. Eventually, I gave up and bought a ticket from an actual human. This felt like a defeat. That said, every single person I interacted with in Japan was warm, friendly, and perfectly tolerant of my less-than-zero knowledge of Japanese.

My generous host for the day, Rachel, wasn’t available until later on in the evening, so I did my usual “just landed in a new city” ordeal – pick a direction and start walking.

Tokyo is one of the most pedestrian friendly cities I’ve visited. Drivers seem to respect pedestrians, pedestrians respect walk symbols, and there’s always plenty of space to walk. Eventually, I ran into Yoyogi garden and the Meiji Jingu Shrine. In the middle of one of (if not the) world’s biggest cities. It’s an amazing place – quiet, beautiful, with lots of playful crows and tree-dappled sunlight.

After meeting Rachel, I got a tour of the area. Tokyo mixes big modern boulevards with ancient back-alleys in a way I’ve not experienced anywhere else. There isn’t the sense of conflict between modernity and tradition the way there is with hutongs in Beijing. We wanted the Golden Gai district, as well as a variety of others nearby, before settling in for dinner. From there, it was back to Rachel’s house for some serious sleeping.

Tokyo surprised me in many ways. First, people talk about it as though it’s absurdly expensive. Obviously I was only there for a day, and perhaps didn’t see it, but I found it to be highly reasonable. Food costs in particular seemed very low.

Once you’ve wrapped your mind around the sensory overload, navigating is easy as well. Google maps provides excellent mass-transit directions, and the pedestrian friendly nature means you’re never fighting traffic.

Getting around without any knowledge of Japanese also seems perfectly doable. Restaurant menus are a bit of a struggle, but as long as oyu’re not afraid of food, a bit of educated guessing goes a long ways.

So sure, I knew Tokyo would be cool, how could it not be? What I found though is that, despite it’s massive size, it can also feel cozy and comfortable.

Now, I’m on a plane bound for Shanghai. Mt. Fuji is out my window. A brief layover and I’ll be in Hanoi, and then the trip can “really” begin.

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Why Vietnam?

Short Answer: because Mike and Rebecca already did Thailand. Since I live vicariously through my friends, I figured I’d pick somewhere new.

Long Answer: Because Top Gear rode from the south to the north on scooters. Because Bourdain speaks of it with such passion. Because it created an inflection point in American culture, politics, and the lives of so many, yet we know almost nothing about what has happened there since The War. And because Bahn Mi, Pho, and Bun Cha.

This is my first trip to Asia since 2008, and the first I’m doing solo. I’ll admit to being a little more uncertain than most of my trips. Western Europe is no more complicated or intimidating than DC or SF, but Asia still presents a bit of risk and fear. Or, put in a more positive light, mystery.

I’m excited to share it with my community.

But seriously, screw airport CNN.

Thanks a lot Johnson

Right then, Vietnam.

This is my traditional “how to find me should you need to find me” post – when, where, etc. I’ll post more artfully constructed thoughts on the trip in the future.

High level – I’ll be in transit (with a stop in Tokyo) from May 13th until May 15th. I’ll be in Hanoi from the 15th to the 23rd, hopefully spending the 19th to the 21st on Cat Ba island (in Ha Lon bay).

I’ll be in Hoi An on the 23rd, 24th and 25th. Then I’ll be in Ho Chi Minh City from the 25th to the 29th, returning to the States on the 30th.

If all goes according to plan, my normal US cell phone number will continue to work throughout the trip. Text messaging is a bit more uncertain – iMessages sent to my gmail address should work, other forms of texting will be “wait and see”. I’ll update this post once I know for certain.

Full flight schedule follows (hi Mom!):

Mon., May. 13, 2013 | Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN (MSP) to Tokyo, Japan (NRT - Narita)
Depart:
5:15 a.m.
Mon., May. 13, 2013
Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN (MSP)
Arrive:
8:12 a.m.
Mon., May. 13, 2013
Houston, TX (IAH - Intercontinental)
Flight Time:2 hr 57 mn  
Flight: UA4620

Change Planes. Connect time in Houston, TX (IAH - Intercontinental) is 2 hr 43 mn.
Depart:
10:55 a.m.
Mon., May. 13, 2013
Houston, TX (IAH - Intercontinental)
Arrive:
2:30 p.m. +1 Day
Tue., May. 14, 2013
Tokyo, Japan (NRT - Narita)
Flight Time:13 hr 35 mn
Travel Time:19 hr 15 mn 
Flight: UA7

Wed., May. 15, 2013 | Tokyo, Japan (NRT - Narita) to Hanoi VN (HAN)
Depart:
9:50 a.m.
Wed., May. 15, 2013
Tokyo, Japan (NRT - Narita)
Arrive:
11:55 a.m.
Wed., May. 15, 2013
Shanghai, People's Republic of China (PVG - Pu Dong)
Flight Time:3 hr 5 mn   
Flight: NH919

Change Planes. Connect time in Shanghai, People's Republic of China (PVG - Pu Dong) is 3 hr 55 mn.
Depart:
3:50 p.m.
Wed., May. 15, 2013
Shanghai, People's Republic of China (PVG - Pu Dong)
Arrive:
6:20 p.m.
Wed., May. 15, 2013
Hanoi VN (HAN)
Flight Time:3 hr 30 mn
Travel Time:10 hr 30 mn 
Flight: VN531

Wed., May. 29, 2013 | Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon VN (SGN) to Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN (MSP)
Depart:
11:50 p.m.
Wed., May. 29, 2013
Ho Chi Minh City/ Saigon VN (SGN)
Arrive:
7:40 a.m. +1 Day
Thu., May. 30, 2013
Tokyo, Japan (NRT - Narita)
Flight Time:5 hr 50 mn  
Flight: NH932

Change Planes. Connect time in Tokyo, Japan (NRT - Narita) is 3 hr 5 mn.
Depart:
10:45 a.m.
Thu., May. 30, 2013
Tokyo, Japan (NRT - Narita)
Arrive:
8:20 a.m.
Thu., May. 30, 2013
Chicago, IL (ORD - O'Hare)
Flight Time:11 hr 35 mn 
Flight: UA9679

Change Planes. Connect time in Chicago, IL (ORD - O'Hare) is 2 hr 15 mn.
Depart:
10:35 a.m.
Thu., May. 30, 2013
Chicago, IL (ORD - O'Hare)
Arrive:
12:01 p.m.
Thu., May. 30, 2013
Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN (MSP)
Flight Time:1 hr 26 mn
Travel Time:24 hr 11 mn 
Total Distance:
9,330 miles 
Flight: UA279