Published Jun 25, 2006

Today I flew from Bangkok to Hanoi. Coming down from the clouds, Vietnam stretching before me — it was kind of a Charlie Sheen in Platoon moment. But, after an afternoon here, I know I love it.

First: Bangkok wrap-up. I know I promised two things, a discussion of steps and of oranges, and I suppose I should deliver. The first topic is boring, but it is worth noting that the only people I’ve found who are as comfortable with challenging steps as the Thais are the Aztecs. Fortunately, there are no games played with human heads in Thailand. At least, that I’m aware of.

Oranges are a more interesting topic. Those with a grounding in the history of foods — and pardon me if I make some small errata here, but my Larousse Gastronomique is not at my side at this exact moment — may know that the Orange started out as a small, green fruit in either South or Southeast Asia. Thus, you might assume that a fruit that is small and green, with orange meat, found in Thailand, might be the most historically accurate and realistic of all oranges, and that the juice made from said orange would be the orangiest of all liquids. The Thais like to squeeze their juice fresh, cutting the small fruit in half and juicing them in a small press made just for the purpose, at sidewalk carts. One day, thirsty as all get-out, I bought a container of this orange juice, looking forward to the (advertised) unsweetened, undiluted refreshment. And then I drank it. And it tasted exactly like Tang, if you made it with about 33% too much powder mix. I can only conclude that our nation’s top food scientists were sent to Thailand to find the truth about the flavor of orange juice, and that they reproduced that flavor exactly in our space program’s powdery, orange goodness. Too bad! Here’s one fruit that selective breeding made better.

That’s pretty much it for my complaints, though. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about Thailand when I hit Chiang Mai on my return leg, but the brief story is: I could go back to Bangkok in a second and find a week’s worth of fun, new things to do (none of them including excessive drinking or hookers). Two thumbs up, except for the frequent afternoon downpours at this time of year.

Hanoi also gets a thumbs up, at least at this point. I flew here on AirAsia, Southeast Asia’s Southwest, and was blown away just on the flight. As we broke free of the clouds around central Thailand, the ground beneath us switched from tilled farmland cut with roads and dotted with towns to trackless, mountainous jungle. Only a few rivers marred these many miles of dense green, with a few small hamlets, each located at a remote river bend. I’m reading Hell in a Small Place, a history of the battle between the French and the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu, a classic confrontation in which the Vietnamese guerilla forces besieged a French unit parachuted into the trackless jungle, encircling that unit for nearly two months and, finally, isolating it from the world and forcing its surrender. This surrender brought down French rule in Indochina and led directly to US involvement in South Vietnam. Stories can tell of jungle that can only be hacked through, with machetes, a foot at a time, but it wasn’t until I saw the expanse below me that I realized what it must have been like for a French flier or paratrooper in 1950, with indistinguishable jungle stretching around below you as far as the eye could see in every direction, a doomed expanse for the bailed-out pilot or the isolated soldier, a series of identical and meaningless positions for which you would likely die at some unknown and unknowable minute, without even seeing your enemy. Yet, today, this jungle is some of the last pristine space on earth, perhaps one of the reasons to come back to this part of the world. The feeling was simultaneously intriguing and terrifying.

Then the clouds closed up again, and I didn’t see the ground until we started our landing approach. Then the color of the ground had changed; Sly Stallone and Chuck Norris and China Beach and all of those memories from my youth had shown me a remarkably US Army camoflauge-colored Vietnam, with saturated greens and yellows and browns, just like Thailand, which was always the stand-in for Vietnam. Yet, as we descended choppily below the clouds, Vietnam was a bluish green, as if somebody had turned down the white point a few thousand degrees Kelvin — remarkably, the blue-green matched not the US camo but the pattern that the French used until very recently. Crisp, clear, curved lines delinieated rice paddies subdivided under some clearly specific system that, yet, left no traces of its rules above the flooded-in waters. As our plane flew lower, little villages seperated out from the paddies, looking like little toy models with perfectly-outlined streets, colorful houses that exemplified an exact mix of French and Asian, and even frequent churches throwing their bell towers into the sky; it was as if we had a Tonkinese Normandy beneath us. Then we crossed one of the branches of the Red River and touched down at Hanoi’s airport, our wheels hitting the ground just as we passed a line-up of MiG-21s in concrete shelters at the runway’s end.

From the plane we were ushered into a large, spacious, and completely empty airport, as before us spread aisle after aisle of immigration officers, each with no wait in front of his or her little cubicle. Then we were through, efficiently and quietly, and my hotel’s driver appeared to whisk me down the highways to Hanoi.

These were quiet, slow highways, with red-and-white striped guardrails on each side, looking nothing so much as French. Little mopeds burbled along at 35 in the right lane, while cars sped past at 60 in the left, honking every time a slow car blocked them or a moped drifted too far to the left. It was a sedate ride and the flunky fell sound asleep. Then, in Hanoi, we were surrounded by a biker gang on mopeds, except it turned out this was just the normal Tonkinese, going about their normal business, in completely undirected masses of moped-driving normalcy, making left and right turns and heading straight on any part of the road they felt right. Yet nobody hit anybody else (good since I saw a grand total of one person with a motorcycle helmet on, and nobody had any clothes remotely useful for preventing road rash), and even the ao dai-clad women riding sidesaddle behind their boyfriends were able to relax on their mopeds.

My hotel, the Hanoi Prince, is a stereotypical Paris hotel, small and very vertical, with two rooms on each floor and a narrow, winding staircase. Yet it’s beautiful, and there’s free internet so I’d better post every day. Meanwhile the atmosphere outside is distinctively eastern, yet relaxed and European. I think I’m in love. More on my dinner adventures, and tomorrow’s photos, um, tomorrow. Now it’s time to do laundry (I’ve got to wash every day, since it takes two days for anything to dry in this heat and humidity — I think I’lll check out the laundry lady next door in the morning and see if I can outsource my cleaning to the up-and-coming country of Vietnam.