Trip: London to Hanoi

The flight was fairly short, considering that it was one of the longest flights I've ever taken. The company was good, and a cramped, economy seat grows on you. Yes, this is true. It's like driving into a tunnel. At first it seems very dark, until your eyes adjust. As you get used to the cramped seat it seems big enough, so it literally grows on you. We ate dinner any number of times (or was it lunch?), breakfast once or twice, and landed in Singapore for a stopover around midnight.

As we started walking around the airport, we realized that it was broad daylight. My watch said midnight, but the sun was shining. I don't know – maybe they took us to Finland by mistake. No – it was definitely Singapore – the prices in the airport shops said so.

Singapore is an unusual place. You could tell even in the airport. There were Chinese being Chinese, Indians being Indian, and Malays doing the same. The Maylay women were wrapped from head to toe, even though they were right next to the equator. All were cheerfully Singaporean. It brought to mind those C.S. Lewis space novels (Perelandra?), where there was a planet with three intelligent but non-intermarrying species.

We had eaten functional, but fairly unidentifiable food on the flight out. Here, we went in search of some noodle soup. After all, we were in Asia. I thought that Singapore noodles were probably as much of a myth as New York cheesecake (only eaten elsewhere), so a noodle soup would be fine. What we forgot was that even though we were in Asia, we were also in an airport. We found a food court, which had little concessions with food from many countries in Asia, each of which, apparently, they cooked equally well. There were some Japanese at the Japanese concession ordering soups. The rest were empty, but we knew that the Japanese soup didn't look that interesting. We went to the Malaysian concession to look, and while it was empty when we got there, who should show up but the Japanese soup lady! Needless to say, the soup was unmemorable. But why should we have our best meal in the airport? Imagine, telling your friends that this was your third vacation walking around Singapore airport because of the wonderful soup, watching TV in the airport hotel? Better things were waiting.

The plane from Singapore to Hanoi was smaller, and the flight attendants were even more cheerful. Where the other tourists were fresh and rested, having spent the prior night watching TV in the airport hotel, we were wiped. I was a little worried that not looking and feeling my best, I would be an easy target for the customs people in Hanoi, who are known to charge "fines" for this or that. I tried my best to rest during the flight, and not to worry.

We landed in the middle of the tarmac at Hanoi airport. We were the only plane in a fairly small airport, which had a moderately communist look and feel. We were herded into the hall, which was light, but had dark wood to make things official. The immigration officers wore electric green uniforms, and the signs were there, though ambiguous enough that they could make up a rule or two if they needed to. We found ourselves on a line that said "Tour groups only". Where I thought the immigration officers might make the time to learn a lot about us, another plane landed, then another, and then another. We were stamped and spit out faster than you could say, "Do you have anything to declare?"

The arrivals building was absolutely spartan. There was nothing at all. You couldn't buy a soda or a pack of chewing gum. In fact, the only things you could buy were televisions, air conditioners and washing machines – at the duty-free shop, which was right behind the immigration officers. To this day I've yet to figure out why you'd buy duty-free goods on arrival, and why anyone would carry a washing machine with them on their trip.

In any case, we made our way out of the airport, and got one of the cabs outside. Two guys got into the cab with us, the driver and a friend of his. We started driving down the road, when all of a sudden the driver announced that we had to go to his house, because he needed to pick up his license. This not only struck Duyen as positively peculiar, he was convinced that it was a setup. I was getting worried as well, since we turned off the road and went into a village with shacks and chickens and not a lot of people. As we waited for the driver, we hoped he wouldn't come out with some nasty-looking friends and nastier-looking plumbing supplies. As it turned out, it was only Vietnamese informality. He had really forgotten his license. We drove on and dropped his friend off at a toll booth. The other guy worked for the cab company, and when he realized that we weren't going to hire the driver to tour around Hanoi, he lost interest and found some other business to take care of.

Once in Hanoi, we went to the hotel on our list. For each city, we had agreed on one or two hotels we liked, to save time when we got there. Your first idea of things is almost always wrong. We drove around looking at each choice, and either it was full, it was too expensive, or it was a dump. The driver finally took us to a hotel that wasn't on the list, and wasn't even in the guidebooks, and it was fine. It was really lucky that I was with someone who spoke the language. Otherwise I never would have had this type of flexibility.