Vietnam 07/2009-Flight Day
July 2, 2009
We're up early, to do last minute prep for departure. This is the first time in 7 years that we will be away from home for this long. Fortunately, our flight doesn't leave until 12:45 pm so it's not like we have to get up at 4am to get to the airport.
Nevertheless, my pre-trip anxiety is in full bloom and is has me wondering if the trip is worth this much stress.
We leave the house on time and make it to LAX with more than 2 hours to spare before our flight. Because we are flying business class, we have access to the AA Admiral Lounge. While the lounge is nice and spacious, it's pretty much a disappointment. There's no free wifi access, unless you are an Admiral Club member, and any food is virtually nonexistent, unless you want to buy a pre-packaged sandwich. They do give us two free drink tickets each though, which we promptly use for a celebratory pre-trip spicy bloody mary.
AA Flight, LAX-Tokyo
Ah yes, we are in business class. I managed to cobble together enough miles after years of hoarding them and transferring some SPG points to get enough for 2 tickets (see my planning page for more on this). When I see our seats I can honestly say, yes, it's worth it. I'll suck it up if the flight is cheap enough (see our upcoming trip to Rome), but for 12 hours in a seat, it's really nice to be able to stretch out.
These are AA's newest business seats and they look like they are already showing some wear and tear. Pieces are starting to come apart. The seats do go flat, but are slanted and when fully extended, it's almost impossible to keep anything under the seat in front of you. Still, it's "better than coach" which quickly becomes our mantra. We're each given a full size pillow and a quilted blanket. The amenity kit has all the standards (socks, eye shade, toothbrush, etc) and Burt's Bees lip balm and lotion. There is an AVOD entertainment system with lots of movies and TV shows and it works well.
Our captain comes on at the beginning of the flight and tells us some facts about the Boeing 777 we're on. I can't really remember any of them now, except for something about how heavy the aircraft is and how we're going to burn something like 165,000 lbs of fuel on this flight. Yikes. Talk about a big carbon footprint. I almost feel guilty about taking this trip and then I smack myself. What am I supposed to do? Take a slow boat across the Pacific?
Food revelation at 35,000 feet
Later in the flight I ask for one of the optional snacks of soba noodles. They are cold. I'm shocked, expecting something hot, with broth. Instead, they are served in a little lacquered box with a dollop of wasabi, some sliced green onion, a beaker of soy sauce, and a cup.This is a revelation to me. How could I have never had chilled soba noodles before? It's so refreshing and light! I'm going to have to investigate this dish more and make it at home. Who knew you could learn something about food on an airplane?
Tokyo JAL Lounge
Some time during the flight we cross the international date line and it's now late afternoon on July 3rd. Upon arrival in Tokyo, we have a couple of hours. First, we have to go through security again and then once we're on the other side, we find the JAL lounge.
JALways Tokyo to Hanoi
Our flight is delayed by more than an hour so we're happy to hang out in the lounge. But we're both starting to hit the wall because the body clocks are saying "you should be sleeping now". The JALways flight is on a Boeing 767 and it's old-school business class. The seats recline, but not flat and I don't even look at the entertainment system I'm so tired. The food is "ok" but again I'm too tired to eat much. There is no amenity kit. I manage to get a couple of hours sleep though, and soon (after about 5 hours) we are touching down in Hanoi.
Arrival in Hanoi, July 3rd, 2009
It's 10:30 pm, about 85 degrees out and raining. As soon as we step off the plane and onto the jet way, I smell smoke in the air. It's a distinct smell, one I associate with South East Asia, and coupled with the heat and the moisture, I am instantly at home here.
We had opted for the "visa on arrival" (see planning page for more on this) and all my worries turn out to be unfounded. There is no line, and the process takes all of 5 minutes. We fill out another form, give them US $25 each and our pre-approval letter, and they paste a full page visa into our passports. There is a swine flu screening to walk though (thermal imaging) and we wait all of 2 minutes at passport control. Because we have carry on only we do not have to wait for our bags. I'd arranged for a pick up from our hotel and the driver is there waiting with my name on a sign.
The car is a small 4 door sedan with a video screen on the front dash playing a Vietnamese beauty pageant. The trip to the Hanoi Elegance 4 hotel takes about 45 minutes and by now we have been traveling 24 hours door to door. I am surprised at how dark everything seems; there aren't a lot of lights on in the apartments we see on the way into the city.
Check in is painless and our room, a "junior suite" on the top floor is waiting. It's a nice room, though I'm not sure what makes it a "junior suite" other than maybe the tiny sofa and a coffee table? Our room is exactly as wide as the building and we have windows on 3 sides. One thing for sure though, I don't think I'd want one of the regular doubles which are so small, I don't think it would be possible to walk around the bed.
Around midnight I'm hungry, but we have no Vietnamese Dong (we forgot to get some at the airport) and we're not sure if there's anywhere to go anyway so we just try and go to sleep.
Landing in Hanoi is nothing like landing in Tokyo. One can immediately sense the modernization and development gap that exists between this Asian city and its neighbors like Tokyo, Bangkok, Hong Kong, etc.
We cruise through the airport customs and immigration lines, acquiring our e-visas without incident; there are some elements of the "modern" world which are clearly in evidence, thank goodness. There was no trouble with our pre-arranged visa (they were expecting us and had our passport stickers ready) but the vestiges of old world bureaucracy still exist. While we are the only people at the immigration booth, in addition to the four guards who staff the post, we must begin at one side and pay, then walk all the way around to the other side, where we show the same guy the receipt for payment he just gave us! Then, we give him our passports, and we must now return to the opposite side of the booth, so that the same officer can give us our passports back with the newly affixed visas. Why couldn't we have just done all this standing in one place? I'll never understand, but it makes me smile.
As we exit the airport and forge our way through the sea of touts, searching for the one who has our name on his paper sign, my olfactory senses are assaulted by the smell of smoke. It is not the kind of smoke that signals danger, but one which is distinct to Asian countries which do not restrict the burning of trash or regulate open fires on the city streets.The smell is an odd mix of wood, paper, and incense, which is ubiquitous in our experiences in Indonesia, Cambodia, and parts of Thailand.
In stark contrast to my very first association with this smell, which harkens back 1998, when we left the more familiar surroundings of Australia, and landed in Kuta/ Denpassar, Indonesia, at an equally late hour, this time it is strangely comforting to me. The lack of ambient light and streetlights does not bother me. The obvious disregard for traffic laws does not make me nervous at all, and I chuckle to myself, thinking that I would be happier if we drove like this at home.
The ratio of scooters to cars is naturally high in all Asian countries, and the closer we get to the urban center, the more scooters we see. They move like oil through water around the cars, in and out of lanes whose dividing lines can only be seen by western eyes. Some are carrying loads far greater than they were designed for, but cleverly balanced so as not to impede the driver's ability to navigate the river of vehicular chaos.
We are getting closer to the city center. I can tell because the streets are narrowing, and the immense tangle of power lines, phone cables, internet connections, and who knows what else is growing like dreadlocks on super-rogaine above us. It never ceases to amaze me how many wires can be suspended from one bamboo pole. It is as though each house, business, and street light (there are a few here and there) has its own cable running from the central power plant.
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