Thursday, January 13: This morning, I take a deep breath as I psych myself for the trip ahead. When planning this journey from East Asia to Southeast Asia, my thought was that it should be a cinch; after all, these countries are in the same quadrant of the world. It should be minimal hassle to get from one place to another. But. When traveling from Daegu, four hours south of the biggest international airport in South Korea, this is what it takes: (1) a one hour door-to-door trip from my apartment to Dongdaegu Station by walking and metro; (2) a +four-hour trip by bus to Incheon Airport that costs around $31; (3) a two-hour early check-in at the airport, meaning a wait of 2 hours before flight; (4) a ~4-hour flight to Guangzhou, China; (5) a five-hour wait in the airport; (6) another +2-hour flight to Hanoi; (7) a +half-hour drive to my hotel in Hanoi.
It’s an ordeal. I love to travel and savor the adventure, the anticipation, of it all, but sometimes I get worn out by the thought of the logistics. So, when I leave my house at 6:30 a.m. and spot a taxi, I’m tempted. It will cost around $13 to take the taxi, but less than $1 to take metro. The taxi is so enticing, so much easier. Should I or shouldn’t I? I pause on the street, freezing in my lightweight jacket which I’m wearing for the “warmer” Hanoi weather. No! I force myself to keep walking, rolling my suitcase behind me, the 5 blocks to metro. I cannot, simply CANNOT, be lazy and toss money away on the first morning of my trip. So, I trudge miserably along to subway and endure the long ride on metro to the bus station.
On metro, a middle-aged Korean in a crisp suit with a pin-striped button-down shirt opens his magical satchel and starts trying to sell footless tights, holding them up and stretching them out every which way. A throwback to the old days of vacuum cleaner salesmen, he with his slick classiness. Sales pitches such as these are quite common on Korean trains.
I didn’t reserve a bus ticket for the ride to Incheon because it’s not a holiday and it’s a Thursday, and I figure there should be no problem getting a bus. Wrong. The 7:30 bus is sold out. Luckily, I get the last available seat on the 8:10 bus, which will put me at Incheon at 12:10. I’m supposed to check in at 12:15 for a 2:15 flight. If I hadn’t made that bus, I would have suffered all kinds of difficulties. A person must plan every single detail ahead of time, it seems. Nothing can be left to chance.
Check-in at Incheon is fast and easy; it’s a modern airport and I’ve never encountered any problems here. I’m flying on China Southern airlines, which I’ve never flown before and I will never fly again. The price was cheap; that’s why I took it. And most definitely, I get what I pay for.
The food on the airplane is the worst I’ve ever had. The seats are cramped. There are 179 people onboard, so it’s on the small side. Nonetheless, its job as an airplane is done satisfactorily as it gets me from here to there alive and well. I arrive in lovely Guangzhou, China around 5 p.m. Here, the true ordeal begins.
I’ve never flown THROUGH China before, so I don’t know if this happens in every Chinese airport or not. Since I’m just doing a transfer, I think I shouldn’t have to show my passport, go through immigration or security checks. Yet. I do. You do. Everyone does. It’s such a freaking hassle. I wait in line, I show my passport; some people are upset because the authorities take their passports, ask them to have a seat, give them the third degree. I am irritated, as are the other transferring passengers. I stand in another line and put my belongings and myself though metal detectors and x-ray machines, AGAIN, even though I did all this at Incheon. After all this, I am finally at the gates. My gate is downstairs on the ground level. It’s COLD. There is no heat in this airport. I find a little cafe to get a cup of coffee. Just to warm up. It’s small and it costs me $9 and it’s not even hot.
I think since I have five hours here, I will try to get comfortable. Most airports I’ve been to have fold-up armrests so a person can stretch out on the seats. Most airports have slightly cushioned seats. The lovely Guangzhou airport has hard plastic seats with no retractable armrests. I’m forced to sit in these uncomfortable seats, freezing because of course I’m dressed for Hanoi (which I think will be warm but actually is not, as I will write about later!). No carpeting, just a green speckled linoleum floor, which I get to know quite intimately. It emanates cold.
Funny. If your body is uncomfortable, a minute can seem like an eternity. I am chilled through my bones, my blood, my internal organs. I have brain freeze. There is nothing I can do to get warm. I try walking around, I try sitting, I try reading my book to take my mind off my misery. But the book, Eaves of Heaven, about wartime Vietnam, only makes me more aware of my discomfort as the characters in the book suffer all kinds of bodily degradations. Their miseries magnify my own. In a moment of desperation, I ask the lady at information if there are computers available for passengers for a fee. No, nothing like that exists in this airport. No TV, no diversions of any sort that don’t cost a fortune.
I find a little bar on the basement floor that serves beer. They will take US dollars but no charge card and they can’t give change in dollars. I have just the right amount for one beer, which I nurse and savor for a good 45 minutes. I don’t want any of the Chinese Renminbi floating about in my pockets, so I pass on another.
Misery. Pure and simple. When finally the hour arrives to take the China Southern flight to Hanoi, the stone-faced flight attendants just stand there doing nothing. The time approaches and no one is boarding. So infuriating. I am losing patience with this whole process.
I strike up a brief conversation with a gray-haired bohemian Californian in a faded jean jacket and his Vietnamese wife; they are headed to Hanoi to visit her family. This diversion is brief; luckily, we are called to board a bus to the tarmac, where we climb the stairs to the plane. Already it is a half-hour past take-off time. I’m due to arrive in Hanoi at 11:15 p.m. Now it appears I will be late, as if 11:15 p.m. isn’t late enough.
On this flight, they serve another meal they say is “seafood.” I find when someone says something has “seafood” in it, you really have no idea what you’re getting. I take a bite and chew; it is some kind of squid. I HATE that rubbery texture and I spit it out immediately. I’m so classy. 🙂 I ask for the chicken but find that is just as bad, locked in its skin and fat as it is. Disgusting. I am so sick of bad food, as I really have grown to dislike Korean food immensely. My mouth waters thinking of the ten days of good food I KNOW I will encounter in Vietnam and Cambodia.
I arrive at Hanoi airport at about midnight. A yellow Transylvanian haze envelops the airport. A man has my name sloppily printed on a piece of cardboard; he is apparently my ride. The taxi ride from the airport to the Old Quarter of Hanoi is in slow motion, surreal, through a highway bordered by untidy open fields, streetlights casting a titanium glow. The driver keeps asking for my hotel information. Shouldn’t he know this since the hotel arranged for him to pick me up? It feels like we’re in some scrublands, some place far from civilization. He is driving so slow I think we will never get there. I am tired and a little afraid that I’m going to be taken to some place where I will be robbed and left by the roadside to freeze to death in my lightweight raincoat.
Finally, we arrive at the Hotel Ngoc Mai. The neighborhood doesn’t look great especially at this hour. Next door a building covered in green construction netting. Across the street, poor Vietnamese squatting on the sidewalk, talking and drinking and smoking. Motorbikes parked everywhere and buzzing on the street. The hotel staff is awaiting me; it’s near 1 a.m. They escort me to my room, which looks nice at first glance, but on closer inspection, I see it’s seen better days. It’s cold and though the guy shows me how to work the remote, the air never warms after his departure. I lie under the thick white comforter shivering all night, tossing and turning.
Welcome to Hanoi! Xin chào!