Monday, May 17, 2010

15 Hours in the Air...First Day in Ho Chi Minh City

Friday and Saturday (May 14-15) were both taken up by traveling. Roughly half of EMBA 22 chose the same set of flights from Boston to NYC via Jet Blue, and then NYC to Hong Kong via Cathay Pacific. Checking-in for that second flight led to this exchange for me at the ticket counter at JFK:

Airline agent: Your seat will be 62A. This is a window seat. Is that OK?
Me: Hey, if I have to sit through a 12-hour flight, a window seat is perfect. *
Airline agent: 15 hours.
Me: What?
Airline agent: Not 12 hours, 15 hours.
Me: Oh.

*This is sincere. I really do like window seats.

We left JFK around 10 AM and spent the next 15 hours at 30,000+ feet. Interestingly, east coast flights to Hong Kong travel over the north pole, making for some stunning scenery in northern Canada and Alaska. Believe it or not, 15 hours didn’t seem that long as long as you managed to watch a few movies, read, sleep, and chat with your EMBA classmates. It helped that Cathay Pacific has some pretty comfortable seats, decent food, and screens in the back of every seat with a healthy supply of movies, recent TV, and music.

We landed in Hong Kong around 2 PM local time. The Hong Kong airport, built in the last few years, is enormous, comfortable, and full of exotic dining options.

After a four-hour layover, it was on to DragonAir, which brought us to Hanoi in just under 2 hours. We arrived around 7 PM local time (Hanoi being 11 hours ahead of Boston). The Hanoi airport looks a lot like many mid-size US airports, complete with many ATMs (including a Citibank), ads for mobile phones, flowers, etc. Interestingly, the Customs agent gave less scrutiny to my passport and visa than I typically get when I fly to Toronto (or fly back from Toronto), asking not a single question.

At the airport, we were met by a guide from Destination Asia, the tour agency working with EMBA, who quickly got us to a bus and into downtown Hanoi, roughly 30 minutes from the airport. Although it was nighttime, this was our first chance to look around Vietnam, which appeared (from the highway) to be a hodgepodge of the modern and the pre-modern, with rice patties mixed with 50s-style apartment houses, small merchants, and countless motorbikes. The last item probably made the biggest impression as we observed the very loose adherence to posted traffic signals by motorcyclists, people on scooters, motorists, and truck drivers alike. It was also amazing to see multiple people riding a single moped or motorbike – sometimes a couple, sometimes a family of four. Adults often (but not always) wear helmets; children (sometimes as young as 18 months, it seems) never do.

We checked into our very nice hotel (the Moevenpick Hotel, in downtown Hanoi, a five-star hotel) and settled in for the night.

Sunday, May 16 was dedicated to sightseeing. One obligatory sight for all tourists is the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh, featuring… the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh! Uncle Ho was the leader of Vietnam’s push for independence throughout the 20th century; he died (of natural causes) in 1969. His embalmed body has been on public display a la Lenin ever since. Despite arriving before 9 AM, thousands of people were already lined-up to visit his tomb. Fortunately, line management was fast – we were through in about an hour – but you can only see about 1/20th of the line (perhaps less) in this photo.

After the tomb, we also visited a museum dedicated to his life and the Temple of Literature, parts of which date back to 1070. Our guides provided a great sense of Vietnam’s long history and a better understanding of Vietnam’s pride at finally being free of foreign influence after a century of foreign domination (Chinese, French, and finally American). But they also stressed how the Vietnamese bear no ill will towards Americans today; as one said, “We forgive, but we don’t forget.”

Finally, we visited the “Hanoi Hilton”, the infamous prison that housed American pilots (including future Senator John McCain) during the Vietnam War. Prior to the “American War”, the French had used the prison to torture Vietnamese dissidents for over 50 years. It was a sobering visit for all of us. Interesting, most of the prison has been torn down in recent years, replaced by a giant office tower.

After a return to the hotel to change and wash-up, EMBA headed out for dinner, where we celebrated some milestone birthdays for Nick and Sally. A great first day.

Written by: Phil Obbard

1 comment:

Luxury Hotel in Philippines said...

It was a sobering visit for all of us. Interesting, most of the prison has been torn down in recent years, replaced by a giant office tower.