Only when you’re travelling could you find yourself spending an entire day with a complete stranger.
The place was Hanoi. The stranger in question was Guy, a French-Armenian who had for the last twenty years called Philadelphia home.
We met at breakfast, at the dining spot where I was sent by my hotel to get my one free daily meal as part of my accommodation booking. It was across the street from my hotel and one floor up from the bustling street.
As usual, I arrived pretty much just as the staff were on the cusp of taking all the food away. The breakfast spread ranged from eggs cooked two different ways to bread, fruit, cuts of meat and Vietnamese offerings that would have been appropriate for any time of the day. I helped myself to a spoonful of about five different things, poured myself a small glass of watermelon juice, and took a seat on the long, narrow balcony.
To my right was an ageing gent with a guidebook to Vietnam next to his plate. After I’d sated the baseline of my hunger, I acted per my custom while travelling, and only while travelling – I turned to talk to this stranger.
Guy (pronounced ‘Gi’) was a retiree formally involved with trading antique furniture, with some jewellery on the side. He was a widower, and he and his late wife had wanted to live on the west coast because the weather suited them better. But they chose the east coast because it was closer and made for more convenient travel back to their homeland, which they did on a regular basis, for work and to visit family and friends. They’d picked Philadelphia even though they preferred New York; New York was simply too expensive.
They’d left France under a cloud, in circumstances that he declined to share with me.
Guy had already visited Thailand on this trip. He had been making his way north from Ho Chi Minh City and was plotting a course for Halong Bay. For now though, he was whiling away a few days in Hanoi – more days than he would’ve preferred to spend there.
His plan for the day was to visit the one pillar pagoda. I wanted to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. After studying his map, we noticed that both attractions were within close proximity to each other. Desiring of company, we agreed to visit the sites together.
We arranged to meet outside my hotel in half an hour, giving me enough time to pack as I was leaving Hanoi that night (having only arrived the previous night). His hotel was only a few doors down and both were within our line of vision from the balcony of the restaurant.
As our taxi arrived, a boy from my hotel appeared, wanting to share our transportation. He was headed in the same direction, with intentions of paying his respects to Ho Chi Minh as well, and so we became a trio in our sightseeing expedition.
I don’t remember the boy’s name precisely, but he was a blonde American with a winning smile; good looking but slight in build. He was working in Thailand for a finance consultant. The money was good, and so was the location. He had a name that made me recall Hilary Clinton’s middle name, Rodham, which I mentioned aloud. But mnemonics fail me and I cannot remember exactly what his name was.
Our first stop was to see Ho Chi Minh. We entered the sprawling park via the entrance closest to the ticket booth, from which we were directed to another building where we were required to drop off all belongs except for wallets and cameras. We had to make tracks because the mausoleum was set to close at 11am – a fact which baffled the three of us.
The usual solemnity was expected of us upon waiting at the mausoleum’s front doors – but the absolute respect and dignity enforced during my visit to see the two Kims in DPRK, however, was not present. Guards in pristine white garb stood off to the side and we walked along a roll of red carpet. We made our way into the complex in messy lines, were silent when walking around the embalmed leader, and felt the twitch of dozens of itchy tourist camera fingers. Then we emerged, blinking in the warm air.
After retrieving our things, we visited a small temple which we at first mistook for the one pillar pagoda (all the while wondering where its single pillar was), before finally locating the pagoda. We went to Ho Chi Minh’s diminutive house, raised on stilts, where two Vietnamese girls asked to have their photo taken with my foreign-looking companions. We walked around the Ho Chi Minh museum and came away unimpressed and extremely confused by some of the displays – notably, the one featuring over-sized fruit. Most spectacular of the attractions we toured was the golden-hued Presidential Palace, its façade contrasting starkly with the lush greenery that surrounded it.
After a couple of hours seeing all these things, I decided it was time for lunch. The elfin Rodham/Rodney/Rotham wanted to push on, however, and visit the Fine Arts Museum. So we parted ways, with Guy and I heading off in search of food, but not before Guy made plans to see some traditional play with Rodham/Rodney/Rotham later that evening.
Guy and I exited the park and flagged a taxi, careful to get one from a company we could be fairly certain was reputable. I’d read about taxi scams on the Hanoi Wikitravel page, and Guy had his own reasons to be cautious.
Once the taxi took off, Guy monitored the meter like a hawk, and at one point started to argue with the driver over the fare. The driver, not speaking much English, largely ignored Guy’s loud protestations. I sat back and cringed, but was also glad to have someone with me who could at least put up a fight against being ripped off.
The driver seemed intent on giving us a tour of the French Quarter by car, so Guy had to firmly tell him to stop. We were dropped off not far from the “Hanoi Hilton” – a place Guy had no intention of seeing the inside of. He muttered over the cost of the ride, handing over his notes reluctantly.
As anyone who has had the misfortune of dining with me knows, I can be an extremely picky eater and incredibly indecisive when it comes to choosing on a place to eat. Strolling randomly through the French Quarter, passing various communist gathering houses along the way, Guy and I had felt that we would surely stumble upon some place that would take our fancy. But when this still hadn’t happened after twenty minutes of walking, we stopped to consult his guidebook. Well, he consulted it while I looked on as it was entirely in French. We both liked the sound of a little diner that was run by a naturalised Vietnamese Frenchman, and so began navigating our way to the street that the guidebook said it was on.
Having found the street and walked its length twice and not spotted the diner we were looking for, we entered a little bakery to seek directions. Asking proved fruitless, and so we settled on a westernised Vietnamese cafe on the street where our diner was meant to have been located.
I was keen on trying more local cuisine but was shy about trying one of the street-side noodle joints and risking a food poisoning relapse. I had only been free of food poisoning symptoms for two days and wasn’t yet prepared to act boldly in my dining choices. Guy was similarly concerned about food hygiene, but more in the way of older travellers immersing themselves in other cultures only ankle-deep, suspicious of going all the way.
The cafe was brimming with other travellers, most of them around my age. It had wi-fi, so I took the opportunity to steal a glance at my emails. Guy scrolled through the pictures on his SLR camera and sneaked a couple of photos of me. I complained about the bad lighting, but smiled for a couple of photos. I later regretted not taking a snap of Guy as well, to have as a memento of the person I’d spent all this time with in Hanoi.
When our food arrived (mine: pork cutlet, fresh salad vegetables, rice), I set my phone aside. He swallowed down a pill for some chronic health condition. I shared some details about my life in Canberra, and he told me about Philadelphia and about his late wife, who died three years ago and whom he still dearly missed.
He spoke about their house always smelling of the most delicious aromas of the stews she used to cook – adding that if I ever went to Philadelphia, he’d be glad to cook a traditional Armenian meal for me. He promised that he wouldn’t make it too spicy.
We went to what I’m sure was the Vietnam Military Museum next, but I have no memory of seeing any captured US war planes or other large military wreckage as photos online of the place shows.
We left our possessions in lockers downstairs as we were obliged to, then made our way upstairs to the only areas of the museum we were permitted to visit that day.
The museum was a re-purposed French colonial-style building and just one of a couple of two-storey buildings around a courtyard. After visiting a couple of rooms lined with artefacts, photos and artwork, I became thoroughly bored and was overcome with fatigue. While Guy explored the other rooms which had more of the same, I took a seat on a bench in the corridor that led off to each of the rooms, and promptly dozed off. There weren’t many people around to pay attention. I only spotted one other small group of tourists making the rounds; three young men whom I would have ordinarily been concerned about seeing me napping.
About half an hour later, refreshed from my nap, Guy and I headed to Hoan Kiem Lake. Walking down what I was informed was the street that commanded the highest rents in town, near the Hanoi Opera House, in a scrappier part of the street we happened upon a driveway out of which people kept emerging with ice cream cones. We followed the locals in and I promptly bought a cone too – and was possibly charged foreigner’s prices but it was still cheap at less than a dollar. The coconut-ish flavoured ice cream hit the spot and it was served in a tasty waffle cone.
Along the way we passed a curious sight: that of a bunch of workers cleaning the front of a store, among them ladies in matching suit jacket and skirts hosing the sidewalk down.
When we reached the lake, I immediately was on the lookout for a colleague’s uncle, one John Peacock, who apparently can be found most days down by the lake playing frisbee. I don’t know how anyone could spend that much time playing frisbee, but I kept my eyes peeled for someone fitting his description all the same.
We didn’t find John Peacock, but we did have a lovely walk around the lake all the same. It was a slightly foggy day and we came across other tourists, locals, school kids, and the occasional couple getting their wedding photos taken; the brides-to-be wearing a distinctive white Vietnamese dress with a slit down one side, revealing a long black under-skirt.
As the sky darkened, I remembered that I needed to buy some sneakers to wear while trampling around the villages near Sapa, where I was headed next. I had held off from buying a $60 pair of Converse back home, which was on sale, convinced that I could get a better deal in Vietnam. And so it was that Guy hopped from shoe store to shoe store with me, in the market district, until I found a pair of Converse ($30) that I could be pleased to call my own.
Sneakers are useless without socks to accompany them. It was much harder than we expected to find ankle socks, but eventually we tracked down a place that sold some. Guy was also in the market for a cashmere vest, so our shopping expedition wasn’t all about me – just mostly.
Guy wasn’t interested in checking out the night markets as I had the previous night, so we went back to our respective hotels.
I booked a taxi (i.e. I spoke to the hotel staff and they booked one for me) to take me to Hanoi train station in an hour’s time. Then I slipped on my new socks and Converse sneakers and went to dinner with Guy.
Because my taxi was soon to arrive and because Guy was supposed to go see that play with Rodham/Rodney/Robotham, we ate at a restaurant that was just around the corner from his hotel. I ordered pizza, aware that I was going to be marooned in a place in northern Vietnam where I would have no access to western food. The pizza took ages to come out and Guy sniped at the servers for the delay. When it was brought to the table, I persuaded Guy to have some and he consented, all the while sniffing that he doesn’t enjoy greasy food.
We exchanged email addresses, and I promised to visit him in Philadelphia if I found myself his way. Both of us knew he would never make it to Australia.
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