Hanoi Hustlin’ (Hanoi, Vietnam)

The backpacker district in Hanoi was situated in the Old Quarter, a maze of narrow streets, alleys and boulevards centered around a peaceful green lake.  In the evening young Vietnamese couples sat on benches along the water’s edge and watched the sun set over the peaceful water.  On the north end of the lake, a red bridge led to a temple constructed on a small island.  It was an oasis of tranquility amidst an endless cacophony of horns, sales pitches, and motorcycles.

I stood on the red bridge and looked out over the water.  I had a lot on my mind.  I had just lost my bike, and the whole experience had been more costly than I had budgeted.  But more than that, I had just checked my email and read some bad news – getting a student visa into Spain would be more difficult than I had imagined.  A lot more difficult.

I thought I could just swing through the Spanish embassy and process the application within a few days, but now I read that the process would take two to three months!  Additionally, I needed to apply from my home country!

Ahh, what to do?  I didn’t want to come home just to process a visa.  It seemed like a tragic way to end my journey, with the young adventurous wanderer cut down at his peak by a Spanish bureaucrat.  I knew there was a way around this obstacle, because if there’s a will, there’s a way.

But was there a will?  I was completely exhausted from riding the Minsk across Vietnam.  The prospect of coming home sounded so enticing: summer on the beach in La Jolla, drinking Arrogant Bastard Ale at a Padres game, cruising down Sunset Boulevard with my friends…oh, and of course, California Burritos!   Ah, I could taste the Santana’s burrito all the way from Hanoi!

I snapped out of it.  No, Mark, you cannot give up now.  It’s just another roadblock, just something you must overcome. So forget burritos – coming home might sound nice, but once you get on the plane to California you will wish you were back in Asia.  Words of truth.  I stood up from the park bench, and tried to think of some ideas.

I wandered through the Old Quarter for hours.  Cheap food vendors were every five feet, hawking everything from noodles, to baguettes, mangoes, rice and sweets.  Every shop was either a travel agent or a knock-off shoe store.

There were also an odd number pet shops with giant pictures of cute poodles in the windows…wait, why are people eating dinner at these pet shops?  Wait a second, that’s not a pet shop – it’s a dog-meat restaurant!  Though I wanted to travel my taste buds as much as possible, “Poodle Noodles” was a questionable dish to sample.  I searched Zagat for recommended restaurants, but I was told it was a bad time of year for dog.   Apparently, it was too hot for dog.  That was enough of an excuse to dissuade me.

Sidewalk coffee shops were sprawled along the streets, with old men sipping thick, black coffee, and men smoking tobacco from big bamboo bongs.  They offered me a hit, and I took it.  Never again.  The nicotine went right to my head, and I stood up and almost got smacked by a truck as I stumbled down the street.

I went to the Temple of Literature, an ancient institution of higher learning.  Like many of the old Vietnamese buildings, it was highly influenced by Chinese architecture.  The influence did not stop there; inside the temple was a large statue of Confucius, the Chinese scholar from 500 BC.  The Confucian values of respect for elders and an emphasis on education are readily felt as one travels through Vietnam.  China… I was heading there next, but I’d been so preoccupied with my bike journey that I hadn’t even given China any thought at all.  One thing at a time.

I continued on to the Hanoi Hilton, the prison known to most Americans as a place where American POWs were tortured during the war (it is where John McCain was held, and it is why he cannot fully raise his arms).  The museum focused largely on the horrific French treatment of Vietnamese, only briefly mentioning the treatment American POWs.  It showed pictures of them laughing, playing basketball, and cooking Christmas dinner.   Oh, how much I will miss Vietnamese propaganda.

Lastly, I went to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.  I don’t remember if I mentioned this before, but the Vietnamese love Ho Chi Minh.  He is even more popular than Obama on inauguration day, maybe like George Washington on his inauguration day. They refer to him as Bac Ho, or “Uncle Ho.”  Most Vietnamese are confident that he actually is their uncle, especially in the strongly Communistic north.

The Vietnamese love him so much that they completely disregarded his dying wish for a simple cremation, and instead they preserved his body in a glass case, like Mao or Lenin.  I had heard that his skin was like rice paper, so I was imaging Uncle Ho to look like a giant spring roll.  He really just looked like a wax statue.  It was creepy.  He was guarded by the most serious Vietnamese soldiers I have ever seen – after all, they were the righteous guardians of 85 million people’s uncle.  They admit tourists for a quick walk through, lasting no more than one minute.  It is totally silent as you enter the room, circumambulate his body and the sickle and hammer flag, then exit.  No cameras, no talking, no smiling.  Just pure respect for Uncle Ho.

I checked that one off my “Embalmed Communist Leaders of the World To-Do List,” set down my day bag, freshened up, and explored Hanoi by night.  It was excellent.  Everywhere there are bia hoi bars on the street corners, and I was staying right next to the greatest concentration of all of them in the city.  The bia hoi is made fresh daily, packaged in kegs, and distributed around the city for instant consumption (it has no preservatives).  One dollar buys you 70 beers – a backpacker’s paradise.

I spent a few days typing up the blogs for this website and trying to figure out a way around this massive roadblock in my journey – how to get my visa into Spain while still fulfilling my dream of riding the Trans-Siberian Railroad.  I visited the American and Spanish Embassies, did research on the web, and spent hours on the phones with bureaucrats from Hanoi to Madrid to Los Angeles.  Finally, I found a solution.

It was complicated, but it would buy me two months of travel time.  But coming back to California for two weeks before going to Spain was unavoidable.  I will not bore you with the details, but let’s just say that I found a loophole in the law, drafted a couple legal documents, got a few official stamps from the relevant embassies, and mailed all the documents around the world.  Like they say in India, sab kuch milega – everything is possible.

So now I had roughly two more months of traveling left, just enough time to cruise through China and catch the Trans-Siberian Railroad from Beijing to Moscow and fly home from Russia.  The days of carefree wandering were limited, and I had to maximize my time.  I could not afford to be ensnared in the web of bureaucracy anymore.  I had to step carefully.  I would have to assiduously research the finer details of this complicated trans-continental train journey, everything from departure times, reservations, prices, and (most importantly) my visa into Russia.

Getting a visa into Russia is notoriously complicated.  Technically, you must have reservations for every night you are staying in Russia and you must present a copy of these reservations to the embassy when you apply for your visa.  You are also supposed to apply from your home country.  Obviously, I could not do either.

I researched this one through and through, and finally I found a loophole – sab kuch milega.  Apparently I could hire a Russian travel agency to make a number of fake reservations for me, then cancel the reservations for a total of $30.  Also, the Russian Consulate in Hong Kong was notoriously lenient on applications.  I had my solution.

So my plans changed, yet again.  I originally intended to travel to the Yunan Province in China, just north-west of Vietnam, but now I knew I must go to Hong Kong.  I had to get that visa into Russia, or else I was not going on the Trans-Siberian.

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