Day 2 -- Hanoi -- bad luck for the both of us

One of the favorite pictures taken in my free time from the streets of Hanoi

There have been two incidents when someone asked me "are you okay?" that I will always remember.

One happened a couple of years ago, in the hallway of my previous office on Sand Hill Road. It was one of those days when the financial market was acting crazy. At the end of the day, to get rid of the stress from work, I went to the vending machine for all the sugar I could take. All of a sudden, a very successful senior colleague appeared as he came out of the gym (note to self: successful people hit the gym, not the vending machine, to release stress) and he stopped and asked me "are you okay?" I said yes, but he knew nobody was really okay during those days, so he went on and gave me a much needed pep talk. This is my first time mentioning this to anybody, because a similar situation happened to me today in Hanoi!

Today was a real work day. 9 to 7 all in the office, including lunch time with our staff "tasting" the best Vietnamese instant vermicelli. (I will blog about my thoughts related to work later as they demand more time to sink in.) My tourist experience started at night with a nice seafood pizza in this area called "Old Quarter" -- a famous touristy night market. I love night markets, but being all alone in a foreign country where I could barely cross the streets was no fun. I gave up and took the cab back to the hotel, and then something scary happened.

From a very charming local toy store ...

To this very glittering French toy store at my hotel ...

My supposedly 5 minute cab ride turned into a 40 minute surreal experience of worries, fear, desperation, anger and more. Long story short, the driver was new. He had no clue how to get to the most famous hotel in the city from the most popular touristy area. I, on the other hand, knew exactly where everything was, but lacked the ability to say anything. I showed him the map, I showed him the address of the hotel, I even called the hotel with my cell phone to have the operator tell the drive how to get there. But the driver just didn't seem to respond to any of my efforts. The minute when he hung up the phone rudely with the hotel staff, I started to feel that I might be the victim of human trafficking in Vietnam. (too much discussion about human trafficking at work these days)

The car headed toward the opposite direction of my hotel for quite a long time. To give the driver some credit, he actually stopped for about 20 times and asked random people for directions. But every time he stopped, he appeared to be more confused and frustrated, while I contemplated jumping out of the car to escape.

When we finally got back to the hotel, I refused to pay him the amount on the meter, mostly due to my anger and suffering. I asked the hotel's people to talk to him and ended up paying him $2 USD, instead of $6USD. It was only 4 dollars I know, and it was probably a lot of money to him, but I was just too angry and childish to be forgiving and generous. Now that I am calm again, I knew he didn't mean it, and I knew he tried very hard. I should have yelled at him to give him a lesson but still pay him the full amount. Sorry...

On my way back to my room, a hotel manager came and asked me "are you okay?" I felt like giving him a hug to celebrate my survival.

The experience got me into some deep thoughts, especially after I just read about some of the work we do in Vietnam about unemployment due to urbanization. If I can have a heart to heart conversation with this driver, I'd tell him to look for a new career. The map I showed him was actually bilingual, so his learning curve of becoming a successful taxi drive is going to be very steep.

What can I say -- a stubborn and coward tourist getting into the car of a new and stupid driver -- this is just bad luck for the both of us!

PS: I sent some emails to my friends back in SF telling them about my day 1 adventure. David got back and said people missed me. Nirupam told me to be safe, but CZ wrote, "sounds like you are having a great time there, even turning simple street crossings into such an adventure!" Let me say this one more time -- crossing the street is NOT a simple thing here in Hanoi!


Day 1 -- Hanoi -- responding to my friend, the other Alice

Picture taken on my 3rd day in Hanoi.
This touristy act required major level of courage to perform.

In the morning of Jan 16th, I updated my status on facebook while I waited in the security line at SFO -- "Going to Hanoi, Vietnam. Ready to take the extremely wealthy to visit the extremely poor."

Two days later, my world traveler friend Alice commented on my status:
To: Wonderland Alice
Alice commented on your status: "Be careful crossing the streets. =)"

Me responding to her comment:

Dear Alice,

I can't access facebook from here, but I needed to tell you that I was thinking about you during my one hour walk back to the hotel from work today. You weren't kidding!!

I thought I was well trained growing up in Taiwan, but I was wrong. Walking around in the city of Hanoi is just incredible. I came up with a strategy to just wait for other pedestrians to show up and then secretly pretend to be their friend and walk with them. So, thanks to some old ladies, little kids, and school girls, I got back safe and sound. A 20 minute walk took me 60 minutes in the end.... I felt very embarrassed.

One funny thing -- people seemed to be able to immediately tell I am not from here. Motorcyclists, bikers, or random people on the sidewalk said hi to me or asked me questions in various languages. I still can't figure out why. It was not because of my outfit, because I really looked like my colleagues or the other ladies in the same office building. Maybe none of them would actually walk on the streets, and they either ride motorcycles or cars. Maybe it was how I kept a distance from people and took forever to cross any streets.

It is now only 7:30PM. I was a bit terrified from the walk -- the bizarre attention from people, the non-stop honking on the streets and the heavy polluted air, etc. Forget about walking around the city to find dinner and special stores (in an area called the Old Quarter), I am going to hide inside my room, eat some fruits, watch TV, read, and tomorrow I will wake up early to have a big breakfast at the hotel's courtyard.

I know this is not really blending into the local culture, but since I have 7 days here, I am going to take baby steps this time.

Appreciate any more tips about how to survive here and have a good time.



Imagine having to walk from one corner of this picture to another...
Found this photo online. It was worse than this, but you get the idea.

After a super long nap from 8pm to 2am. I woke up and couldn't stop laughing when I read Alice's comment here:

Hi Alice!

The traffic is definitely a culture shock! I always thought Vietnam was up there on the list for crazy traffic, but after surviving the street-crossings in Cairo and some other cities, Vietnam isn't actually so bad!

My personal trick is the same as what you did...I always wait for some locals to cross and stand on the side of them opposite of the oncoming traffic!

For Vietnam, my understanding of street-crossing etiquette is 1) never run and go at a normal pace 2) don't stop suddenly to accommodate oncoming traffic in the middle of crossing 3) walk confidently and traffic will weave around you. I was told when I was in Vietnam that supposedly, you can put on a blindfold and cross the street unscathed because the motorists are judging the distance you are from them and will weave around you, hence, you shouldn't run, which will confuse them. But....easier said than done....because it is so scary!!

I still think sticking with locals is better. :) I also avoid traffic circles!

Also, one option you can do to get around is to negotiate a cycle rickshaw ride so that your driver is navigating the traffic instead of you. But there will be some heart-pounding moments in that ride as well! But the rides are quite cheap and an easy way to get around.

Don't worry- you'll be a pro in street-crossing by the way you leave...and then you will jaywalk and cross the streets like a mad person when you get back here and wonder why people are waiting at traffic lights!

Posted by Alice to In Wonderland at January 18, 2010 10:36 AM


Before & After -- 2009

2009 was a very meaningful year to my career development. I left the financial industry and rejoined the not-for-profit world, as stated in my business school application back in 2004. Friends who had a chance to hang out with me before and after the job switch have noticed some major differences.

Here to share with my dear readers and anyone who is thinking about switching between the for-profit and not-for-profit jobs:

Before & After 2009 --

1. People tell me I look more relaxed in a more lively way. I think maybe it's because I wear very little makeup and very little jewelry now. (I also gained some weight and get to sleep more.)

2. I went from being one of the lowest paid employees in the company, to one of the highest paid employees in the organization. (it's all relative...oh I also donate more now.)

3. I used to work with people's greed and fear (especially true in the banking world); now I work with people's generosity and desire to help others.

4. The major source of pressure in my old job was not making enough money for my employer and my clients; now I am bothered by the fact that people not have basic access to clean air, water, education, freedom, human right, security, etc, because I didn't do a perfect job.

5. In my old job, when I saw imperfections, I suspected they were there by design. In my current job, when I saw imperfections, I suspect negligence.

6. I used to read horoscope predictions whenever I came across them in the magazines. I have stopped reading them since the day I left the financial industry. (don't ask me why, I am just telling you an interesting fact that I didn't discover until now.)

7. I used to stare at the "empty half" of the glass; now I need to develop the wisdom to appreciate the "full half" of the glass.

8. I used to spend all of my time and mind doing work; now I have time to keep this blog and do more!

Please don't take this list too seriously. I definitely over analyzed the situation.

There are no good or bad jobs; there are only well-suited or ill-suited jobs.

Hope you are having a great start of 2010.

PS: Here is where I found these cartoons.