Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Goldring Travel's AMAWaterways' AmaLotus - Vietnam, Cambodia and The Mekong River Cruise- Part V (Getting There & Day 1: Hanoi)

OK, it wasn't so bad.  Our flights from Newark, New Jersey to Ha Noi, Vietnam went flawlessly as did my plan for a break in London.  We are now comfortably in our hotel, the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi.

Our first flight on United to London was fine.  Plenty of legroom in our bulkhead seats with an early arrival at 7:00 a.m. 

We then went to the No. 1 Heathrow Lounge which was  great idea.  We had a light snack and a cappuccino before retiring for two hours to our airside bedrooms which included bunk beds, a large shower/toilet room, a desk and television.  We immediately fell asleep and before we knew it the phone was ringing giving us our 15 minute warning that time was up.  I hopped in the shower and felt fully refreshed.  My family took the extra 15 minutes to sleep and took showers in the complimentary shower rooms before heading off to our next flight.

Thai Airlines really impressed me.  Plenty of smiles, legroom, comfortable seats, an excellent chicken curry or fish dinner, great movie selection and lots of snacks and complimentary drinks for our 11.5 hour flight to Bangkok. After a short layover it was our final flight to Ha Noi.  (I figure I should spell it as the Vietnamese do, right?)

(I do have to say that with the layover in London giving us a sleep, a shower and a change of clothes and some pretty good seating on the flights, between the time change and just the hours in the air, I am not sure that business class would have made much of a difference.  Smart traveling sometimes is just as good if not better.)

We arrived and as we were disembarking the plane the gentleman in front of us commented to my son that nothing happens quickly in Vietnam, so don't be in a rush.  We immediately learned this to be true as we headed to the Visas on Arrival window...and were ushered to a second window down the hall to turn our pre-approval papers in so that we could go back to the first window and wait.  With only two people in front of us we figured, "This will be quick." Wrong!

It seems that pre-approval or not, the visas and passports are not processed in any particular order.  There is nothing to be offended by, as everyone is nice, but just a bit under-inspired and more concerned with the paperwork than efficiency.  So as we all chatted in line, which became a sort of disorganized group as everyone made way for this person or that...making a line irrelevant, we got into the proper mindset.

Visas in hand we headed to Passport Control.  Again, very nice officer taking his time with lots of paperwork (while this assistant was asleep in the chair next to him), but it was all fine.

AND ALL OF OUR LUGGAGE MADE IT!  I could get use to this.

Taxis are plentiful and our guide, er' driver, gave us a very good tour of both the city and some of the cultural changes since 1920, 1945, 1975 and the 1990's.  My first impression - having really seen only the roads from the airport to the city - is that a day to arrive and a day to see the city is enough...and that is what is planned.



We were pleasantly greeted at our hotel by very friendly staff.  Both of our rooms were ready for our arrival.  Yes!  Our children have a Deluxe room which is quite nice, but we were upgraded to a Luxury Room which has lots of space, two comfortable chairs, a desk, and very large marble bathroom.


It was then time to head out for a bite to eat.  Just a few blocks away is a hugely popular place for pho (pronounced "fa'), the staple rice noodle soup, called Pho 24. 

Our walk to Pho 24 was our first chance to navigate the infamous Ha Noi traffic.  During our hour drive from the airport I notice that there is more of a ballet to the motorcycle chaos rather than aggressive driving.  The key, it seems, is that nobody stops (though traffic lights are generally obeyed), but rather they guide themselves around you like a school of fish.  So between finding crosswalks, watching the flow of the traffic and making sure the drivers see you, crossing the streets (so far) hasn't been too challenging.  (Then, again, coming from the New York area and having dealt with traffic in Turkey and Italy, I may just have a bit of an edge.)

During our walk to the restaurant we saw Hoan Kiem Lake from a bit of a distance.  Once you get around the motorcycles and look, it is quite pretty.  I will try to get back there again for a closer look.



We arrived at Pho 24 which, to be honest, underwhelmed me when I first saw this mecca for pho.  It is nothing more than a small shop with branches throughout Southeast Asia.  (There are something like 57 of these shops in Ho Chi Min City, but this is "the" one in Ha Noi.) 


We are seated at a simple long table and given some worn out menus with a various pho offerings.  My son and I, of course, went with the Pho All...which contains well all of the good stuff to which we added the appropriate condiments (discussed in my earlier article) and I complimented with a Tiger beer.  Our children had sort of fruit puree drinks:  apple and watermelon. What a great lunch!


As we finished our lunch and walked outside the skies opened and the rain and thunder was incredible.  Trying to stay marginally dry (fuggedaboudit) we, absolutely soaking wet...with our travel umbrellas safely in our luggage...arrived back at the hotel after a good meal and a great laugh.

We are off to a great start!  Now let's see what happens tonight. 

Our AmaWaterway's experience starts tomorrow according to the detailed itinerary which was presented to us when we arrived.