This is the final night of my first international work trip. I’m cushioned in the squishy covers of my king-sized bed in the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel. I can tell you without looking that right outside my window, motorbikes are hurtling in every direction across the streets, driveways, and sidewalks of this city. Waterfalls of fairy lights are strung from buildings, bound to stay up for another month until the end of Tet, the Vietnamese New Year.
I sort of can’t believe I’m in Vietnam, exactly four years after I was last here, with Jared, staying in a hostel around the corner from where I am now. They greeted us with hot lime juice and we climbed the stairs to our narrow room, which was dominated by a carved wooden bed frame. We budgeted, ate at unidentifiable local restaurants, consulted maps on street corners, and mostly traveled by foot.
Tonight, I ordered room service for the third time in three days. I tucked my stack of taxi receipts into an envelope while I loaded my emails, noting with faint annoyance that the power points here don’t have built-in converters like the ones at the Intercontinental in Ho Chi Minh City, or the Park Royal in Singapore earlier this week.
2011 Lauren probably wouldn’t even recognize 2015 Lauren. 2011 Lauren would have had a heart attack at the thought of even opening an in-room dining menu, much less pressing the ‘room service’ button on the phone.
There is a difference, of course; this time I’m here for work. Convenience is more likely to trump exploration, as much as it saddens my soul to admit it. The perks, though – I fully appreciate them. For example, two nights ago my hotel had a pillow menu.
A PILLOW MENU. LIKE ORDERING FOOD EXCEPT WITH PILLOWS.
All this time we have been living in a world where people order pillows that respect their food allergies and get fresh towels delivered to them twice a day. I didn’t order any pillows, because the ones on my bed (all FOUR of them) were more than suitable. Every sleep I’ve had on this trip was like being rolled in fairy dust and nestled in a cloud with a pile of kittens and fawns.
In Singapore, I did take advantage of being in a new city and walked as much as I could when I wasn’t working. The city lived up to its reputation as clean and safe, so I had no qualms about adventuring after dark. I happily walked 8 kilometers in an afternoon, determined to make the most of it.
By the time I reached Ho Chi Minh City a few days later, though, I was flagging. The city immediately exhausted me, despite my fond memories of it. I crossed a few streets to get my groove back, clutching my crossbody purse, ready to elbow anyone in the eye socket if they got too close.
In contrast, Hanoi struck me as quieter. This morning I decided to live on the edge and go for a run on the wild streets of Hanoi. The gym is for chumps, I decided, not solo business adventurers like me! I got instructions from the front desk and easily made my way to Hoan Kiem Lake.
I wasn’t alone; there were people everywhere, most of them elderly Vietnamese in jogging suits doing moves en masse. Music blared, hips wiggled, arms gyrated, all around the lake. The fog lifted as I started my second lap, dodging tiny chihuahuas in jackets, smartly-dressed policemen, and women playing badminton. Feeling high on life, I turned off towards the Opera House, mentally patting myself on the back for getting out into the world and taking full advantage of being here, in Vietnam.
Except I didn’t turn off towards the Opera House. I turned off at a giant KFC which I later realized was only familiar because I’ve seen giant KFCs in passing my whole life. There were shoe shops, corner stores, ladies sweeping their corner of sidewalk, men smoking, and at least six times as many motor vehicles on the road as there had been when I started my run. There was not one Opera House.
I stopped and started at least six times, crossing streets unnecessarily and eliciting blank stares as I tried pronouncing ‘Opera’ in as many ways as I could think of. A motorbike taxi tried to persuade me to use his services by telling me that my destination was ‘very far, at least 3 kilometers.’
“I ran here,” I said, obstinate. “And I have no money.”
Finally I spotted a couple of fresh-faced European boys, backpacks clamped between their ankles, munching on french bread. Just as I’d hoped, they had a map.
“Are you lost?” one of them asked.
“Yes,” I said. “And I’m late!”
If I didn’t get back soon, I was going to have to make a choice between having breakfast and having a post-run shower: my own personal Sophie’s Choice. Fortunately things didn’t get that serious. There, on the edge of the map, was the Opera House – in the exact opposite direction from where I’d been headed.
“There it is,” I cried. “Thank you!”
I took off at an unsustainable speed and tried not to think about what would have happened if I’d followed through with my plan to ‘just go in the direction I thought was right.’
After a day of meetings, a Skype with my husband back in Australia, and a short walk around the French Quarter, I decided that I quite fancied a croque monsieur. I had seen one on the room service menu and gave in to the temptation, figuring that it was the Hilton, after all. The pho I’d had in Ho Chi Minh City had been delicious, so my hopes were high. Still, I felt guilty for having my last dinner in the confines of my hotel room, watching Pocahontas on TV.
When my meal arrived, I lifted the silver cover in anticipation to reveal two pieces of open faced toast layered with a mess of mushrooms and slices of melted cheese that strongly suggested a recent proximity to cellophane. There was zero resemblance to the croque monsieur I’d concocted in my head, and I knew it was my punishment for laziness.
I turned off Pocahontas just as things were getting tense (‘The savages have captured John Smith!’) and went to find myself some pho bo. It took longer than I expected, but I found just what I was looking for in a hole in the wall off a side street. I sat on a low plastic stool and hunched over my bowl, slurping noodles and staring at the TV as if I understood Vietnamese. It would be a fitting end to the story to say that it was the best pho I’d ever eaten, but it wasn’t. At under $3, though, it was a great decision.
I like to think that 2011 Lauren would have approved.