We were really settling in. We felt completely at home in our hotel. The staff were great. Most of them came from small villages in the North, and are extremely honest and nice people. We sat up at night with them and talked about absolutely everything. One of the guys is very interested in business, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if he turns out to be a very wealthy man. He explained to us the intricacies of inventory control. Another is studying Japanese, and plays music. He brought in his guitar, and to my embarrassment, he had me singing Beatles songs. It's a great group of people, and the only person who wasn't nice was the hotel manager, who was rarely there.
Nonetheless, we had been in Hanoi for a while and were running out of things to do. We thought it would be nice to spend a day walking around without an agenda, just looking at people. I wanted to buy a water puppet, and with all the bargaining that you have to do, that could take a substantial part of the day.
We ate breakfast with Duyen's cousin, whom he had contacted during our stay. After breakfast, we took a walk. We went to the market, and took our time walking around the old part of Hanoi. We saw a water puppet, but the man wanted too much money for it. He told us that the margin was very narrow and he couldn't charge any less, so we moved on. Again, we asked after a water puppet at another shop, and this guy wanted a dollar more. We tried to bargain, but he just wouldn't hear of it, so off we went. We spent the rest of the morning walking around, and in a last-ditch attempt to find a water puppet, we stopped in a shop just up the road from the hotel. These people wanted even more for their puppet! After all the bargaining, the price had gone up by 2 dollars. These people in Hanoi are pretty hard-nosed. To put things into perspective, though, I paid 9 dollars for a puppet that had been used in performances, so it wasn't that bad (by Western standards). Nonetheless, I sneaked the puppet into the hotel so that no one would ask me how much I paid for it.
Duyen spent the afternoon with his cousin, I spent the afternoon reading. This was the first time I was by myself, and I thought about how much I appreciated all Duyen had done. I was never left by myself, and he was always translating, helping and showing me things hard work for someone on vacation. Again, if I were traveling alone, or traveling with another Westerner, there is no possibility I would have had the same trip.
In the evening we took out one of the guys from the hotel for dinner. He had been particularly nice, and we wanted to thank him. We went around the corner to a small restaurant that had nem chua and bun bo, both favorites of mine. Nem chua are rolls of meat in banana leaves that have garlic and chili peppers. They taste kind of like salami. Bun bo is rice vermicelli, with beef and peanuts on top that you mix in.
Later that night we went to meet some friends of a friend from work. My friend e-mailed them, and they invited us out. Actually, they had offered to play tour guide and show us around Hanoi, which I thought was incredibly nice, though we would never have thought of imposing like that. We met them at a café.
We had met a lot of people in Hanoi, but to this point, hadn't met any university-educated professionals. One worked at an accounting firm, another worked in an import/export business, and another was starting his own business. Clearly an ambitious person, he told me about his long-range plan. It was a nice café, and the most European-looking place I'd been in since setting foot in Vietnam. With present company, I could very well have been at home. They all have e-mail, mobile phones and travel a lot. Interesting, what a small world it's become.