Vail Daily travel: So long Japan, hello Vietnam
August 7, 2010
Editor’s note: This is the third part in a five-part series about Community Editor Lauren Glendenning’s travels through Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
There was more to see in this awe-inspiring city of Tokyo and plenty of time to be tired later, so we jumped up from a quick nap and headed for the subway station.
We had our hearts set on seeing Shibuya, the part of Tokyo that resembles New York City’s Times Square. It was a pretty good distance away from Nihonbashi yet we got there in about 10 minutes – another reason I fell in love with Tokyo’s subway system.
Shibuya was unbelievable. The main area where the streets all intersect was packed. It was raining and we found it hilarious how just about every single person out of several thousand in this one small area was carrying an umbrella. Even Ryan, whose from rainy Seattle, had never seen so many umbrellas hovering over city streets.
Shibuya was cool. It’s where all the young professionals were – everyone out on the town, enjoying the nightlife and the neon city lights. We spent a couple of hours here, but subways stop running right at midnight in Tokyo – something that was kind of shocking because of the enormity of the city and the need for transport – so we made sure we were back at the station about 10 minutes before midnight to ensure we’d catch our train.
If there’s one thing to admire the Japanese for, it’s their technology. We had one more day to spend in Japan before an early morning flight to Vietnam the next day, so we hopped on a bullet train, or Shinkansen, to see Kyoto.
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The trains aren’t cheap – two round-trip tickets cost about $500 – which was why it was so shocking to see so many of them operating all over the place. The Japanese deal with a ton of population crammed into a small area, so they’ve come up with some of the best ways to get around quickly and efficiently. The bullet trains are some of their best work.
The trains are packed, both with locals and tourists, and it seemed we passed one about every 10 or 15 minutes during the hour and a half trip to Kyoto. With speeds reaching close to 200 miles per hour, these things are furiously fast, yet the ride is as smooth as in a luxury sedan.
Once in Kyoto we realized there was no relief from the crowded streets and sidewalks. Kyoto is Japan’s seventh largest city, but those rankings don’t really matter when all you see are people everywhere, yet still everything is spotlessly clean all over the city.
This city is full of beautiful gardens, pagodas, temples and landscapes. One absolute must-see is the Sanjusangendo Temple, a 12th Century temple with 1,001 human-sized figures of Buddhist gods. The surrounding gardens are the highlights of this temple.
With only a day in Kyoto, we know we missed seeing so many sights and getting a true feel for the people in this ancient city. What we did find there is a confirmation that the Japanese people are a civilized people, full of warmth and compassion. They value family and seem eager to help each other out, including a couple of Americans just trying to navigate their way through the excitement of it all.
I can’t imagine a place that actually could have prepared me for Vietnam, but Japan certainly wasn’t it. We flew from Tokyo to Hanoi on Japan Airlines, and as the plane descended for the landing, I had a bird’s eye view of the world we were about to enter.
I saw farm country, run-down homes and scooters from above, but not even that view was enough to prepare me for being on the ground.
Taxi drivers immediately began hassling us in the airport for rides into town. The center of town is about 30 miles away, but it takes about an hour to get there. We negotiated a $12 ride and we were off to battle the chaos on Vietnam’s streets.
Traffic was everywhere and we were just thankful to be in a car and not on a scooter or motorbike. The scooters surrounded us, many of them with three, four and five people riding together on one scooter. We saw entire families riding along, with mothers carrying infants wrapped in blankets. Everyone wore masks to protect themselves from breathing in the bad air, but we saw no helmets.
And passing lanes don’t exist, nor do regular lanes really. Drivers just simply honk their horns and drive wherever they feel like. The experience is exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
Just as the airplane view couldn’t prepare us for what was next, neither could the cab ride. Before we knew it we were getting out in Hanoi’s Old French Quarter, just left there on the side of the street to navigate our way through this hectic place.
Hotel operators, just like the cabbies, were all over us trying to get us to book a room. We looked at one, about six flights up a narrow staircase, that smelled of urine. It was $15 a night, but should have been more like $3. No thanks.
We pressed on, walking around and quickly realizing we should stop somewhere and have a beer. We found a little corner cafe where a few other travelers were hanging out, sat down in the plastic, kid-sized chairs on the street corner and had our first Bia Hanoi, the Hanoi-brewed local beer.
We chatted with an Australian man who had been in town for a couple of weeks and gave us some pointers, including a very important tip on crossing the streets in front of the thousands of scooters that never seem to stop coming at you from all directions.
“Just walk out real slowly, and they’ll go around you,” he said.
Luckily, he was right.
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.