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Too much weekend for just one post

September 21, 2010

I’m experiencing the let down that comes when you return to reality after a wonderful weekend. I knew Hanoi was smoggy, but after spending two days under clear, bright blue skies the white haze seems more profound.

Last week they told us that the pilots and their partners would be going to Ha Long Bay for the weekend. There would be a ceremony to give the pilots their wings, but that was just about all we knew. None of us really cared, though, as long as it meant we were away from the hotel for the weekend.

Saturday morning we loaded onto the bus for a harrowing journey east. Jonathan and I sat in the front seats directly behind the driver in an effort for me to avoid carsickness. Little did we know this would give us a prime view of every bus and car barreling directly toward us, in our lane, narrowly missing us as they overtook a car and squeezed back into their lane. We saw a motorbike with a twin mattress strapped on it like wings, and a person selling loaves of French bread every twenty feet on one stretch of road. It was nice to get away from the city and see green (mostly rice patties.)

We had a wonderful tour guide for the weekend. Her name was Oanh, but she said we could call her Mrs. Paris. Throughout the trip she told us things about Vietnam including the way the families live in houses together, why the houses are built so tall and skinny, the way the rice is grown in the north and the south, why they believe so strongly in the yin and the yang and feng shui, reasons they enjoy and dislike Communism, the varying attitudes in the north and the south, and how they bury their dead. Her English was great and she was witty.

We checked into the HaLong Plaza Hotel around lunchtime. The hotel was very nice by airline standards – a huge lobby full of orchids, friendly staff who treated us like guests, and cold juice during check in. Lunch was in 45 minutes,  then we were free to do as we pleased until the dinner and ceremony that night. So we met in the dining room, hungry and ready for whatever they’d feed us. We are aircrew after all. We have all, at some point, had peanuts for every meal in a day, trail mix for dinner, cold soups, salads without dressing, sandwiches made of bread and jam taken from breakfast. We aren’t used to being spoiled. I expected some kind of buffet at best.

Instead, we were seated at tables with linens and more silverware than most people know what to do with. The staff immediately brought us whatever we wanted to drink – including beer – and our meal began. It wasn’t until after we started getting full on cream of pea soup, Thai style tuna salad with French bread, fried shrimp, and baked oysters that we decided to look at the menu. We all had to loosen our belts a notch to prepare for the remaining six courses! We kept looking at each other in astonishment, at the royal treatment, and a little bit of fear wondering, “If this is lunch what is dinner going to be like?” We managed to plow our way through grilled salmon, grilled beef with black pepper sauce (saving the day for our one pilot who won’t eat anything out of the sea), stir-fried cauliflower, oysters in sour soup, steamed rice, and fresh fruit. We wondered what kind of snack pack all the naysayers back in Atlanta were having for lunch.

And the royal treatment continued throughout the weekend. At dinner we all got dressed up (after having shamed ourselves by wearing casual clothes to such an elegant lunch), and enjoyed the most extensive buffet I have ever seen. The sushi bar alone would have fed all of us. There were the chefs cooking every kind of seafood and meat and chafing dishes that opened when you stood in front of them offering everything from Vietnamese food to spaghetti Bolognese to teriyaki chicken skewers. The dessert table had all sorts of dainty cheesecake and chocolate delights, as well as an array of stinky cheeses and fruits you’ve never heard of.

What a wonderful way to start an adventure!

After dinner there were speeches by the father and son whose company has invested in the airline as well as the director from our side and another Vietnamese gentleman. The father told us that the hotel we were in was their family’s first business venture, so he thought it was very special that they would be celebrating the beginning of the airline where it all began for them. They reiterated how proud they were of all the pilots (and their wives, of course) who had come over, and how important each person was to the company’s success. We have learned how important family is over here, and they welcomed us as family. It was special to be a part of something that recognizes pilots for what they do. I was especially proud to be Mrs. Captain Lewis that night :-).

The other gentleman who spoke (I believe he is one of the VPs, but I can’t confirm that) was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War. I don’t think I can appreciate the unification of our countries like someone who lived during the war, but it’s wonderful hearing the people here speak with fondness toward Americans (and the same thing back home towards Vietnamese.) Mrs. Paris told us that when she asked her grandfather what he thought of Americans he said had no ill will toward us. He said that it wasn’t a war between people; it was a war between governments and they have many American friends. She explained that the Vietnamese are taught in school to forget past wrongs in order to live more peaceful and better lives.

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