© 2007 jim Opera House in Hanoi

Off to Hanoi

“I need your help. My name is Mrs. Huong Van Phuong. Please help me find my gate. I am flying on China Airlines Flight 4 from San Francisco to Taipei. I don’t speak English”.

The little old lady sitting next to me is still wearing her name tag, thirteen hours into the flight. It hasn’t seemed to do much good beyond getting her and her husband on the plane. The flight attendants still automatically speak English to them, and I have to tell them the attendant that my seatmates speak no English. After that the Chinese flight attendants immediately give up trying to speak to them and just give them the default “asian” choice of meal, e.g., congee porridge instead of denver omelet for breakfast.

It must be frightening to be traveling like this among people who don’t speak your language. I realize how lucky I am to be an English speaker. I have yet to be on a plane where at least one of the languages spoken by the crew at least wasn’t English. Even on domestic flights in, say, Brazil, the crew will still make announcements in English.

English is ubiquitous if you are traveling to major business or tourist destinations. This isn’t to say that it isn’t difficult to communicate if all you speak is English; in certain restaurants in Vietnam or Mongolia you may have to point at what you want in the menu (usually available in English, however). But I would hate to be, say, a Mongolian traveling overseas with only a knowledge of Mongolian. Or even a Mexican with nothing but Spanish.

On this China Airlines flight the announcements are generally made in English first, then in Chinese. The flight attendants all speak English, at least of the basic conversational variety. It’s fun watching them communicate with some the other asians. Across the aisle from me the flight attendant was helping a Thai or Cambodian woman find her seat. She pointed to the seat and said “Aisle seat here”. The passenger said “You’ll sit there?” It took a couple of rounds for the two pronunciation-challenged ladies to achieve mutual communication.

Later the same flight, I had dinner, read one of the Economist magazines I brought on board, watched “The Simpson’s Movie”, and took an Ambien. It put me out for six of the thirteen hours of the flight, so when I woke up I took another one and slept for another four hours. Bliss, to be able to sleep on the plane!

Landing in Taipei, I go through the usual ritual of deplaning, figuring out where my connection is going to be, and going through security again. Security in most international airports is not up to the usual TSA standards, which means there are no people constantly yelling at you to take off your shoes, take out your laptop, putting your little baggie with the very small bottles in its own tray, all while making sure your boarding pass is visible at all times, etc. Much more civilized. You get to keep your shoes on. The laptop stays in the case. Nobody yells at you.

The terminal in Taipei (at least the one I was connecting in) is kind of small and claustrophobic, with low ceilings and exposed ducts and pipes. The Cuban cigar selection is not stellar; no Montecristo No 2s, unfortunately. I pick up some No 3s instead, hoping they will at least be decent. A couple of bottles of Glenlivet with a free carryon shoulder bag for $60, so I won’t have to drink so much Ha Noi beer when I smoke my cigarsm. Then off to the gate, and Vietnam Airlines flight 995 for Hanoi!

Vietnam Airlines is actually a decent airline. The plane is a brand-new Airbus A321. The service is ..well, a bit communist, in that things are more organized around the convenience of the crew rather than the passenger. Still, they are pleasant enough, and the inflight meal is at least more edible than what I had on China Air (they give you a little squeeze packet of chili paste, which livens up the meal considerably). The plane is full of mostly Vietnamese, which tells you a little something about the prosperity currently underway in Vietnam.

Anyway, it’ time to fill out the arrival documents, so I will go. More blogging from Hanoi later….