A random 25-second video I took with my iPhone of the traffic in Hanoi, Vietnam (sound included).

I just attended the 2019 International Symposium on Robotics Research (ISRR) conference in Vietnam. It was a thrilling and eye-opening experience. I was there to present the robot bed-making paper, but I also wanted to make sure I got a taste of what Vietnam is like, given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I will provide a series of blog posts which describe my experience at ISRR 2019, in a similar manner as I did for UAI 2017 and ICRA 2018.

There are no direct flights from San Francisco to Vietnam; most routes stop at one of the following cities: Seoul, Hong Kong, Taipei, or Singapore. I chose the Seoul route (technically, this means stopping at Incheon International Airport) due to cost and ideal timing. I was fortunate not to pick Hong Kong, given the current protests, and my presence there as a Westerner would definitely not ameliorate the situation.

I arrived in Incheon at 4:00AM and it was nearly deserted. After roaming around a bit to explore the airport, which is regarded as one of the best in the world, I found a food court to eat, and ordered a beef stew dish. When I got it, there was a small side dish that looked like noodles, but had a weird taste. I asked the waitress about the food. She excused herself to bring a phone, which showed the English translation: squid.

Aha! I guess this is how I will start eating food that I would ordinarily not be brave enough to eat.

I used my Google Translate Pro app to tell her “Thank You”. I had already downloaded Google Translate and signed up for the 7 day free trial. That way, I could use the offline translation from English to Korean or English to Vietnamese.

I next realized that I could actually shower at Incheon for free, even as a lowly economy passenger. I showered, and then explored the “resting area” in the international terminal. This is an entire floor with a nap area, lots of desks and charging stations, some small museum-like exhibits, and a “SkyDeck” lounge that anyone (even in economy class) can attend. I should also note that passengers do not need to go through immigration at Incheon if connecting to another international flight. I remember having to go through immigration in Vancouver even though I was only stopping there to go to Brisbane. Keep that in mind in case you are using Incheon airport. It’s a true international hub.

I flew on Asiana Airlines, which is one of the two main airlines from South Korea, with the other being Korean Air. According to some Koreans I know, they are roughly equal in quality, but Korean Air is perhaps slightly better. All the flight attendants I spoke to were fluent in English, as that seems to be a requirement for the job.

As I began to board my flight to Hanoi, I looked through the vast windows of the terminal to see mountains and clouds. The scene looked peaceful. It’s hard to believe that just a few miles north lies North Korea, led by the person who I consider to be the worst modern leader today, Kim Jong Un.

I will never tire of telling people how much I disapprove of Kim Jong Un.

I finally arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam on Saturday October 5. I withdrew some Vietnamese Dong from an ATM, and spoke (in English) with a travel agent to book a taxi to my hotel. We were able to arrange the details for a full round trip. It cost 38 USD, which is a bargain compared to how much a similar driving distance would cost in the United States.

The first thing I noticed after starting the taxi ride was: Vietnam’s traffic!! There were motorcycles galore, brushing up just a few centimeters away from the taxi and other cars on the road. Both car drivers and motorcyclists seemed unfazed at driving so close to each other.

I asked the taxi driver how many years he has been driving. He initially appeared confused by my question, but then responded with: two.

Well, two is better than zero, right?

The taxi driver resumed driving to the hotel, whisking out his smart phone to make a few calls along the way. I also saw a few nearby motorcyclists looking at their smartphones. Uh oh.

And then there is the honking. Wow. By my own estimation, I have been on about 150 total Uber or Lyft rides in my life, and in that single taxi ride to the hotel in Hanoi, I experienced more honks than all those Uber or Lyft rides combined.

I thought, in an only half-joking sense, that if I were in Nguyễn Phú Trọng’s position, the first thing I would do is to strictly enforce traffic laws.

We survived the ride and arrived at the hotel: the Sofitel Legend Metropole, a 5-star luxury hotel with French roots. I was quickly greeted by a wonderful hostess who led me to my room. She spoke flawless English. Along the way, I asked her where Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump had met during their second (and unsuccessful) nuclear summit.

She pointed to the room that we had just walked by, saying that they met there and ate dinner.

I didn’t have much to do that day, as it was approaching late afternoon and I was tired from my travel, so I slept in for a bit. I generally prefer sleeping in early for the first day, since it’s easy to sleep a few extra hours to adjust to a new time zone.

The following day, Sunday October 6, was officially the first day of the conference, but the only event was a welcome reception in the evening (at the hotel). Thus, I explored Hanoi for most of the day. And, apparently I lucked out: despite the stifling heat, there was a parade and celebration happening in the streets. Some may have had to do with the timing of October 10, 2019 as the 65th anniversary of Vietnam’s liberation from French rule.

On the streets, only one local talked to me that day; a boy who looked about twelve years old asked “Do you speak English?” I said yes, but unfortunately the parade in the background meant it was too noisy for me to understand most of the words he was saying, so I politely declined to continue the conversation, and the boy left to find a person nearby who did not look Vietnamese. And there were a lot of us that day. Incidentally, walking across the streets was much easier than usual, because the police had blocked off the roads from traffic. Otherwise, we would have had a nightmare trying to navigate through a stream of incoming motorcyclists, most of whom do not slow down when they see a pedestrian in front of them.

After enough time in the heat, I cooled down by exploring an air-conditioned museum: the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. The museum described the traditional ways of family life in Vietnam, with the obligatory (historical) marriage and family rituals. It also honored Vietnamese women who served in the American War. We, of course, call this the Vietnam War.

I finally attended the Welcome Reception that evening. It was cocktail style, with mostly meat dishes. (Being a vegetarian in Asia — with the exception of India — is insanely difficult.) I spoke with the conference organizers that day, who seemed to already know me. Perhaps it was because Ken Goldberg had mentioned me, or perhaps because I had asked them about some conference details so that I could effectively use a remote captioning system that Berkeley would provide me, as I will discuss in the posts to come.