Our arrival in Hanoi was.....very "hannoying" as Laurie coined the term. We thought we'd have a car waiting for us and as I looked around for it, a guy asked me if I needed a cab. I said maybe to him but I asked him if he knew where the Golden Sun was (mistake #2). Mistake #1 was not having the address ourselves; the reason we didn't was because we thought we had the car picking us up. Nonetheless, we were ill prepared. The guy told me it would be $10 take us to the hotel, which I knew was a fair deal from an email I had gotten from the golden sun (so at least I thought the guy was making us a decent offer). So after looking for the cab (and not finding it), I went back for Laurie and figured we'd have to take our own cab. Laurie and I walked out of the airport and what did we see but a driver holding up a sign for the Golden Sun; we thought we had our ride. Laurie asked the driver if he was from Haivenu (the travel company my dad was using), and he replied yes. So, we got in. Then he swung into the parking lot and picked up the original guy, but I wasn't 100% sure it was him. That still seemed strange though. They were making nice conversation with us, speaking English pretty well and showing us pictures of their family and explaining some of the Vietnamese customs practiced during Tet. Even though the guy had told me it was $10 for the ride, Laurie wanted me to clarify the price. We thought it should've been free but by this time, we figured this might not be our ride from Haivenu. So I asked him if the ride was free....all of a sudden he didn't speak English. Asia sure can be a funny place. I asked him if he knew the word "free," and he said, "no, no, you pay." This is when I got pissed and Laurie had to take over making the conversation. Our ride ended when they brought us to the Sunflower Hotel. A man quickly greeted us at the door of our car and asked us if we had a reservation. We told him yes and he said, "I'm sorry but your room is full because a man broke his leg and can't leave, so we can take you to another one of our hotels and give you a room there." Nice story he's got there, huh? So I get out and look at the hotel after asking Laurie if it was okay to leave her in the car. She said yes, and I went into the office and four guys were standing around me basically trying to block my view. I looked around and nowhere did it say Golden Sun; they told us this was a partner and owned by the same guy. So I saw a computer a few feet away and told him I would just check my email and see if I could get it straightened out. One of the guys looked at his watch (tell me how this makes any sense?) and told me the internet is not working now. That's when I chuckled and walked out past them. Laurie was already at the trunk telling the driver to give us our bags. We grabbed them and were ready to walk and find another place; this was an obvious scam they were trying to pull on us. The guy wanted to be paid for his mis-deeds and I was going to pay him some amount. He asked for 400,000 Vietnamese Dong, which is about $25. I laughed at him and told him 50,000, to which he laughed at me. Then he says, "fine, 200,000." I laughed again and told him he lied to us, brought us to the wrong place, and his buddy told us 10 bucks to begin with. Laurie was getting visibly agitated by this time and the guy noticed. She walked away very upset and I gave him a look like, "Now look what you did." I shoved a 100,000(about 6 bucks) note in his hand and walked away. We didn't really know where we were headed but a woman then chased us down to offer us a hotel room, and we turned her down quickly. We saw an internet cafe, which was also a hotel, and the guy was nice to us and let us use the internet for free. I looked at a room and we ended up taking it because it was half the price of our reserved room and we were already there and it was pretty nice too. Finally, we were able to unwind from our welcome to Hanoi. It was very "Hanoying."
We were in the old quarter which is bustling and noisy and smells like all kinds of foods which are cooked right on the street. It was extra busy because of Tet, the Chinese Lunar New Year. The motobikes take up most of the sidewalk and cruise down the streets and in between the cars. One has to keep an eye out for them all the time. It was also cold and rainy, colder than we have ever been on this whole trip. But it was neat to see all the Tet decorations and the activity that went along with it, like all the peach trees and mini orange trees that people were transporting on their motos. You wouldn't believe how much people can put on the back of a moto. Those first couple of days we just walked around a bunch and into a little shopping mall where we bought some warm hats and socks and we ate at this funky local place where they made their own liqueurs and the menu was very varied. It included dog, lizard, and all other kinds of fun stuff. I got the fried chicken but it was in some funky sweet and sour sauce and was very tasty.
In a few short days, my Dad and Phoebe met us and we were very comfortable in the Metropole, which is a historic hotel in the French quarter of Hanoi. It's a gorgeous hotel and very unlike any we had stayed at on this trip (and in my life too), so it was a special treat. We also visited many many sights with my dad and the knowledgeable guide(s) who brought us everywhere. It was nice to have the guide(s) because they were so informed on the history, customs, and general directions of the how/where/when to go to each place. 0ur guide in Hanoi, Tuan, was a really nice guy who knew a lot about Ho Chi Minh and the history of his revolution and the war. He took us to his mausoleum the first day we were with my Dad and Phoebe.
The Mausoleum was an interesting place. The reverence shown to him was extremely disciplined yet fierce at the same time. Our cell phones and cameras were taken from us before we walked in. Then, we walked double-file into the Mausoleum along a red carpet. I'll bet the red was for communism, not because they wanted to "roll out the red carpet" for us. It was chilly outside and I put my hands in my pockets to keep warm; immediately, a soldier/guard told me firmly to take my hands out of my pockets. Apparently, that was not allowed. A few moments later, Laurie and I were speaking to each other quietly about our observations; promptly, the next guard motioned to us to be silent while we walked through the mausoleum. They were very strict with us and I doubt it was for security reasons, more just out of respect for their hero. Ho Chi Minh did not want to be embalmed; in fact, he asked to be cremated and given a simple ceremony to reflect the simple life he lead. We learned more about Ho Chi Minh as the trip continued and we learned he was a tactical genius and some saw him as a spirited nationalist. On the premises was his old house wooden stilt house that was very simple and unlike any of the mansions that Russian Communist leaders were living in around the same time. We also saw his simple office and bomb shelter along with the pond and carp he used to feed daily. He trained them to come to him when he clapped his hands by conditioning them with food. This became famous and you can see kids clapping their hands near streams with carp in them.
After seeing Ho's digs, we went into the old quarter to a famous, local, beloved restaurant for a cooking class. Several delectale dishes were prepared for us by the masterful Ahn Tuyet. She made us a fish, a soup, a salad, and spring rolls which we ended up rolling ourselves. Of course, we ate the food once it was cooked, and we rolled some pretty nice spring rolls if I do say so myself.
The next activity on our itinerary was a special item Laurie and I had set up as a Thank you to my Dad. We found it with the help of Phuong, our travel agent in Vietnam, and were very excited to attend. We had found a museum of musical instruments, and the family knew the history and customs of each of the instruments. Ba Pho and his family were experts at countless classical Vietnamese instruments and played several instruments for us from several different provinces in Vietnam. In fact, the father Ba Pho won an award from the Vietnamese gov't in 1985 for designing a unique instrument that can play traditional Vietnamese tunes as well as Western classical music and songs. Actually, we even saw the instrument in several of the hotels and restaurants that were playing live music. They explained to us several of the themes that are found in the traditional songs. Some of them included: the young man expressing his feelings toward young ladies and vice versa, songs about the harvest, songs about the gods, and songs about certain animals.
So Ba Pho and his family played several songs for us and his son Ba Nha (the surname comes first in Vietnam and the given name comes second) is an accomplished musician who was playing music at the age of 8 and who is a professional musician today playing in Italy and other places. He played "Summertime" and another jazz tune, "Autumn leaves," for us on one of the traditional instruments, and it had an interesting sound when he did it. You could tell he was a real musician with a love for music both modern and traditional.
Finally, we attended the famed Water Puppet show. It was okay but seemed like it was more for tourists than something that locals like to do. All of the instruments used at the puppet show were ones we had seen at Ba Pho's museum and we heard many of the same tunes during the 18 different short acts. There were people behind the curtain manipulating these large puppets as the puppeteers stood in the water up to their waist and as the puppets themselves performed some sort of dance across the surface of the water. At the end of the show, we saw the puppeteers come forward to take their applause and they were soaked. Many of the short acts concerned themes including the will of the dragons, love, harvest stories, racing and other leisure activities.
Hanoi started out rocky but by the time we reached Saigon, we had grown a definite appreciation for it. It had a lot of interesting character, with traditional Vietnamese culture intertwining with French colonial and just plain modern Western culture, yet it still retained a very Asian feel overall. Compared with Saigon a couple of weeks later, we see it as a much more pleasing city than the bland Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe we didn't get enough time to get to know HCMC, but it seemed like a standard large city that has become very westernized in a short time. Hanoi had a lot of beauty and character that is unmistakable.