KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
It seems that the flights from Guangzhou to Hanoi are mostly in the late evening and ours was booked for 9:00 pm on China Southern. We knew we wouldn't be getting into the city until very late so we emailed the hotel where we stayed last November and hoped they had a room for us. We didn't hear anything back from the hotel, but that is not unusual in Asia.
Our flight was one hour late getting away, so we didn't arrive in Vietnam until almost 11:30 pm. We piled into a shared minibus; safety in numbers late at night. We were the only foreigners in the minibus and all the other passengers were dropped off at crossroads in the suburbs and central residential areas. The driver took us to the road where our hotel is located, but all the businesses were closed and shuttered so we didn't even spot the hotel as we drove by. One block further on, I recognized Hoan Kiem Lake, so we got down and walked back to where I knew the hotel to be. The hotel was closed up for the night, but I spotted a doorbell along the side of the metal grate and shortly after I rang the bell, the door started to rise slowly.
We were pretty relieved to see the night manager and find they had a room available. I'm not sure what we would have done at 1:00 am with the whole city locked up tight. We were shown to the room we stayed in a year ago but were disappointed at how the hotel has deteriorated in such a short time, and also to find that the price has risen by fifty percent in the same period. When we were here before there were several couples that had come to Vietnam to adopt orphans, and the hotel provided cribs and strollers for the new parents. The hotel seems to rely on this business and has not made an effort to maintain the rooms. Too bad. We told reception we were leaving the next morning and they didn't seem surprised.
We found a room at another hotel; one we had seen last year that was just about to open. The rooms were beautiful then and the hotel was as lovely as it was before. The standard of service was impeccable and we stayed there for the balance of our time in Hanoi. There was fruit juice served when we checked in and a fresh fruit plate in our room. When we asked about getting a SIM card for our mobile phone, one of the staff members went out and got one for us, installed it in the phone and did the initial set up for us.
I may have mentioned this before, but this is our fifth visit to Vietnam since 2001 and every time we have made sure to visit Hanoi. We love the character of the Old City with the ancient walls and the atmosphere around Hoan Kiem Lake in the evenings and the early morning. We're not sure if it's because we are too familiar with the city now, or whether it's because the traffic has changed so much, but we find ourselves disenchanted with Hanoi and probably won't come back again on our own.
When we first came, we were delighted to see that most people still road bicycles in the city - the mix was probably 60 percent cycles and 40 percent motorbikes with a few private cars. On our third visit, we found the numbers had been reversed and there were a few more automobiles to contend with. Now one has to hunt up and down the narrow streets to find someone riding a bike anywhere. When we mentioned this to the young woman at the travel desk, she said she used to ride a bike to work but now that she has a good job, she was able to buy a motorbike of her own. Prosperity has changed Hanoi and, in some ways, everyone suffers for it. Where once the streets were relatively quiet and pollution free, now the noise of motorbikes is deafening and the exhaust choking. No one can walk on the sidewalks because they have become parking lots for all the motorbikes.
We visited some of our favorite places in the Old City and were delighted to find a wonderful restaurant almost next door to our hotel on Ma May Street. It's located at 69 Ma May, so the owner artfully named it "69 Café". The interior has been restored with open beam ceilings and wooden floors and staircases. The food was delicious and the music soothing.
We made plans to move on from Hanoi to the ancient capital of Vietnam, Hue. On all our previous visits we were rushed and never had time to visit the monuments of the Nguyen Empire. We booked flights on Vietnam Airlines to Hue and then on to Saigon. As we travelled to the airport in the hotel taxi, we talked to the driver and asked him if he made lots of trips each day, back and forth. He showed us his schedule for the day and it was mind-boggling. The hotel is popular, fully booked for the holiday season and he has a tough time coordinating all the arrivals and departures. I was a little alarmed to see him juggling two mobile phones while he was driving on the highway, one in each hand. Thank goodness it was a divided highway and the traffic moved relatively slowly. I can't wait for laws to be passed to outlaw mobiles while driving.
We made it to the airport safely and before long we were in Hue. We were surprised to see the lush vegetation and wet rice fields as we were landing. For the past three months, we have been in China during the driest time of year. We knew we would have to prepare for high humidity and warm temperatures but this is what most people come to Asia for, and we were ready. Bring it on!
I haven't taken many photos this time but if you are interested in seeing my pictures from last year in Hanoi, please visit my journal from Year One. The Hanoi entry is on page 3 (entry number 16). Click here for Kapoors On The Road - Year One.