"Hanoi, capital, from 1976, of Vietnam; capital, 1954¨C76, of North Vietnam; and former capital of French Indochina. The city is situated in northern Vietnam on the western bank of the Red River, about 85 miles (140 km) inland from the South China Sea. Area : 921 km2. Population : 2.672.122"
What a crazy bustling place Hanoi turned out to be! After a delayed flight from Bangkok on Air Asia we arrived to a cloudy, dull Hanoi airport. OUr transfer was ready and waiting. We experienced none of the taxi hassles at the airport that all the guide books/webs reviews had warned about, so that was a relief but not, unfortunately, portentious of things to come... The trip into central Hanoi introduced us to Vietnamese driving - oh crikey! It was hair-raising (especially since our travel insurance was yet to be confirmed...oops). Our driver was obviously in a hurry and used his horn to move everyone out of his way, bikes, carts, motorbikes, cars, people...you name it. Many, many interesting sights along the way, its amazing what these small people can fit onto a bike! We passed a couple of motorbikes that had dead pigs flopped over the back seat, they jiggled around and looked sickeningly like dead people from a distance!! Then another driver had around 6 crates of eggs perched on the back of his wavering bike...we saw crates of live chickens (not very humanely kept unfortunately), a sofa and what was to the first of many bikes carrying whole familes (up to 5 people!).
We drove into Hanoi which was crowded, bustling, noisy... Our hotel, the Camellia 2, was in the Old Quarter. Nice and clean and the Delux was a steal at $20 per night. However, it was at the top of 5 flights of stairs which definitely tested the ole calf muscles! The room had a balcony overlooking the street, where we were able to take pictures of people without the hassle of paying everyone!! It was fascinating to watch and very noisy. Unfortunately, we discovered that there was a dance hall across the road that played thumping music from 10am-10pm...only could happen to us!
We unpacked, showered and set off for a wander. The streets were small, winding and packed with motorbikes, bikes, cyclos and people with a large pole on one shoulder that had baskets at each end carrying a myriad of produce. This is where we first realised that all our forays on foot would be accommpanied by constant hassling for money - "you buy from me...you ride cyclo...where you from...what's your name...you buy from me and my friend...you need hotel...helloooooo...woo-hoo...woo-hoo!" Aarrrgghhh! We handled it with great patience the first evening, this was not to continue as the trip progressed.
We had our first Vietnamese meal in a Cafe above Highland Coffee on a main intersection near the lake. From there we were able to watch the world go by and see the extraordinary driving 'skills' below! There is also an art to crossing roads here which requires not a small amount of guts to attempt for the first time. Basically you find a gap in the traffic and you just walk slowly across...allowing all traffic to drive around you, infront of you, behind you...and strangely enough, not INTO you. After the first couple of tries you get very used to it. Oh, and I think this only works because around 90% of the traffic is on 2 wheels - and the few cars/buses there are really mess up the whole system.
We also got used to walking in the road as most pavements are filled with parked bikes, produce, merchandise spilling over from shops, people sitting on wee upturned crates chatting, eating, etc. After dinner we walked some more and ended up walking around Hoan Kiem Lake. It was a welcome relief as, mostly filled with recreational locals, we were left to ourselves and were able to stop constantly saying "no thank you...no really...no thank you...I said NO!" There were many benches lining the lake's edge and, in the moonlight, we could see that the majority of them were filled by couples. Young lovers with their motorbikes parked up beside them, whispering and chatting. It was very sweet. Also, many families were gathered, eating, chatting, kids playing, people out exercising (quite a few power walkers!). Lake Hoan Kiem or the Lake of the Restored Sword, is located in the heart of Hanoi, just south of the District of the 36 Guilds. The lake takes its name from a legend involving the Emperor Le Loi who celebrated his defeat of the Chinese by a nautical gala. He appeared at the helm of his ship, holding the magic sword which had given him the victory when a giant tortoise grabbed the sword. Since the sword had done its duty--freeing the Vietnamese from the Chinese, the Emperor named the lake after this event...or so the story goes...
Finally we ended up in a cafe, Cafe Lam, that the receptionist had recommended. It was full of locals and, to give them their due, they only looked up and stared once and then they left us to ourselves. We sat on tiny plastic stools (made for 4 year olds I reckon) around a wee table where they served us our first Vietnamese coffee. We watched as the 'Barista' boiled up what looked like tar in a wee metal saucepan with a lid, over a gas hob. She then put what looked to be condensed/sweetened milk in the bottom of a cup and poured the tar in. The result was a surprisingly sweet/chocolatey drink that completely blew your socks off caffine-wise. We were still buzzing 3 hours later! However, we did sleep well that night, slumbered to the sounds of shouting, horns beeping, thumping music, etc. When I awoke to make a bathroom visit at 3am, the place was finally silent...
We decided to set off to learn a little more about the country we were visiting. So, we started with what seemed like a logical choice - The History Museum. It was a bit of a walk but an interesting one. The Museum, although very well done, was rather a waste of time as nothing was written in English...only the home language and French and unfortunately my schoolgirl french was not up to the task! So, we called it quits and toddled off for lunch at a local French cafe, we had some lovely Vietnamese stir fry but had to eat quickly as the place filled up with lots of ciggarette smokers, and with no fans or air con this got very smoky!
Then a walk back to the Museum area and a trip to the Revolutionary Museum...some blurb:
"The Museum of Vietnamese Revolution houses photos that document the country's various struggles for independence and the history of the Communist Party. Aside from capturing revolutionary moments, the images, which date from 1858 to the present, provide a glimpse of the changing rhythm of Vietnamese streets spanning across three centuries. The objects on display offer a multi-dimensional insight. Some of the more original artifacts include a 1920s jar that stored revolutionary documents, a Japanese Buddhist drum used to rally support for the Party in the 1960s and Vietnam's first sewing machine." This museum was far more interesting - alot more english translations and plenty of visual stimuli to back up the story. Obviously this is the story of Vietnam's Communist struggles and the war in Vietnam from the Communist Party's point of view and so it had to be taken with a pinch of salt...i.e no mention at all as to their murdering lawyers, teachers, educated folks... Anyhoo, it was very interesting, and free!
Then, because we couldn't face the hot walk we took our first ride in a Cyclo! This is the funny wee seat being pushed along by a guy with a bicycle! Poor bloke, had to contend with us two hefty westerners! It was fun to be in amongst the traffic and also to be able to get around without having people constantly trying to follow us, sell us stuff, etc. YOu'll be glad to know we reached our hotel in one piece andit only cost around 1.60GBP.
That evening we had drinks at the Cafe de Paris across the road from the hotel. I found it served some very nice French red wine and so relaxed with a small glass. We then took a Cyclo and visited St Joseph's Cathedral, a very pretty Catholic church (the country is Buddaist/Catholic) where solitary worshippers mutter prayers in song which was then taken up by the rest of the worshippers...kind of like singing a 'round'...and all in Vietnamese.
We retired for more drinks to Le Salsa where we sat on the balcony, had a few drinks and watched darkness grow on the Cathedral. We chatted to a lovely waitress who spoke very good English and whom laughed alot when trying to teach us to say 'hello' and 'thank you' in her language! As evening fell, the church bells pealed out... We left for dinner at Highland Coffee...rather a Vietnamese 'Starbucks'!
Today was rather a chore day, sourcing prices for a couple of trips and doing some washing. We booked a 4 day, 4 night trip to Sapa for tomorrow and a 2 day, 1 night cruise on a boat in Halong Bay. A brief lunch in a rather forgetable restaurant and an afternoon of hiding in our AC room (hot outside), but not until after Paul had managed to fall fowl of a wee fruit selling girl! We're merrily walking along, saying alot of 'no thank yous' as we went until, a girl of around 22 came towards us. She wore the traditional cone hat and was carrying on one shoulder a long pole with baskets hanging from each end. She asked if we wanted a photo, I immediately said the usual 'no' and carried on. Paul though, had a happy tourist moment and said, 'oo yes'. I didn't have a good feeling about this... So after taking a picture of him wearing the hat and carrying the pole, Paul handed the girl 20,000VND...basically a good bit of money for doing nothing. Immediately though she barked back 'no, 50,000' - which turned out to be the magic number that EVERYONE wants from you around here, for even the smallest service or just cause you're rich and they want you to give them money! Its alot of money for them so we shook our heads and stuck to 20,000...she then proceeded to become an Oscar nominated actress and pretended to cry, wail, screw her face up and wring her hands. Crikey - I looked hurridly around thinking she might have friends that would rush to her aid and we'd be in BIG trouble but no, this turned out to be a very normal way of getting tourists to part with their cash. Paul looked at me and I said 'told you so' which obviously wasn't hugely helpful of me but sometimes you just gotta say it! Anyhoo, we got away with just giving her the 20,000 and she slunk off bemoaning her free money...let this be a lesson to you all...
In the evening we visited the Water Puppetry Show... Water Puppetry is a traditional part of North Vietnamese life which depicts scenes from rural life and the country's history (both mythical and real). It is performed using a pond/pool as a stage, with the puppeteers (hidden behind a screen) controlling their charges with rods, wires and string submerged below the surface of the water. Blurb: "Since the eleventh century, this unique cultural offering has been kept a guarded treasure of a few families along the Red River Delta. The art evolved in the delta villages around Hanoi long before it was introduced to the court there more than 800 years ago. A stele in 1121 records that a water puppet show was staged for the king's birthday party. Few other than those who lived nearby ever saw these performances. Water puppetry remained a strictly local entertainment, with shows usually performed after the spring harvest or at special celebrations like an important wedding. At these shows, villagers first paid homage to the spirits, thanked them for the harvest and then sat back to enjoy the show." The show was really very interesting and all the children in the audience loved it. The music was very traditional and provided by a small band playing a range of strange instruments. The puppets were colourful and effective, the jumping fish had all the movements of a live fish...very clever.
Off for 2for1 drinks in a lovely bar (I-Box) - playing jazz music and very plush. Then, because we couldn't help ourselves (and because it was our last night in Hanoi), we went for a rather extravagant dinner (well on our budget anyway) at Bobby Chinn's Restaurant (http://www.bobbychinn.com/en/home.htm). The place is lush red and our photos are a little odd!! The menu was very amusingly written (intentionally for a change) and we had gorgeous food and drink, great music playing and a very relaxed atmosphere compared to the chaos of Hanoi outside. It just had to be done...just to calm our nerves...I could have stayed there all night...yummm....
We ended the evening with cake and ice-cream that we hadn't ordered, in a cafe by the lake. You have to watch what you order here cause they usually don't understand and then they get really annoyed with you and rudely thrust whatever dish they brought you in your face and flounce off...ho hummm...the setting was nice though...