Published: September 18th 2007September 5th 2007
His image is on every note...
turned out to be a pleasant surprise after seeing it in the gloomy, drizzly, dark hours of the night before. We arrived in the city at a brain numbing 3am and found ALL the hotels in the old quarter shut with shutters down. Gates were rattled, bells were pressed and the best we got was "Hotel is full, sorry". We did this aimlessly with the half hearted taxi driver for a few streets and finally reached a bright little sign in the gayest purplePrince II Hotel
. Although again being told 'full', the young gentlemen squinted at us, bleary eyed, and finally said there was a room on the 6th floor - A climb vs sharing the pavement with some lone motorbikes led us to a quick decision. We needed the exercise at 3am anyway! By the time we peeled our eyelids open, the sun was sitting direct overhead and the chatter and clatter from the streets below drifted over the double glazing beckoning to us. The Old Quarter
is a maze of narrow merchant streets jammed with motorbikes, a few cars, pedestrians, cyclos (peddle powered armchair transport,) and street sellers wearing their characteristic conicle straw hats riding bicycles or carrying
A warm welcome to Vietnam from the border guard
Kevin Keagan we are sure you have a second job doubling up as a border guard - this guy was the spitting image of you!
their wares in two shallow baskets balanced between a bamboo stick on one shoulder. This place's quaint, busy vibe is ADDICTIVE! We quickly learnt that pavements in the old quarter, or pretty much anywhere in Hanoi, are not built for the pedestrian. It is built to accommodate the gazillion 2-wheelers they have for the near 4 million strong population. Its a real Vespa's delight! We also quickly acquired the art of crossing the roads - these are no ordinary Malaysian roads where a quick dash would do the trick. Keeping your eye on the road and the wheel that is zooming towards you, just stroll forward but without hesitation and the once treacherous wheels bearing down on you just drift away, like magic! It was a mini, new-world version of Moses parting the Red Sea for safe passage. (BTW we are not to be held accountable for the advice we impart as any action is taken to be personal choice.)
Constantly bombarded with offers of service or sale, these can largely be averted with a smile and a shake of the head.
Punctuated with the odd rain storm, we took our time to wander around the streets of
Chicks on bikes...
Traffic lights on red at a Hanoi junction....
the old quarter. There is a real structure that belies the higgeldy piggeldy shop front displays. The streets are basically demarcated by the wares that are being sold. From the pots and pans in steel street to the snake-drowned-in-wine-good-for-your-health potion in herb and medicine street, to the multi-coloured soft toys and fake flowers, a wander around takes you through a combination of uniquely vietnamese, tinged with chinese influence (Bao Gong statues and electric candle sticks) and a definite western penetration. One guesses that its only the DVD shops that feel a bit homeless as they are scattered sporadically about. Hang Thiec is Tin street for example.
A visit to Memorial House
on Ma May street is a nice little detour. Although not as pretty as other re-dos of old living spaces, you have all the time to chat to the nice ladies that work there. Hoan Kiem lake
area is another place we throughly enjoyed. During the day, office workers, photographers servicing the Vietnamese tourist industry and lovers can be seen strolling under the welcome shade of the willows. A visit to the Ngoc Son temple on an island in the lake is an odd contrast between the old
Balloon seller, Hanoi
We had great fun with these guys selling balloons to passing motorists.
and the new and if the legend is to be believed, that monster turtle's offspring should be still blessing Hanoi. We did stop by one of the evenings staring at the glittering water, glowing like yellow diamonds from the sun rays, hoping a gigantic turtle face would emerge but like Nessie, it likes its privacy. At night, the whole place is beautifully lit up and serenely quiet but most tourists emerging from the water puppet show
in Thang Long theatre had their noses buried too deeply into the cheap 'Good Morning Vietnam' t-shirts and fake Lowe Alpine bags on the pavement to notice. The water puppet show went down very very well with us, tickling the inner child in us blue and red from the pure joy that this ancient performance provided.
By the St Joseph's catherdral are a few foot massage places that are worth the money. Hidden in between these shops is one that specialises in hand-made silk hair clips. Not cheap but pretty as a pea and very hard to resist! San had to buy some on the excuse that she knows some kids who would love it (one of them being herself). A visit to
Snake wine anyone?
All sorts of weird concoctions are present on herb street.
the city's ex-prison machine-gunned us with the first round of pro-viet cong/ Vietnamese communism greatness messages which shifted from the hardship of the incarcerated freedom fighters to the magnamity shown to captured Amercian fighter pilots held there in the 70's. They were allowed to play cards and ping pong and prepare meals of chicken. It however doesn't have the history nor does it capture the hardship of struggle as well as Robben Island in South Africa but if you have the time, it good to pop in to see whats left of the original prison walls. Perhaps a better reason to be in the area is to head to Moca Caphe
(14-16 Nha Tho street) for a nice cuppa. They do a very refreshing prawn lotus root salad which we tucked into as we sat around waiting out a big rain storm. We could not visit the city and not visit the Vietnamese ulitmate pilgrimage destination - the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
complex. The site of our next dose of the the communism dream, the ability to embalm worthy leaders and build a massive tomb for all to come and pay their respects regardless of their funeral requests (Ho Chi
Walking street seller....
These ladies walk around selling fruit and veg from their baskets.
Min requested to be cremated). We shuffled obediently through the darkened hallway and filed past the plastic looking uncle Ho on display in complete muted silence. Any chatting or hands in the pocket would be quickly put right by the guards in their spotless white uniforms holding up neatly gloved hands stationed within. The whole area not only consists of this white elephant structure, it also contains the bright yellow presidential palace, Uncle Ho's stilted house and work areas, the cute one pillar pagoda and the Past and future museum. Message after message were bazooka'ed into us about the virtues of communism, the great progress and triumph over bourgeois behaviour such as laziness, self-indulgence and capitalism. Our brains were pretty numbed out by the time we left only to be confronted with the opposing extreme of the political philosophy spectrum: taxi drivers trying to get the most out of unsuspecting tourists, people touting their wares and young ladies having nail art done in one of the many salons dotted around. We were a little glad that we were rushed through the musuem as it was closing for lunch time as any more detail of the glory of achievements of communism
Bridge across to Ngoc Son temple
situated on a little island in Hoan Kiem lake at the heart of the old quarter
and the revolution could have led to a brain matter meltdown. Somewhat wearily, we trudged out of town a few kilometers toward Ho Tay lake
to take a look at the Quan Thanh pagoda and Tay Ho pagoda set in its relaxing gardens. After all this, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the Temple of Literature
on the final day. The compound built and furthered by three of Vietnam's kings as a tribute to Confusious, his disciples and parents and as a seat of learning and examination for the scholars of the day. Built as a series of progressive courtyards entranced with a large gateway it is extremely well kept with adequate information posters in Viet, English and French.
A few other helpful traveller tips are:
* We found the most competitive places to change money were the jewellery shops not the banks. One place with particularly good rates was Quang Huy, Gems and Jewellery, 130 Hang Bac. The propriator mentioned that many Malaysian and Bruneians living locally change with him - must be the best rate then!
* A write-up on Hanoi would not be complete without a mention of the food. Throughout our time here
Ly Thai To monument, Hanoi
the defender of Vietnam during a few big wars
we sampled many different eateries from street stalls to posh gormet Vietnamese restaurants. Most memorable were 69 bar-restaurant
where the clay pot caramelised pork was to die for, Little Hanoi (1) was value for money with sizable portions of quality food and Brother's Cafe where the evening buffet for 12$ a head is well enjoyable (but very touristy so if you have an aversion, keep away!).
We throughly enjoyed our 6 days here and were sad to have to move on.
Sapa, North West Vietnam
We headed North on the train with our prebooked tickets apprehensive of the fact that Hanoi had independence day celebrations starting on the 2nd September where half of Hanoi was predicted to be in Sapa for their holidays. We left the train bleary eyed at 5.10am on the Friday morning and fell into a minibus that was to take us the 1+ hour up to Sapa. On arrival it started to rain and so Rich took the brolly and checked out accommodation availability and price, while San waited in the dry with the bags. 10 rooms later we were just about to settle on a 8$ room when a young girl, Ha, convinced us
to take a look at her guest house a 2 minute walk further down the road (Family Guest House
). And so we landed a nice clean room with hot shower and a balcony view to die for for 7$ per night for the next 5 nights. Every hour of the day, the views would change like a kaleidoscope. One moment, it would be completely shrouded by mist, the next, a layer of cloud like a ruler would slice the mountains in half horizontally, itself glowing like a golden sword as the setting sun highlighted the edge of the blade. (As you can tell, we spent a lot of them holed up in that room as we tooks turns in recovering from different ailments, Richy witha Chest cold and San with the reoccurring bad tum... not a bad place to be suffering from either!)
That first day we mulled around town talking to the myriads of girls and women from various local tribes that come down from their villages to sell everything from beautiful hand-stitched garmentware to licorice sticks. We fell into the trap of purchasing a little hand sewn piece and before you know it, kids and adults appear
Or water buffalo, or puppies or pigs, ducks or chickens..... take your pick, name your price at Bac Ha market
from no where like a swarm of bees, incessantly buzzing away in oddly American accents "You buy from me, you buy from me". We made a breakaway into one of the coffee shops near the lake for some wok fried green veggies, barbeque suckling pig and rice and after the super early start and broken sleep the night before we were ready for a nap. In the evening we treated ourselves to a bottle of wine with a simple but overpriced Italian meal in Delta Restuarant
(the link leads to more places to eat in Sapa).
Due to the heavy chest cold, Rich was unable to make the trip to Bac Ha
market town 1 hour and a half across the valley from Sapa. Since there was no refund for our booking San left him in bed to recover while she utilised at least of what we were committed to pay, stomach runs and all. Going on an organised trip during travels is a great way of meeting people that you would otherwise not come across in the random cofeeshop. It was a mixed bag of nationalities ranging from Canadian and French Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Malaysian and an Isreali. It
Big Grin at the border
The guys San met on the Bac Ha trip
made the sojourn more memorable to be able to seek out different insights of the vietnamese who now call other countries home and also have others more excited than I have ever seen to talk to them about travelling for 13 months. Bac Ha market is a real market that is parading as a tourist place. Stalls offer anything from the usual tourist gimmicky souverniors to herbd, backyard vegetables and puppies, pigs, ducks and chickens. One can even try out the local toddy for 5000 kip a pop. interesting part is the horse and bull trade that goes on there every Sunday, regardless of the weather. Men squat by the bankside looking at the horses as they are led along the riverside and on occassion, a negotiation would occur. More likely it is the one area that the men can exchange the weeks news without the women around!
After returning from this evenful outing, it was San's turn to fall pretty ill and as Richy finally surfaced from the dead nursing his bad cough, San stayed in. back this time. Rich took a slow steady walk to the villages of Cat Cat 3km away and 3km further to Sin
Just checking if its still there!
All should follow the environmentally friendly diaper.. the bare bum! Gets the kids quickly toilet trained as well!!!
Chao and the beautiful rice growing valley where it lay.Wednesday with both now better we left on the 7am ish minibus to Lao Cai and crossed the border to China.....
There are more photos below