Published: April 10th 2009March 14th 2009
Our overnight train trip back from Lao Cai was event free, but again we had considerable hassle getting our boarding passes. After waiting around for over two hours, it came down to Andrew jumping on the back of a motorbike and hunting down the guy who was supposed to deliver them to us at the station. Andrew arrived back at the station with five minutes to spare! Meanwhile back at the station waiting room, I was being entertained by a newlywed Australian couple having a blazing row about whose family paid for what at the wedding…not the most auspicious way to start a life together! Also listening in on the ‘conversation’ (among the hand full of people there who could understand what was going on), were our soon to be train companions - a couple from Auckland who had just completed the exact trip we had just begun, but in reverse. Their excitement about the experiences they had just had was truly infectious.
We arrived at our Hanoi
hotel at 6am and were told that our rooms would not be ready until 12noon even though we had asked for early check-in. We were very very weary from the overnight train
trip, and I suspect we were not the sweetest smelling of beings as we hadn't been able to shower before we got on the train. So we sat in the lobby, used the free internet and watched Vietnamese soap operas with the staff until the girl on the front desk took pity on us and rushed a room through for us at 9am. Hot shower! Now for coffee and baguettes…
On the way to the café we saw a street side restaurant that was packed with locals eating Pho
(noodle soup), so we pulled up two little plastic stools at the communal tables and before we could even order, two too-hot-to-touch bowls of Pho Ga
(noodle soup with chicken) had been plunked down in front of us. Trying to ignore the cats gnawing at the piles of chicken bones as high my shoulder on one side of me, we started eating and it really didn’t take long to finish every last delicious drop of it. It was pure soul food and exactly what we needed after our last 24 hours of travel. We later figured out that the Pho Bo
(noodle soup with beef) place was across the road,
and the fried/bbq meat with rice place was next door to it. Apparently each of these little places only cooks and sells one type of food and as a result they are fabulous at it!
We had decided to undertake a day trip to the Perfume Pagoda today, but really could not summon the energy or motivation for a seven hour return trip, so we spent the rest of the day walking around looking for a laundry, trying out local food stalls and cafés, and napping.
That evening we had the information session for our Reunification Express
Intrepid Trip and met the 12 people and group leader we would spend the next 15 days with. Basically Intrepid Travel organises the transport between places and includes a few activities like orientation tours of towns and admission to one or two ‘must see’ attractions in each town - other than that you are free to do what you like. Neither Andrew nor I have been part of a group trip before and we were not quite sure what to expect. Intrepid Travel is committed to responsible travel, local development of countries they operate in and actively seek to encourage
and support local enterprises… so we had hoped that Intrepid’s ethos would attract likeminded people we would enjoy travelling with.
It is a very mixed group - five Australians (Anya and Rob, Wendy and the two of us), one New Zealander (Kelvin - married to Wendy), four English (Lucy, Lyndsey and Steve, and Neil) and two Germans (Anna and Henny). So far so good. Our local group leader Chinh seems friendly and very organised. After the meeting there was a group dinner on offer at KOTO
, and Andrew and I fought the urge to go back to the old quarter to eat at Green Tangerine
(highly recommended by a few friends). KOTO
was nice but we really should have gone to Green Tangerine
Our first activity as a group involved a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and stilt house, and funnily, this was much more fascinating the second time around and it was also interesting to get a slightly different take on the whole thing from Chinh (who was from Central Vietnam), to our first guide (who was from Hanoi). While we were lining up to walk through Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house, I had the most
random small world experience -I spotted someone who looked vaguely familiar but it wasn’t until later on that we crossed paths again and by a process of elimination we worked out that we had worked in different State offices of ANTA many years ago…its funny when you see someone out of context, in a different country and continent!
We wandered through the old quarter that afternoon and checked out the prices of a few things we want to buy on this trip. The widespread sale of communist memorabilia freaked me out a little. There are genuine old communist posters and war iconology for sale alongside tacky tourist paraphernalia with a yellow star on a red background (north Vietnamese) or a yellow star on a blue background (south Vietnamese). I also find it very ironic that they are happy to put Ho Chi Minh (who is absolutely revered here) on a mug. Speaking of ironic, isn’t an entire industry dedicated to selling communist artefacts the ultimate affirmation of capitalism?
We had lunch at a brilliant restaurant in the old quarter suggested by Chinh - Bia Minh
, the spring rolls were as good as Little Hanoi
’s and half the
price. The service was a bit slow but you got to sit on the second floor balcony and watch the old quarter set a cracking pace below you while you waited...life could be worse.
That evening the group met for a cyclo tour of the city before being taken to a performance of traditional water puppetry. The cyclo tour was just amazing, it was right on dusk and we got to see up close a city transitioning into the evening! Water puppetry is a large part of Hanoi’s cultural history and it is a unique entertainment experience and well worth doing once. The hidden puppeteers who were knee deep on a wet stage told legendary stories of unicorns, tortoises, phoenixes and fire breathing dragons to a packed crowd. Afterwards we went to dinner at Ancient Town
in the old quarter - this place got me hooked on stir fried water spinach with garlic for the rest of the trip. Later most of us went out for a beer at ‘beer corner’, which is an intersection in the old quarter where roadside cafés with tiny plastic stools spill out onto the road on every corner. Andrew has taken a liking to the local brew - bia hoi
, that is freshly brewed and only sold at little stalls on the side of the street… I’ve never been a beer fan, but at only 1000 dong (10 Australian cents) a pop I might yet learn to love draught beer.
Tomorrow we leave for Halong Bay.