Day 33: Beware of the Banana Lady

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Asia » Vietnam » Red River Delta » Hanoi
November 16th 2009
Published: November 22nd 2009
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The chinese temple in Hoan Kiem lake.
We really, really want to like Hanoi. It has all the right ingredients: an exotic location, a fascinating history, several quirky sight-seeing options, proximity to mountains with rich hilltribe cultures and bays with outstanding views, French-influenced cuisine and architecture, beautiful parks, and a lot of energy.

Despite those attributes we can safely say that we are not big fans of Hanoi. It's not so much the dirt or the chaotic traffic or even the lack of reliable public transit options. We're sad to say that we don't really like the people. To be more specific: we don't like the people with whom tourists have to interact with the most - the taxi, tuk-tuk and motorcycle drivers and the vendors on the street. We're getting the feeling that many locals look for ways to cheat or steal from tourists (our guidebook and our hotel manager have warned us to keep a close eye on all of our valuables at all times). Our hotel and restaurant experiences have been ok thus far but not nearly as good as our experiences in Laos and Cambodia. Ok....enough complaining.

The weather is a cloudy again today with a projected high around 60F. The locals

Ngoc San Pagoda near the southern end of Hoan Kiem lake.
are bundled up in scarves and knit hats. This morning we went in search of a cafe that serves both great coffee and great pastries. We didn't find one. The closest that we got was a cafe that had stale muffins and Vietnamese coffee, which is very strong coffee mixed with the sweetest, most viscous condensed milk you can imagine (it doesn't even move when you turn the jar upside down - you have to coax it out with a spoon). It tastes fine but it wasn't what we were hoping for.

Tonight we'll be traveling on an overnight train to Sapa. Since we booked this tour through our hotel, they've allowed us to check out at 1pm today and to store our bags. Since we have this option, and since it's raining lighty, we take advantage of having the room for a few more hours to read and check email. Around 12:30pm, we're drawn again to the delicious bun bo, feeling (but not looking) like regulars at this point. Even better than yesterday. We're smitten.

After lunch we strolled down to Hoan Kiem lake. It's a very pretty little oasis in the middle of Hanoi encircled by

Bamboo street in the Old Quarter
a large, broad sidewalk (no motorcycles driving or parked on it!). The path around the lake is a popular jogging route - about a 1 mile loop. The path is lined with wonderful old trees. Apparently Hoan Kiem lake is a great place to visit in the morning to practice tai chi with the locals.

We walked across the red Bridge of the Rising Sun to the small but pretty Chinese temple that sits on an island in the lake. For a predominantly Buddhist country, we think it's unusual that we've seen a few temples and no monks. The temples that we have seen are tiny and almost hidden out of sight on busy streets. The locals do have their own version of the Lao spirit houses, however. The locals construct little altars in their homes and businesses. The spirit in our hotel apparently enjoys incense and Choco cakes.

Next we walked down the east side of the lake to the post office/shipping area. Over the past 6-7 weeks, we've accumulated some little treasures that we'd like to send home. We hoped that Vietnam's postal service would be more reliable than Laos' postal service. Apparently we were wrong.

Our cabin on the train. Much Much nicer than the train to Chiang Mai.
While our hotel manager told us to avoid the main post office we figured we could send a box home via FedEx or UPS. Unfortunately we couldn't find the Fedex office (must have moved - darn out of date Frommer's guide) and the UPS office had a desk, one bare lightbulb and really nothing else. We're hatching a new plan at the moment that may involve a trip back to Thailand sooner vs. later and holding on to our purchases until then.

The area just beyond the post office and south of the lake, on the edge of the old quarter, is a bit easier to navigate. You still need to wade out into a sea of traffic to cross the street but at least the sidewalks are clear of scooters and vendors. The area south and east of the lake appears to be the high rent district in town. We passed by some very nice hotels, including the Sofitel Metropole (THE hotel in Hanoi), and boutiques/shops during our walk. From there we walked back to the Old Quarter via the west side of the lake.

We're starting to feel a bit like locals because we saw the crazy banana lady before she saw us. Let us explain.

In the old quarter, it's common to see older Vietnamese women walking, in evident pain, under the weight of a large pole laid across their shoulders with large trays hanging about waist-high from each end, filled with something for sale (usually fruit, sometimes bamboo or flowers). Most of these women just ignore the tourists and focus on selling their wares to the Vietnamese. However, there is one woman who skulks around a street near our hotel. She always carries the same light load - a few bananas and one pineapple. As soon as she spots us (this happens about 2-3 times each day) she runs over (though traffic) and tries to throw her pole onto Angelique's shoulders. She apparently thinks it would be brilliant fun for us to take a photo of this domestic sight, and, of course, pay her for it. Actually, the first time she approached us we laughed and said no, but after accosting us five or six times we decided that she is evil. So now when we spot her through the smoke and haze, we whisper "banana lady!" and run through traffic (not a good idea, as we discussed yesterday) to escape.

In Cambodia where people were also pushy, at least they didn't physically touch us or push us. In Hanoi they do.

Late in the afternoon after some more exploring, we walked back to our hotel, exploring additional streets in the old quarter along the way. Historically, each street was devoted to one item in a thematic kind of way: bamboo, baskets, silver, fruit, wood, etc. This still exists to a lesser extent today and, consulting our guidebook, we eagerly went in search of "coffin street" but were disappointed to see that it now contains mostly cheap plastic toys and candy (so, perhaps, it is now known as crappy stuff for bored and fat kids street?). We did, however, stumble across bamboo pole street, fish street, silk street, items you'd find in a hardware store street, pickled things in jars street, bongs and pipes street (and, nearby - and we're not kidding here - salty snacks street).

But there is apparently no "books in English" street. A few of the travel agencies have a modest selection of secondhand books, mostly Danielle Steele novels, which we declined in hope of something more intellectually stimulating.

With the weather continuing to deteriorate, we hid out in our hotel's lobby for the next few hours. A strange visitor stopped by, gathered the staff in the back of the lobby and began to yell at them all. We later found out it was the hotel manager's boss (there seems to be some kind of hotel mafia around here - each Hotel Boss seems to own six or eight or maybe even dozens of hotels, hence the names: Hanoi Elegance I through IV, etc). In the middle of the reprimand, we slipped away to a Frommer's recommended hole-in-the-wall for pho (noodle soup). It was a bit grotty but not more so than the bun bo place. They pointed to a menu, three different options with different prices. We had no idea what we were ordering so we picked the most expensive one (30,000 VND or about $1.80) and sat at a wooden picnic table. They brought us steaming bowls of beef pho which were fine but not nearly as good as the bun bo.

At 8pm, we were picked up by a large tourist van and whisked off to the train with about 15 other tourists. At the train station, we huddled in a cold group while the driver picked up our tickets.

Once onboard we were so relieved to find that the train cabins are actually very nice. Heeding advice from Frommer's, we had booked an entire cabin (4 berths) to ourselves (the cabins are small and have four beds - a lower and an upper on each side, kind of like bunk beds). We were treated as VIPs and given complimentary water, sodas and beer (unfortunately, the local brew). A plus was the real Aqua Fina water. Much better than one of the many phony brands of water (a popular imitation for La Vie water is La Vile).

The bunks were comfy, the cabin clean, the bathroom passable and overall, the trip was a substantial improvement over our scary Chiang Mai train.


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