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Published: February 25th 2012
Hoan Kiem Lake
…… but it certainly Rolls! I have never seen so many scooters in one place at the same time in my life!
8th – 20th Feb ’12 (On and off) Hanoi, Vietnam
This may be a bit of a strange blog as we were based in Hanoi for 12 days but spent about 7 of them away on trips, so I have attempted to put all the Hanoi stuff together for this one blog.
Leaving Laos and getting to Vietnam was amazingly easy, the airport in Vientiane was tiny and only had 3 departure gates with one lounge for all and with very few passengers checking in was quick. The plane was on time and the flight only took about 50 minutes but they still served us with a couple of cakes and a cup of tea and then we were landing. At Hanoi we knew we had to collect our visa on arrival – we had applied over the internet and printed off the relevant documents but neither of us quite believed it could be that easy. However we found the counter straight away and lots of officials were manning it, handed over the papers and cash
Water puppets orchestra
and a few minutes later we had our Vietnamese visas and were collecting our rucksacks, straight through customs and we were out 10 minutes before the official flight arrival time – I was well impressed!
Again we had pre booked a hotel in Hanoi after reading all the horror stories about turning up and trying to find somewhere, we had emailed them asking if they would pick us up from the airport but had not had any reply, so again a pleasant surprise as we walked out and saw our name on a board. A couple of minutes later and we were on our way.
It took about 1 hour to get into Hanoi and immediately we were struck by how busy it was – the streets are chock a block with scooters, crossing the road is like taking your life in your hands!! It was also quite cold and the sky was totally overcast.
We pulled up outside our hotel – The Rising Dragon, in the Old Quarter on what we have named The Street of a Thousand Shoes (no idea what it’s really called, as the place is just shoe shop after shoe shop. The
The nearest thing to rock we found
staff gave us the warmest welcome ever, and were all smiles and very jolly, we were given tea and coffee and then the run down on all the trips they offered – that said the girl doing this was not pushy and even showed us on the map how to do a walking tour of the city sights for free. It turns out she is our ‘special friend’ i.e. the person allocated to look after us and help us with any trips we may want to book.
Our room was up on the 3rd floor and didn’t have a window with a view which was a shame, when we queried this she explained that the hotel does not have a lift and the only views are on the 5th floor and when guests arrive they look at them and decide how many flights of stairs they can manage!! So I guess we should feel happy they judged us at 3!!
By then it was early evening so we ventured out to find food, check out other tour companies prices and generally get a bit of Hanoi atmosphere. It was even colder, the traffic still manic, and the night
Me and my Mum
market not on, we did get some grub and had a bit of a walk, found the Rock Billy which turned out to be a restaurant and nothing to do with rock, got followed for 30 minutes by a very persistent cyclo rickshaw man who wouldn’t take no for an answer, bought tickets for the Water Puppet Theatre the next night and then headed to bed.
We had found out that everything is shut on Fridays and Mondays and the night market only takes place at the weekend (when we wouldn’t be there!) so we decided to get up early to visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum as it shuts at 11 am the next morning.
9th Feb ’12 Hanoi
So up bright and early and the next thing a great bang from the bathroom, followed by groaning, I dashed in to find Howard with blood pouring down his face and looking dazed. He had slipped on the bathroom floor and hadn’t been able to put his hands down quick enough so smashed his face on the floor. So now he is missing part of one of his front teeth, has a swollen lip and many aches and
Love is in the air!
pains. Luckily he did not knock his teeth out and didn’t expose the nerve in his tooth so he didn’t want to go to a dentist but this put paid to our Uncle Ho plans and it was resting in the room for a few hours instead.
By lunchtime he felt well enough to go out so we went out to find a fleece/coat for him (the other one is riding around in a minibus in Laos) and he definitely needs one as we are heading north to Sappa up in the mountains in a few days and apparently it is even colder and wet!
We ended up in a strange Debenhams copy which someone from the hotel recommended and he managed to get a fairly cheap coat there, it’s really weird there doesn’t seem to be any fleeces in Hanoi at all. That done, we found the Womens’ museum which was pretty interesting and reinforced the fact that women seem to do all the work in Vietnam (along with the child rearing etc). There were lots of examples of traditional dress and really interesting explanations of the wedding ceremonies – accompanied by actual wedding videos.
Ho Chi Minh
some lunch we carried on walking as we were trying to find the Museum of the Revolution, well we walked for ages, found the right road but just couldn’t find the museum, eventually someone asked us what we were looking for and yes we were stood right in front of it! Our guide book did say you had to be really into the revolution to visit and they were right. I stumbled out in a daze at the end and we walked the many streets back to the hotel, trying wherever possible to take the route with the least road crossings! Finally we found the Street of a Thousands Shoes and the hotel.
That night rather than aimlessly wandering to find somewhere to eat Howard consulted trip advisor and found a place relatively near with good reviews so off we went. It looked very nice, we got the menu and realised that it was quite pricey (by our recent standards) but decided to go for it anyway. I ordered pork chops with honey, what I got was about 4 tiny ribs in a really gingery honey with a mound of sticky rice and some foul green sloppy veg. I
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
was not impressed and left the place feeling hungry and wondering why we hadn’t gone to the 3 courses for £2 meal we spotted the night before.
Anyway tonight was the Water Puppet Theatre and I was quite excited at the prospect of this. We paid extra to get seats near the front (what’s the point of going if you can’t see was my way of thinking). I had thought it would be on the lake but in fact it was a proper theatre and our seats were right in the middle on the 2nd row from the front. The place soon filled up, mainly with large tour groups who kept talking at the tops of their voices but once the bell sounded it all went quiet.
There was a small orchestra which played with traditional instruments and they were fab. One guy did a solo on a bamboo flute and it was really beautiful. A couple of ladies sang the accompaniment to the puppets acts and no doubt if you understood Vietnamese they would have been singing the story, we didn’t and just had to rely on a couple of lines on a leaflet which gave you
a brief explanation of each act.
The stage was water and the puppet masters were behind a bamboo screen but you could hear them sloshing about now and then. I really enjoyed the show, I loved the music and singing and some of the puppets were really good – I particularly liked the dragons synchronised swimming, there was a rousing finale with fire and all the puppet masters appeared and took a bow. All in all a good hour’s entertainment.
Back at the hotel one of the staff came up to me to let me know that our trip to Ha Long Bay had been full so they were giving us a free upgrade to the more expensive one! Yay can’t believe it a free upgrade, first time that has ever happened to us!
13th Feb ’12 Hanoi
Today was the day I was really looking forward to as we were meeting up with Mum and John. We walked over to the posh hotel they were staying at in order to bring them back to the not so posh (but lovely nevertheless) hotel we were staying at. It was so good to see their smiling faces!
Once we arrived back at the Rising Dragon all the staff came out to meet them and were so excited that they had come! Family is very big in Vietnam. Howard had to go off to try and find the tour agents that he had ordered our train tickets to Sappa from as they were not available until today, so we all decided to give the Lonely Planet’s Hanoi Walking Tour a go. Well we didn’t get very far as we kept getting side tracked – mainly by all the goings on around the Lake, including all the young couples getting their wedding photos taken, but we did manage to cross the bridge to visit the temple and we found the cathedral but it was closed, we found silk street and then just browsed around and ran out of time so headed back to meet Howard.
That night we went to the Vietnamese restaurant we had read and heard about which is mainly visited by the Vietnamese themselves, called Quan au Ngoc. It was a huge place with lots of different cooking stations around the edges. You are given a menu which you order from and the food
is freshly prepared. Or in our case you are given a menu, you do not know where to start, the helpful waitress recommends various things, you must look totally lost and she then takes you round the cooking stations pointing out what is what, you draw the line at deep fried sparrows and then just go with her recommendation! The result a delicious mix of different dishes, lots of people helping you to discover what sauce goes with what and how to turn a Vietnamese pancake into a little roll which you can then eat, lots of laughing and a great night!
14th Feb ’12 Trip to Ho Lou and Tam Coc
We booked this trip through our hotel- we now have 2 special friends and Mum and John’s little girl seems to be our number one friend also, she is an absolute sweetheart who is always joking and giggling and really pleased to see us. Anyway back to the trip, this was a 3 hour there and 3 back job with a stop halfway at a shop for the loo.
Ho Lou is the site of the old capital of Vietnam but all that remains now
are 2 temples dedicated to 2 of the Kings. They were nice enough and to get to them we had to run the gauntlet of stalls and people posing for photos. However the main reason for the trip was Tam Coc and its gorgeous scenery – it is called Ha Long on land and you can quite see why – towering limestone mountains set in lush greenery and lots of rice paddies.
The highlight of this trip is the journey by boat up the river, this is actually done in very small boats which we had been told would only take 2 people – we passed some with about 6 in and how the rower managed I have no idea! The unique feature of this boat trip is the rower (mainly women) who actually use their feet to do the rowing, which looks very novel but is actually a damn good idea as they lean against a back rest and legs are usually stronger than arms.
As soon as we started out photographers in small boats converge on you trying to take your picture and no matter how many times you say no at the end there are
photos of you all ready and waiting! If I had realised at the time I would have just sucked the old gut in and posed but hey ho you live and learn.
The journey up river took about 1 hour and we passed through 3 open ended caves, went past numerous rice paddie fields where people were really doing back breaking work, watched as the glorious peaks soared above and around us and when we reached the turn-around point came to a stop….. now we had read about this so we were forewarned but saying how you are going to deal with at being in the reality of it are two very different matters…… in a pincer movement two boats closed in either side of us laden with cans of drink and assorted snacks and saying I don’t want anything thank you just does not cut it! In the end we bought a drink and a snack for each of our rowers (which apparently they then hand back and get the cash) and then on the way back were subjected to the sale of various t shirts and other souvenirs which we eventually managed to convince them we were
not going to buy. So I can’t say it was a leisurely ride back but it was certainly lively and quite good natured until we finished and then tips were demanded – this is in a country which does not have a tipping culture, I blame the Americans!!
We finished off with a stroll around the small local market, had a chat to a really sweet Japanese girl who was travelling on her own and then we were back in the bus and back to Hanoi.
15th Feb ’12 Hanoi and the night train to Sappa
This morning Howard and I managed to get to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, despite getting a taxi there we still managed to get dropped off about a mile from the actual entrance (it is a very large site and lots of roads nearby are closed off when it is visiting time), anyway we joined the queue and waited. It only took about an hour to get through the queue and the bag check in, during which time they show a very moving film on the death and funeral of Ho Chi Minh. There are strict rules for viewing his body
such as no hands in pockets and no frivolity and there are plenty of white uniformed guards to ensure no body misbehaves. I think I counted about 3 separate school trips going into the mausoleum and some of the children were really young but they all seemed on their best behaviour and I guess they probably feel very lucky to be getting to see the great man. Seeing his body was a rather strange experience and didn’t seem quite real – especially after reading that he wanted to be cremated and didn’t want all this fuss. You are in and out very quickly and the Vietnamese people greatly outnumber the few westerners going. I can quite understand why the people are so passionate about Ho Chi Minh and hold him in such high esteem; I must say I do admire him and what he achieved for his people and country.
Owing to the snaking queue route and having to get back to collect my bag by a deadline time we managed to miss all the other sights in this area. We did however manage to visit the Ho Chi Minh Museum by sneaking past the toilets and going in
via the parking lot! It was definitely worth a visit with some unusual modern art interpretations of aspects of the revolution on the top floor. I have now though come to recognise a lot of the photos they use as they keep cropping up again and again in all the different museums.
After this we walked miles in the grey drizzle to meet Mum and John at the West Lake. Unfortunately due to the weather you couldn’t actually see the lake and we soon headed back into town via the Old Citadel and several various impressive monuments to assorted revolutionary figures and Lenin.
After tea we had an hour or so to wait until it was time to catch the train to Sappa, so we just sat in the hotel drinking tea, reading and stroking the hotel cat. We discovered he is called King Cong the Kung Fu cat!!! And is a really mischievous little lad. He doesn’t have a tail and Mum asked why only to be told he ate it himself gradually!!! Our special friend told us this and kept giggling saying ‘I am telling the truth’…..hmmmm…..
So eventually it was time to head to
the station where we had to walk across the tracks to get to our train. So bloke managed to get John’s bag and appoint himself our guide which meant me legging it after him to make sure the bag didn’t vanish. When we found our carriage we were told we were now in the next carriage and so spent the next 30 minutes sitting in a compartment expecting to be turfed out at any second, especially as other people arrived and found they didn’t have a bed!, but it all worked out ok. It was quite a flash compartment with free slippers and water! There were nice clean sheets, a quilt and fluffy pillows (not the standards we are usually used to!), we even had a tv which was blaring out until Mum decided to try and switch it off and succeeded to by accidentally pulling the wires out lol.
19th Feb ’12 Back in Hanoi again
Well after the usual broken night’s overnight train sleep we arrived back in Hanoi and at our hotel for about 5.30 am and all I can say is thank god we booked a room so we had somewhere to lie down
and collapse as 3 of us were totally shattered. Howard on the other hand decided he was going to book himself on a day trip to visit the Perfume Pagoda. Having heard all about it from him later we were doubly glad we hadn’t bothered! It seemed to involve a gazillion Vietnamese people all on some kind of pilgrimage to this temple, which required miles of walking up and down mountains, near death incidents and then not actually having enough time to get to see the famed Pagoda after all, but apparently the cable car ride back was tremendous!!
Meanwhile after some sleep, breakfast and a hot shower we headed out to try and see the West Lake again, which was immense – it was actually a sunny day and we could see! The one pillar pagoda was shut, which it wasn’t supposed to be and so we then decided to walk back to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum area and visit some of the sights Howard and I had missed. As it was after the viewing time you could actually walk across the huge square in front of the mausoleum and get round to the various other gardens, temple, pagoda and museum very easily.
We decided to get a taxi back to the hotel as we were all flagging and found one quickly, checked they used a meter and jumped in. Oh dear, when we got back to the hotel the price was about 3 times what it should have been and as the amounts tallied with the meter mileage we ended up paying it despite arguing with the driver – yes we had been scammed and apparently it was one of the classics, with a rigged meter, ah well it was the only one we had fallen for in Hanoi so I guess it had to happen sooner or later.
For our final night together we decided to go back to the Quan au Ngoc as we enjoyed it so much the first time. Once again we had a delicious meal of a variety of dishes including some new ones, once again people laughed at our attempts at using chopsticks and not knowing what went with what and tried to help us out. We walked back to the hotel via the lake and discovered a rather tasty ice cream parlour for pudding and the whole of the lake area was lit up with different coloured lanterns hanging from the trees and various lights decorating bridges and buildings – it looked beautiful.
20th Feb ’12 Hanoi and the night train to Hue.
Well Mum and John were leaving us today and heading to the airport and Bangkok so we got up to have breakfast with them and say our goodbyes. The staff all came to wave them off and feeling sad we headed back to bed to try and get some more sleep. This didn’t work out quite as planned as an hour later the phone rang asking us to go down to reception as they had left their luggage behind! Long story short, 2 bags had been put in the store and not the taxi, various phone calls, language problems and general stressing and with 10 minutes left before the check in closed they had the bags and were away! Whilst a bit of a nightmare it did actually take my mind off feeling sad!!
So we then went out to do our last bit of Hanoi sightseeing and visited the Hoa Lo Prison aka The Hanoi Hilton. This prison had been used by the French to hold revolutionary prisoners and subsequently was used by the Vietnamese to house American POW’s and the contrast between how the 2 sets of prisoners were treated could not have been more marked! It was a very interesting and moving place to visit. They also showed footage of the American raids on Vietnam and the devastation caused, the capture of American personnel and their eventual release. There were exhibits of some of their possessions and lots of photos.
That done we walked back (yes we did an awful lot of walking in Hanoi!) via the old favourite – Hoan Kiem Lake and much to our astonishment spotted a giant tortoise very briefly surface and then vanish again only leaving a trail of air bubbles. This was amazing as the Lake is known as the Lake of the restored sword after the legend of a giant golden tortoise surfacing and carrying a sword down into its depths. Seeing a tortoise in the lake is a very rare and auspicious event so we were well chuffed!
So after having a meal, Howard following it up with a kebab off the street and hanging around in the hotel for a while it was time to head back to the station to catch yet another night train, this time south to Hue.
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