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Published: November 6th 2012
We made it to Vietnam! New country, new language, new food and so much more! We have been re-energized and feel like we may have been slacking the last couple of weeks in China (in regards to blogging) so you can take this as our renewed commitment to provide every little detail of our days. Does this mean more blogs? Probably not, but it does mean that we will be more thorough in our writing and hope to add more photos for your enjoyment. Now... Hanoi...
Hanoi was our first window into what Vietnam was going to be all about. The guide book describes it as 'The Old Dame of the Orient'. It is an ancient city of about 7 million people. It has survived many wars and colonial rule and has tons of character to show for it. It also has maybe the highest concentration of motor bike traffic anywhere in the world, which would keep it interesting as we tried
to navigate the streets. In the first few hours we saw many things that pleased us: street food, friendly locals, cheap everything, lots to see and do. Since we were rather overwhelmed upon our arrival to Hanoi
and the place we had wanted to stay was fully booked, we grabbed a couple of dorm beds at the next hostel we saw. Then we were out to explore. It gets dark really early in Vietnam (so far... this might change as we move south, not sure); the sun sets around 5:00pm each day. Luckily the city of Hanoi didn't shut down at sunset, it seemed to wake up. The streets were busy with pedestrians, motorbikes, cyclos (pedicabs) and the odd car trying to make it through the madness. It seemed every store front was either a clothing boutique or a restaurant. Gecko is a common sight (a popular restaurant) as they must have 10 franchises within a 3km radius. We ate here the first night... pizza. Say all you want but after two months in China we were looking for some good old western food and just so you know, it was delightful. We are going be in Vietnam a whole month and won't miss out on the great food they have to offer. After making our way around the bustling streets and filling our tummy’s to the brim it was time to get some rest.
following morning we wanted to find new accommodations; now that we aren't in China we don't need to stay in dorm rooms. A room with a double bed is back in our budget so we dug out a card from one of the dudes the day before and went to check out his hotel. Big room, clean bathroom, hot water, air conditioning, TV, a mere two blocks from the lake, $10; we were sold. Between finding breakfast and moving rooms it was about 1:00pm before we were able to start our day. Our hotel provided a fantastic free map of Hanoi so we picked a couple of sights near by and off we went.
First up was a temple (Ngoc Son Temple) situated on a tiny island on Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of downtown Hanoi. It was a whole dollar per person for admission. We tried our darndest to find Great Grandfather, a 200 year old turtle that is said to reside in this lake; unfortunately we came up short. The temple was small but interesting nonetheless and it had some nice views of the lake. (“lake” - growing up surrounded by the Great Lakes makes “lakes”
in Asia look like ponds)
Onward we went... our next destination was the Hoa Lo Prison Museum (nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by American pilots who were held there). The prison was actually built by the French in the late 1800's in downtown Hanoi. After another whopping one dollar per person admission fee was paid we were taken back in time. To set the mood, the museum plays eerie background music that resembles something you would hear in a haunted house (doors creaking/locking, heavy footsteps, screams etc); while it was sort of cheesy, it was rather suiting. We walked around following the arrows and learned a lot. The museum depicted how it had been used to house people who were thought to be anti-government during the French colonial rule. The prisoners lived in horrific conditions, rarely allowed to shower, barely fed and enslaved to help keep up the prisons and its grounds. There were also many different types of torture used there and it even had a Guillotine. There were different sections for women and men, many testimonies of these prisoners were posted around the prison with a photo, name, time spent at Hoa Lo and government position. Many didn't
make it out alive.
When the war started, the purpose for the prison shifted. It was then used to detain American fighter pilots who were shot down while on bombing missions around Hanoi. The Americans seemed to have it a lot better than the Vietnamese who were previously held there (at least that's the depiction the museum offered). They were able to play basketball, badminton or volleyball; permitted to grow and take care of a vegetable garden; decorate and celebrate Christmas with a full feast, and receive letters from home. We didn't totally fall for this depiction, it couldn't have been all that rosy... after all it was a prison. Senator John McCain spent an extended period of time here, in the photo of him in the museum he was all smiles, but he was in a hospital bed so he could have been drugged up. You can sense our scepticism.
So there, we finally made it to a museum and what a great place to do it. There is no escaping the numerous wars that have been fought (and won) by the Vietnamese. Of course since the war with America is the most recent there is much
to learn and we wanted to immerse ourselves in it right away.
We were quite pleased with how active our first day had been and rewarded ourselves with a delicious Vietnamese dinner. Honestly, we didn't know what we were ordering; we walked into a restaurant, were quickly herded to a table and kept nodding yes to the server when we didn't really know what she was saying “yes... two please”. Lucky for us it was AMAZING. We were brought a platter of greens, a plate of noodles each, a plate of pork spring rolls, two bowls of what seemed to be meat balls in a yummy sauce/broth and another bowl of an unfamiliar vegetable in a similar sauce/broth. It was a feast and we had no idea how to eat it. After separately trying each item we started mixing everything together and it was way too much food for the both of us but a really fantastic first authentic sit-down meal. After watching some locals eat the same dish we found we were correctly mixing the ingredients to make a delicious soup dish call Bun Cha.
That evening, while checking the forecast, we found out that a typhoon
was heading for Vietnam. Great! We had hoped to head to the coast soon but were going to have to ride out the storm in Hanoi before we made any decisions. We had planned on spending only three nights in Hanoi but decided to extend our stay by at least one night before moving on.
Our second full day in Vietnam was planned to be another productive one. The rain had started at this point but was really just a constant sprinkle so we headed for the Temple of Literature with our raincoats and high hopes that the sun might come out (it never did). We weren't totally soaked when we got there, just thoroughly damp. The Temple of Literature was originally built in 1070 and taught the five books of Confucius before being converted into a university. It takes up a couple of city blocks; within the outer walls it is essentially a huge garden with a row of different buildings going through the centre from south to north, each separate building is connected by a courtyard or pathway. There were many more people than we had expected on such a rainy day! The majority of the people
were young men and women wearing beautiful custom-made dresses and suits. It turned out that all of these people were graduating from university and came to the Temple for grad photos. It made sense once we remembered we were at the Temple of Literature!
We really enjoyed the Temple despite the rain and got some great photos of the drum and bell towers (and maybe a couple creepy shots of the graduates all dressed up). By the time we were ready to leave we decided to grab a taxi back to our hotel. It wasn't hard to catch a cab but ended up hopping out about halfway back because we were hungry. We stopped at a hole-in-the-wall restaurant – Tyler had pho (noodle soup) and Rebecca had com (rice with other random meats and vegetables) – before making our way in the drizzle back to our hotel. Our second evening was spent resting, catching up on news (global and football related), and of course Rebecca found time for some yoga.
Before dinner, we grabbed a couple of bia hoi's (cheap cheap cheap draught beer ranging from 20 cents to 40 cents per glass all over Vietnam) from the
lady next to our hotel. Dinner was had at Gecko again (there is always one near by, the food is great and affordable). This time we both got sandwiches with fries; Tyler got a steak and mushroom sandwich (resembling a Philly cheese steak in honour of the Eagles game that night) while Rebecca got a ham and cheese melt-in-your-mouth – it isn't actually called that but it should be. We were craving the ham and cheese sandwich and seriously considering going back for more until we found our new favourite food the next day but that's a story for later.
Since it was the first time we had access to reliable internet and real TV (with some American feeds) we stayed up to watch football. We were pretty upset that we couldn't find anything on TV but were still able to follow the games online. It was a very very late night/early morning so we didn't get up the next day until after noon.
When we finally made our way into the daylight, we were pleasantly surprised that it was just that, light! The rain was done and the sun was trying to peak through the clouds. This
is when we came across Banh My aka Istanbul Doner aka Vietnamese Sandwich aka Breakfast/Lunch/Dinner aka pork, veggies, mayo, hot sauce crammed into a fresh baguette and heated til its all crispy. SOOOOO GOOD!! Needless to say this new found love was our brunch. We hadn't planned on staying in Hanoi for this third day but were able to fill our time wandering around the Old Town with it's gorgeous french colonial architecture. On our wanderings we came across a quaint little temple set just far enough away from the road to make it feel like a different world. It ended up being the oldest temple in Hanoi we found it hard to leave the serenity and peacefulness of it's walls. We had wasted away the hours and before we knew it, it was rush hour. It was almost impossible to cross a road due to the high volume of traffic (there are hundreds of thousands of motorbikes constantly whizzing around) and a wonderful Banh My street stall appeared just in time. We each ordered another mouth-watering sandwich and watched the insanity of an intersection at rush hour. There were no traffic lights or stop signs and evidently no real
road rules other than “don't hit anyone”. Motorcycles were flying around in every direction all criss-crossing like snakes and ladders to make it through the cross-roads. We saw a train of tourists go by on cyclos and had a whole conversation about how we would not be able to sit on one of those at this time of day. It would be pretty hard to not just curl up and cry in hopes you made it to your destination alive. Then we realized we needed to cross this street to get back to our hotel. Luckily we made it back without a scratch.
Since the weather was looking up we headed back to book our tickets to Cat Ba Island for the following morning. Once that was all arranged and we organized our bags it was time for another meal. Have you figured out that our days, for the most part, revolve around eating? When do we eat next? Where should we eat? What do we feel like eating? It's official, we are addicted to street food. Please don't tell the travel doctor who told us to avoid street stalls. Knock on wood – we haven't had too much
of a problem with “upset stomach” yet!
Anyway, we asked the really friendly guy from our hotel (he was always saying “Hello! How are you?!” when we walked by and made lots of time for chit-chat) to suggest a good noodle place for dinner. He highlighted a street on our map nearby so off we went, yet again, in search of a new and delicious meal. Since we were craving noodles it was extremely difficult to pass the sizzling barbecues to follow our stomachs desire. It didn't take long to find a noodle place and it did not disappoint. We were presented with a plate of food stacked high! There was a layer of fresh herbs, a layer of noodles, a layer of crunchy bits and a layer of peanuts, this was all drizzled with a yummy sweet/sour sauce; our hosts grabbed chopsticks and mixed it all together before our eyes. What presentation! It was fantastic; a great mix of sweet and salty, crunchy and soft. And all for under 2 dollars!
After wandering through the night life of bars, restaurants, chic clothing stores, bia hoi stalls and more it was time to get a good nights sleep
before we headed to Cat Ba. We weren't able to find much news about the typhoon so we were hoping it hadn't been too devastating, we had to wait to find out.
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