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February 22nd 2014
Published: February 26th 2014
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Melbourne – Singapore – Hanoi

Wednesday 19th February 2014.

It’s 6.16pm. A response to the doorbell identifies Jason at the door to pick us up and head for Tullamarine Airport. We are leaving at 1.05am the next day so we thought an easy dinner at Three Wild Ducks fifty metres up the road was in order. Why not? So in a pleasant prelude we did just that and then headed off to the airport.

Every thing went like clockwork. It’s surprising how time evaporates when you go to the airport. Half hour before the check-in begins! Second in the queue so luggage goes into the dim dark recesses of the storage unit for the journey only to be last out at the other end when you are beginning to believe that your luggage has been “lost in transit”. A couple of hours whiled away inspecting things for women (jewellery, perfumes, kids things, etc.) until finally the backache can be eased in a seat having a pleasant coffee.

Enough nonsense! Singapore Airlines are the best. Attention to detail is always spot on. Hot towels, travel pack [socks toothbrush and toothpaste in a bag] and courteous service accompanied us on the two legs of our journey (Melbourne-Singapore -Hanoi).

As it panned out, the flight time primed us for the four-hour time difference in Vietnam. If you normally hit the sack at around 10pm then it’s 2am in Hanoi. The result was that we did sleep reasonably well on the first leg that arrived in Singapore at 5.30am. Even Rhonda slept and that is unusual! We hoped that this would avoid the dreaded sleeping disease (jet lag) and I can report that it did.


Thursday 20th February

We touched down in Hanoi at 11.30am and were met by Lilley from APT for our transfer to the Sofitel Metropole. We flew in a couple of days before our tour begins to enable us to familiarise ourselves with the area and wind down for the trip. It works well for us.

By 1.30pm we were in our room preparing to take a tour within the hotel. It was focused around its long history and a bomb shelter in the grounds that had been constructed during the war that we know as the Vietnam War. Its existence had been ‘forgotten’ over the years and it was discovered when they were extending one of the buildings. Our tour guide Duc was a young child at the time but his passion for the futility of the war came through strongly. His knowledge of Australian, American, English and Canadian leading politicians of the era was extensive. Joan Baez and Jane Fonda each separately played their roles in the attempt to have troops withdrawn and to stop the unnecessary killing and damage to people’s homes and cities. A really nice guy who showed no ill will to our soldiers of the time. In fact, he was most welcoming to the group made up of Australians, Canadians, Scots and Americans. Short and concise, the tour ended with a ‘welcome drink’ made from hibiscus, honey, cinnamon and star anise. Although a little sweet, we really like it.

We needed to hang in until around 10pm (or should I say we hoped to!). Dinner in a hotel restaurant was really nice but by the time we came back to the room it was around 7.30pm. What to do? ‘I know’ says I. Let’s put our pyjamas on and read in bed for a couple of hours. Well, you guessed it, out like a light by 8pm. All was not lost as ten hours later, well rested, we returned to the land of the living ready for an active day. Voila!

Friday 21st February.

Breakfast is part of our deal in the hotel. We enjoyed a buffet and of course it’s hard to know what to have with so many choices. Simple! Try a bit of most things! The staff were great and during the meal one young guy dubbed me ‘Sir Peter’ when I invited him to drop the Mr in ‘Mr Peter’. All good fun.

The day (Friday 19th) became a dining and walking day. We had been told of many things to see and do so we decided to visit attractions that were not part of our APT tour. An inspection of a few restaurants found us at Madam Hien Restaurant for lunch. The Vietnamese cuisine was good but the venue a little run down. Would probably look great lit up at night.

On the way to Madam Hien’s we circled the Ho Hoan Kiem (a central lake) and visited the Temple of the Jade Mound that sits on an island in the middle of the lake. It was founded in the 14th Century to honour heroes but needed to be rebuilt in the 18th century. The island is accessed via a curved bright red bridge. Entry fee was VND 20,000 (Vietnamese Dong) and that is the equivalent of $1 back home.

After lunch it was time to walk off the surplus kilojoules so we headed off for the Chq Dong Xuan Market. It took us a perilous half an hour (and many years off our lives!). What an experience! Just imagine walking across a road with continuous traffic made up of mostly motor scooters and cars with a few bikes and rickshaws thrown in. Now the trick is to trust the drivers and walk unhalting across the road. Well yes, easier said than done! It is hair raising to say the least but amazingly you become accustomed and just keep doing it! We did manage to survive a few scary moments but it will just as scary tomorrow when we do it all over again. Adrenalin levels shall rise!

Ha' Noi' [as it is known in Vietnam] has a population of 7m individuals. We felt quite sure that most of them are unemployed as the hustle and bustle felt like all 7m were walking with us. Very interesting though. Rickshaws, women with allsorts of things on either end of their shoulder ‘sticks’ ranging from fruit to cardboard. We have seen motor scooters carrying high loads . One guy had salvaged foam rubber from mattresses and boy did he have trouble keeping the scooter stable as he rode along.

This is the time to be married! Apparently the young people usually marry in winter. It seems that wedding photos are taken a couple of weeks before the wedding. There were wedding groups everywhere. For the Vietnamese it was very cold (16 deg. Celsius!). As the girls moved around it become evident that many had jeans and sneakers (and who knows what else!) under their bridal gowns to keep warm.

Speaking of the weather, it has been cooler than at home (some times!) and average high is around 18 deg. The locals find that really cold and rug up with coats and scarves wrapped around their faces. Strange looks accompanied me around as I walked in a tee shirt.

After a day of sightseeing we returned to the hotel for Happy Hour (ours) and a rest. Before we knew it, it was time to dine. Having visited the De L’Oriental Restaurant during the day and making our booking through the concierge we headed off to refill our already well tended stomachs. The food, service and ambience were really good. So good that we went immediately back when we arrived home. The reason? We had paid the bill for another table of four! Instead of a very reasonable $75 (approx. VND 1,450,000) we had paid $230 (approx. VND 5,000,000)! The waiters were very embarrassed and sat us down with offers of apology whilst the problem was rectified. The lesson? Don’t be lazy as I was and always check the bill! Home again to the Sofitel and in to bed for a restful night.

We are averaging 8-9 hours sleep a night at this stage. Very pleasant.

Saturday 22nd February

Today is the start of our APT Tour. The first item on the agenda is a walking tour of the Old Quarter of Hanoi. We started the day with some time out and then went for a walk south of our hotel. We had heard that there was an area where birds in cages were competing for their whistling capabilities. It proved to be a furphy so it really turned out to be a leisurely warm up for the afternoon. On arriving back at the Metropole, we decided that a smorgasbord lunch at an in-house Restaurant called the Spice Garden was in order. It was really good and the staff assisted us in preparing the soup, seafood and other Vietnamese goodies.

At 3pm the APT group met at reception and off we went for a ‘stroll’ (I can’t say leisurely) ducking and weaving to wend our way to the Opera House. Inside the building was ornate and intimate. Gold plated chandeliers and wall adornments gave the building a lot of appeal. There was a fabulous stairway up to the private boxes and the view from them was very good. Unfortunately, there was no entertainment for our enjoyment.

We were picked up and taken by bus to the Hanoi Citadel that is part of a war museum. The main feature was the Hanoi Flag Tower that overlooks the Citadel, which is a World Heritage Site. The tower also overlooks an extensive war museum that features aeroplanes, tanks, helicopters and other armaments.

We then walked on past the new Parliament house that is still under construction and due to open later this year. It is a very impressive building. It will house over 400 parliamentarians. I believe it was designed and developed by a Dutch company. The next port of call was a photo opportunity at the Northern Gate of the old town. Today’s tour was informational but was not overwhelming. Maybe it was just a warm-up! Our bus collected us to go back to our hotel in time to meet the rest of the group There are 38 of us but we have been split into two groups so our actual touring group is twenty when buses are needed.

The tour manager is Hoa (pronounced ‘whaa’). Over the following hour or so he outlined the program for the next nineteen days. From there we went to our welcome dinner at a nearby restaurant where we had a set menu authentic Vietnamese meal. By the time we got back to our room at 10.15pm we were well and truly ready for bed.

Sunday 23rd February .

Today was a comfortable 9am start. We boarded the bus to take us to Ba Dinh Square where the Ho Chi Minh Mauseleum is located. On arrival we joined the throng of thousands to enter the mausoleum and view the body of Chairman Ho Chi Minh (Uncle Ho to the locals). He passed away during the Vietnam War during September 1969. We were told that the body is ‘refreshed’ every year between September and December. What was also interesting is that we were part of a priority queue and the real queue was about two kilometres long!

The area is very impressive and in the grounds we visited Ho’s houses (three of them). He insisted on very moderate living conditions as his country was very poor. The Presidential Palace that he refused to live in was impressive. Also in the grounds we visited the One Pillar Pagoda that is unique in constrction and only found in Hanoi. It is designed in the shape of the lotus flower. Whilst not very large it was impressive overlooking a large fish pond.

We then boarded our bus again and were relocated to the Temple of Literature. It originally served as an elite Unversity from which very few passed the three critical exams to have their name inscribed on stone tablets erected for that purpose. The buildings were destroyed by the French as they exited but the Temple and grounds are still functional today as a Buddhist Temple. It is a fine example of early Vietnamese architecture.


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