Hanoi is a-calling!
July 3rd. Arrived around 8:30am to Hanoi. First impression wasn't so great. The route the bus came in certainly wasn't the prettiest.. but maybe i was just a little tired. Had booked at Hanoi Backpackers per a recommendation from Catherine, a South African girl i met on the bus from Hue.. so strange to be back at a hostel - thought I'd like it but think i've gotten spoiled by my own room and bathroom so not really enamoured anymore. Anyway, dumped my stuff and headed out to check out the town!
OK - despite my first comment above, I would like to officially revise my opinion of my new locale (yup, I'm that fickle folks, give me ten minutes and i've changed my mind!)...and say the Old/French Quarter in the north of the city, really is quite beautiful (not forgetting its still Vietnam and crazy busy with people and motorbikes, but still so beautiful)! Hoan Kiem Lake (known as the liquid heart of the Old Quarter) is a great place to sit and people watch, as you look out at the Ngoc Son Temple and Thap Rua tower on the lake itself... after a wee respite, i pottered around and checked out travel agents for my Halong Bay trip ......but more on that later!
Hanoi is a city of 3.5 million people and the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The city likes to think of itself as having more style and dignity than the rest of Vietnam, and due in part to the fusion of previous French colonial flair and vintage Vietnam, there is a definite feel of sophistication, modernity and even a little bitta romance here! The Old Quarter is where the majority of tourists stay, and with its labyrinth streets, people either sitting on stools at street corners slurping on noodle soup or just milling around, stores selling everything and anything you might want - from fabulous coffee to Calvin Klein underwear, you can get it all here!
Did i mention the thriving cafe culture? As I sat in Kangaroo Cafe having lunch and pondering how lucky i was to be enjoying Vietnam.... who popped past but my lovely friends from the tailors in Hoi An.. Pat and Carolien from Holland! What are the chances eh! Actually quite high, cos us "gringos" (as we are all called in South America) all travel a pretty similar path in South East Asia.... Anyway, had a lovely chat with them and decided to move to their hotel as it was supposedly nicer than my place..hmmn stay tuned! Walked around a bit more - checked out St Josephs Cathedral then went for a fab dinner to La Place (highly recommend folks if you are in the neighbourhood!) and met an American girl named Jen ..also staying at my hostel. Toodled back there and met 2 great girls from Australia - Kirrily and Laura and had a good ole laugh with them on the balcony of the bar ... good news; they would be in Bangkok the day i arrived so we planned to meet up with them when I'm there - yah!
July 4th - Independance Day in the good 'ole US of A! Got a mototaxi (hmmn, he was either a bit tipsy or was it just onion breath.. hmmn either way, I was glad to get off it!). Checked into new hotel and met up with Carolien and Pat again....we decided to check out the water puppets tonight (no good photos sorry..). So off i set to pick up the tix, then visit Uncle Ho himself! Yup - that's right! In the tradition of Stalin, Lenin and Mao, the final resting place for Mr Ho Chi Minh is a glass sarchophagus set deep within a monumentally large building. This, despite his last wishes which were to be cremated.. so much for that option! All is serious here, folks! The queue just to get in was massive (you can't tell from this photo, i took it later in the day!)...very fast moving and I realised why when i got in. The soldiers surrounding the corridors up to and inside the "room" where Uncle Ho lies in state - or should i say in ultraviolet light - push and prod you, all the while making sure there is not a murmer from the crowd. Hey, I get it, he was a very important and well loved character in Vietnam's history.. but if i really wanted to have a quick prayer or moment of silence at his passing, well, let's just say there is fat chance of that happening! Think I was in and out in what, 5 mins!!! Phew - after that i checked out the HCM museum - pretty impressive and mobbed with people. Lots of modern interpretations of Ho's life and what it means to Vietnamese culture today! Then it was off to check out a few pagodas and the Presidential Palace. After that i decided to walk back to the Old Quarter.. and who do i see on my way but Catherine from the bus a few days ago! Of all the streets in all the towns.. but that's traveling for ya! After a quick chat, i headed off to Cam Chi Alley, where apparantly lots of authentic Vietnamese restuarants are.. hmmmn had lunch there, which wasn't that great i have to say but sitting chatting (sporadically of course as my Vietnamese is about 6 words!) with the local people and watching the world go by was well worth it!
After some more exploring (seriously, i think i must walk about 20 miles a day, especially when i get lost!) I found Fanny's, the best ice cream shop in town! Duh - don't think so, not compared to South American standards anyway! (which i admit are pretty high!). But of course i managed to force down a coconut and watermelon cone.....hey, i'm a trooper, man! And of course, play around with my camera.. like my arty-farty shot?
Met up with Pat and Carolien and a new friend, PanPan, so we went for a quick Bia Hoi before the water puppet show. Bia Hoi is an interesting phenomenon in Vietnam, and in Hanoi, there are lots of little hole in the wall places you can go to try it, but there is one main crossroads where all the "farang" aka tourists, go and sit in tiny plastic chairs and drink very cheap home made beer served by the matriarch of the family who, despite the fact she never writes anything down, knows exactly how much beer each of her very inebriated clientele will drink in a night!
So to the water puppets we went! Vietnam's ancient art of roi nuoc (water puppetry) originated in northern Vietnam at least 1000 years ago. Developed by rice farmers, the wooden puppets were manipulated by puppeteers using water-flooded rice paddies as their stage. Hanoi is the best place to see water puppetry performances, which are accompanied by music played on traditional instruments (with very high pitched singing, that takes a while, but you do get used to it!). It's quite the spectacular, and although its strange at first, you do get hooked on the storyline, and its pretty impressive at the end, when you see these poor souls who have been waist high in water for the last hour and a half come out for their applause. Would definitely recommend it tho'!
After a great dinner and chat, the three of us headed back to Bia Hoi corner to meet up with PanPan again....got tons of great info from Carolien on where to go and what to see in Laos and Cambodia. Her and Pat are amazing - they've been traveling since last September, starting in Africa.. all through Asia and will end up in China then take the TransMongolian (I think!) Express to Moscow then home to Holland! Wow, that is a trip indeed! Anyway, tomorrow i'm off to Halong Bay for a few days...will fill you in on that soon!