After a 8 hour overnight bus ride from Barcelona to Madrid airport, combined 18 hours of flight and travel time nearly getting fined in Switzerland by overstaying our 90 day limit in the EU( by One day!) we were zombies when we finally touched down in Hanoi, Vietnam. Luckily we had arranged transportation from the airport to the hotel already and we were on our way as soon as we got our visas and our bags. Did I mention it’s been over 9 months since we’ve been able to check our luggage..for free??!
So, as you can imagine, we were exhausted. Not having slept much on the plane, and now 5 hours ahead, we arrived at our hotel wanting to just pass out. But, our room wasn’t ready and we were pretty hungry. We strolled around the Old Quarter for a bit, taking in the madness that is Vietnam-and boy, have we missed it! Although we spent 3 weeks in Vietnam several years back, we never made it north to Hanoi, but we were eager to explore. Day one turned out to be a complete blur as we went back and fell asleep for the better part of the day, but forced ourselves to wake up around 6-just in time to head back out for more food. Sightseeing would have to wait as we were back in bed by 9 and barely woke up the next morning in time to catch our free breakfast at the hotel. See, this is what we missed most about SE Asia. A really nice private room in the heart of the city costs less than $20/night and the breakfasts are always included and have all the local dishes we have missed so much. Europe is doing it all wrong!
Day 2: the weather was actually a bit on the cooler side today,only low 70s, and quite overcast. Made for a perfect day to explore. The city of Hanoi lies on the Red River and is the heart of the country’s ancient culture. Suffice it to say, you can see the main highlights of the city in 2 days. We did it all by walking, but you can get a motorbike taxi cheap for hire. However, the traffic in and around the city is just insane-it will almost always be faster to walk. And the best tip we can instill upon SE Asia newbies is this . The traffic is intimidating. Crossing a street is a feat in and of itself. Motorbikes whizzing by you, weaving in and out of lanes, driving the wrong way etc. It can be exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time. ( like, wow- I keep cheating death!) Just keep repeating this mantra ” don’t run, just keep walking”. Bikes will go around you, and they are basing their move on where you are. So sudden stops, or running will surely cause an accident. I just love the energy that you feel around you as these bikes are whizzing by you. Doesn’t mean I’d ever drive on in the city, but it’s just another day to the Vietnamese.
We started the morning at Hoàn Kiếm Lake (also known as Sword Lake), once part of the Red River, but sometime in the late 15th century, the lake shifted, leaving this stretch. The main site here is the Ngoc Son temple, located on a tiny island that can be reached by crossing the picture perfect red bridge, known as Huc Bridge. You can also get a good glimpse of Tháp Rùa, or Turtle Pagoda. From here we spent a few hours wandering around the French Quarter, admiring the buildings that survived the French Occupation. We eventually found ourselves in front of the Hoa Lo Prision, known to Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, a moniker coined by American pilots incarcerated here from ’64-’73. The museum makes its case for how well American POWs were treated.
We stopped briefly by the Vietnam Museum of Military History, but it was closed during the time we were there. We did however, spend some time wandering around the outside where there a number of American tankers, military war planes and weapons of mass destruction on display. Dad, you would have appreciated all the Air Force Planes!
Confident that we had had our fill of war themed attractions for one day, we headed over to the Temple of Literature, not only an extraordinary place for worship, but also a rarified expression for the Vietnamese esteem for education and literature. While the 14-acre complex is no longer used to study teachings, it’s not uncommon for many students to gather here on their own graduation day for photos, and we saw many donned in their traditional ao dai, posing mercilessly for snapping cameras.
Tonight, we were ready to hit the streets and see the city at night. Staying in the backpackers quarters had us within steps of the Dong Xuan nightmarket, where shops sell clothing and other wares and their displays spill out on to the street, not to mention countless of vendor stalls set up along the center of the street. Of course a night in Hanoi is not complete without visiting a Bia Hoi bar. Bia Hoi is draft beer, containing no preservatives so it needs to be consumed soon after its made, which is daily and delivered the the bars in the late afternoon. A glass of beer sets you back about 5000 dong, or about 25 cents, so really, how could you not enjoy a glass, or 4. Looking back, some of our best nights were spent at these little Bia Hoi bars scattered throughout VN, settling in the for the night, inevitably making some new friends along the way( HEY GINA AND NIELS!!)
Day 3 in Hanoi had us heading out to Ba Dinh Sqaure, which is where, in a marble mausoleum, houses the preserved, refrigerated body of Ho Chi Minh. However, while we were in Vietnam, the body of HCM was actually in Russia, where it is flown every so often for several months at a time for maintenance work. It’s a strange concept for us to wrap our heads around, but for the locals visiting his body, it is nothing short of a pilgrimage, as he is viewed as quite the hero. He did, in fact fight for independence for Vietnam not only from the French, but later the Chinese, over a period that lasted more than 30 years and did in fact end in independence for Vietnam. Fun fact: after the fall of Saigon in the south in 1975, the city was renamed HCMC, which is its name today. However, conflict and discontent rage on, as Southerners refer to the city still as Saigon. Understandable given the fact that HCM himself along with his army went to war with the south, leaving millions of South Vietnamese dead in its wake. Mention the name Saigon in the north and you will be sternly corrected and reminded that’s it’s now called HCMC.
Here’s a good time to say that I think it’s really important that before you make a trip to Vietnam, especially as an American, you understand what the American War was all about. Not just America’s devastating impact on its infiltration into the region, but also the fighting that took place between the Vietnamese themselves. The north and the south still don’t see eye to eye, and for being part of the same country, the regions and the people of each couldn’t be more different. Without any background of the conflicts leading up to the war, the war itself and the emergence of the country following the end of the war, you’ll be hard pressed to discover and experience Vietnam to its fullest.
After our failed attempts to see HCM, we headed out to Hồ Tây (West Lake) , also a red river orphan, formed when the river shifted course and abandoned this body of water. Our primary reason to venture out here was to see the city’s oldest pagoda, known as Trấn Quốc. Trấn Quốc Pagoda was founded in the sixth century and features and 11 story octagonal tower. We lit some incense in honor of Mom and enjoyed the beauty of such an old structure.
Next up, a visit to the UNESCO world heritage site, the Hanoi Citadel, which has only recently opened to the public. Another popular place for locals to come and pose for pictures, be it a wedding, graduation or just a day out with friends, the Vietnamese are certainly not camera shy.
With 2 full days under our belt, we spent our last hours arranging a few tours we wanted to do. Mike put his Vietnamese to good use and was quite good at negotiating the non tourist price for our upcoming trek to Sapa and our 2 night boat cruise at Halong Bay. He’ll tell you he can only understand about 70% of what they are saying, but that’s 70% more than I’m getting and it really makes a difference. From simple conversation and greetings on the street to local dish recommendations to obtaining recipes and negotiating tour prices, his ability to converse and understand is invaluable. And it helps that he’s able to figure out and ask for all the local dishes. See, you thought I’d go a whole post without mentioning the delicious food we’ve been eating, but I am saving the best for last. Since Mike will write about these all in detail, here’s just a brief visual sampling of what’s we’ve been chewing down on for the past several days.
Up Next: Wish us luck as we are about ready to embark on our first overnight train ride to the northwestern corner of VN to the Lao Cai province where we’ll be trekking in Sa Pa for 3 days!