So this is Hanoi. I've had to pinch me a couple of times to bring myself back to the present day because it seems like so many of my impressions and so much of my, admittedly, limited knowledge of North Vietnam has come from my military background when I worked in the Operations branch at Far East Land Forces Headquarters in Singapore during the war in Vietnam, where my office was receiving daily reports from the field of operations and, since then, from television newscasts which doesn't mean anything. Because we didn't spend any time in the South before coming immediately North, I can't make any comparisons yet - time will tell.
We arrived around 6pm at the airport and stopped at the hotels information desk because we hadn't got a confirmed hotel to come to. Like lambs to the slaughter we got fleeced. Neither of the two places we had thought of was available (one, at least, had confirmed as such in an e-mail to me that I didn't receive until after getting to this hotel), so we went with the hotel information clerk's suggestion and ended up paying more than we should have. We could see he was up to something because he wrote a receipt with no amount on it, then tore up the copy he would have given us saying he had "made a mistake", but put the other copy in his pocket, then he gave us another receipt (of which he didn't make a copy for his office), then insisted on cash from us. So my guess is that after we had gone he completed the first receipt but put the lower amount on it (we found out the real rate when we got to the hotel) and pocketed the difference himself. Also, we could have got a free transfer from the airport to this hotel, but he sent us off in a $12 cab instead. Anyway, that's water under the bridge now.
Our hotel is in the Old Town part of Hanoi and, by the time we got here, in the dark, we were both a bit nervous as to what sort of standard this place would be. The streets are narrow, busy, thronged with sidewalk food fenders and jammed with scooters and vehicles. When the taxi stopped just beyond this place and we jumped out, my heart plummeted because it looked like a slum from the outside. Even Bruce admitted he'd been a bit nervous - we knew before getting here that we'd been scammed, but we didn't yet know how badly, Much to our relief, it turned out that the hotel building, as are many here, is very skinny and tall - about one standard room wide, it seems and the slum that I had looked at out on the corner was, in fact, the building next door. Inside, this hotel is beautiful - all varnished wood, much of it ornately carved and it's immaculately clean. Our room has amazing furniture - heavy wood with mother of pearl inlaid patterns. There's a new jacuzzi tub and the bedding is terrific. It's quite cool here at night - maybe 8 - 12 degrees, so the cozy duvet is a real boon. The street noise is pretty loud but we have a balcony overlooking it and it's a fascinating view of real life in Hanoi - not touristy - it's local people eating and shopping down there. And I have good earplugs! Bruce can sleep through anything it seems.
Had a late supper at a place over the road where we had originally thought the proprietor was Vietnamese with a terrific command of English. Got chatting to him though and it turned out that he was a New Zealander (Auckland) who was born and raised in Shanghai until he was ten, then moved to NZ. He was a fantastic source of information and we had a great chat with him.
After breakfast this morning, we had a long visit with a travel agent to try to organize the Vietnam part of our trip. Without going into too much detail now, as it will all unfold in the journal entries following this one, we have arranged to leave on a 3 day/2 night trip to Halong Bay. We stay on the junk-style boat (looks far from junky in the pictures) the first night and in a hotel on Catba Island the second night. Halong Bay is one of destinations that both of us have been particularly looking forward to and we also get to do some kayaking and trekking on this trip. When we get back from Halong Bay we immediately board an overnight train to Hue, so I don't suppose I'll be doing any internet stuff until we reach Hue on the 12th Jan.
After finishing our lengthy visit with the travel agent (which left Bruce somewhat teed off as he's not going to be doing as much riding as he had hoped - but more about that as life unfolds in subsequent journal entries), we went outside and found a 'cyclo' driver and booked him to take us around some of the sights. A cyclo is a tri-shaw that has the rider pedalling away behind the two passengers, who sit up front and who are first to get to whatever we happen to happen upon. Hmmmmm.
It was pretty exciting. The traffic here in Hanoi is the most insane I have ever seen anywhere! I mean it - anywhere! They just do whatever they want to do, and are buzzing in every possible direction. We travelled the wrong way down a couple of one way streets and I have to tell you that when you're sitting in such an exposed position out front it can be a tad daunting to see all that traffic coming right at you, only for it to 'break' around us at the last second. It's important to keep hands and any other important parts of the body inside the (such as they are) confines of the cyclo because everything comes within a split hair of you. I did some bits of video with my camera as we were tooling along because the odd photo does not tell the whole story! Anyway, we went to some interesting sites: Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam, basically a temple to workship Confucius and higher learning, then on to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum which was not open today, but we photo'd the outside and the changing of the guard. Afterwards we rode on to the One-Pillar Pagoda, a 1049 wooden structure that sits on stilts over a lake, and then to a temple of coffee - Highland's Coffee that is - it's a local version of Starbucks that actually serves pretty good food - for lunch. This one was on an old boat moored lake-side. We then swung by Vietnam's oldest pagoda - Tran Quoc and then to the Quan Thanh Temple where we met a delightful group of young girls, a couple of whom are at a local university, who were delighted when we talked to them, then they wouldn't stop talking and asking questions. They wanted us to come by their university tomorrow, presumably to show off their tame foreigners and to have everyone practice their English on us, but I don't think that will work.
Tet (the start of the Vietnamese New Year) occurs at the beginning of Feruary this year so, unfortunately, we shall miss a lot of the celebrations. This new year is the Year of the Rat. I am a Rat, my mother was a Rat, my daughter is a Rat and my original grandson, poor thing, just missed being a Rat by only one year. So I had planned to look for a nice rat to bring home, and we found a lovely one today at the temple of learning, Van Mieu-Quoc Tu Giam. Just a tiny little rat, but a rat all the same.
Tonight we ate at a street stall just down from the hotel. It was a do it yourself grill and you sit at these tiny little kiddy tables on tiny little stools. Both sides of the street are crowded with such places. It was a very nice family working ours. The young lady, Jan, is 24 and a "fashion designer" through the day. Early in the evening she goes to the market to buy beef, shrimp, chicken, etc. then she helps her folks out at their eatery until about 11pm. A long day. Her brother, in the manner of most little princes, was sitting having dinner with his friends, next to us, while Jan served them. Hmph.