Just before boarding our flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, we stopped at the airport bookshop and found a Lonely Planet for Vietnam. We went back to the boarding area and unwrapped our “find” – a terrible photocopy of the original, and, a 2011 edition, not the advertised 2013. I’m sure many people would say “duh, what did you expect?!”. But We thought buying it in the airport would be a safe bet (especially for the 19 USD price tag). We tried to return it, and instead they told us to find a non-copied one on the shelf. Sounded promising but after unwrapping 4 more of them (and running out of time as our plane was boarding), we gave up and just figured we’d keep our Laos souvenir. We landed in misty cool Hanoi – a welcomed change from the hot & hazy conditions in Laos and Thailand. The best way to describe Hanoi for us was: a land of contrast – medieval meets the 21st century or communism meets capitalism. We stayed in the old quarter and it was a good introduction to raw Hanoi with its twisting mess of narrow roads and alleys, lots of attractive old buildings, interesting street scenes, rich exotic scents and of course plenty of noise thanks to the heavy traffic and the non-stop honking motorbikes and taxis
Below: Street scenes in Hanoi Below: snake treats anyone?Below: St Joseph’s cathedral we walked by every day Below: unfolding traffic scene in Hanoi, crazy! Photos courtesy of Morgan Lusk who was visiting from Anchorage Alaska. The houses in Hanoi were very interesting, neither tall buildings as people normally see in cities nor stilt houses. They are called “tube houses” which are short and narrow but have great length. In the past, the king stipulated that citizens’ houses could not be built higher than the height of the king’s palace. And because of the dense population in a limited area, people needed to use the front room for stores; and the inside room was widened in order to divide places for manufacturing, dining and living of each family. We were also told that these tunnel houses were developed this way to avoid taxes based on the width of their street frontage.
On our first day, as we crossed a large boulevard, we were approached by a woman selling cute cards. As we perused the cards and negotiated a price, another guy approached telling James he needs his shoes polished. James tried to wave him off as business with the card woman wasn’t finalized and he wasn’t sure he wanted his shoes polished anyway. But all vendors here are very persistent and you must do much more than simply say no and wave them off. Before James knew it, his shoe was off and running across the street. The guy had taken James’ left shoe off! Sylvie yelled “follow the shoe” and continued the card transaction while James hobbled across the street using a 4-sizes-too-small flip flop left behind by the shoeshine man. By the time James reached the other side, his shoe had been polished and the guy had poked a hole in it to sew up something he claimed was wrong! Mind you, one shoe polished and one not meant the guy was going to get paid something, even before a price was agreed on (very clever). After some back and forth, for about $2, James had one shoe fixed? and both polished. The conversation went something like this:
Shoeshine man: Shoes need clean
James: No thank you
Shoeshine man: You no understand, bad shoe. Shoes need clean!
James: No thank you
Shoeshine man: Yes, shoe need clean. Me very good, clean shoe.
Shoeshine man: Yes, me very good. I shoe clean now.
Which at this point after polishing James left shoe while we were talking with the card woman despite James repeated no thank you, he takes James’ shoe off and runs with it. Very persistent indeed!
While we waited for the weather to clear for an excursion to Halong Bay, we kept ourselves busy around Hanoi. We visited the city’s famous women museum, a fascinating place that highlights the contribution of women to Vietnam’s history and culture, including their roles in Vietnam’s military conflicts as well as in commerce, women’s role in the family, and more. We took a walk to Hoan Kiem Lake and visited Ngoc Son Temple and snapped some pictures at Huc Bridge, the classy little bridge that connects the island where the temple sits on to the lake shore. Above: newly weds by the lake. No visit to Hanoi would be complete without a stop at the HCMC mausoleum where a lot of locals come pay their respect to their embalmed past leader. We went in as well and walked slowly by the heavily guarded, slightly macabre spectacle of Uncle Ho laying in his glass coffin. We couldn’t help thinking that he looked very very good for being dead. The embalming must be quite a process, in fact he goes back to Russia once a year for maintenance we were told! Of course, no photography was allowed inside but we could snap some outside the complex. During our week in Hanoi, we also browsed all the different streets in the old quarter named after the goods that were traditionally sold on them. The names usually start with hang, which means “something you sell”, then the name of the good itself (China bowl, silk, shoes, etc..). We also took in the night market with its main street packed with tourists and locals alike, haggling prices and eating local treats. Besides the obvious local dishes, we also tried the local homemade yogurt and went to the cafe where Catherine Deneuve used to go when she was in Hanoi filming Indochine to have her favorite yogurt. It was indeed very yummy. The cafe had pictures of her on the wall. On our last day, we took the local bus to tour the small town of Bat Trang, known for its ceramic artisans. We wandered from stall to stall admiring all of the ornate vases, tea sets, plates, planters, etc. We even stopped in a shop and took a quick ceramic-making course. Very fun, but we will need more practice. Our teacher made it look so easy though! Below: Sylvie’s first try!Below: Our finished pieces of artWhile our clay creations dried, we walked further into the village and found a shop where the locals were making tea pots and cups. They were very welcoming and allowed us to observe every step in the process and even shared some of their tea while two of the workers took a break.On the way back we got to experience a taxi scam, common in Vietnam as we had read. They come in all shade of colors though. When we got back to the bus station in downtown Hanoi, we were too tired to walk back to our hotel so we signaled a taxi that we thought looked legit. But taxi companies in this land of copycat are often imitated. We got handed over to another cab as the one we had selected was apparently busy and off we went. It started off OK and we were watching the route he was taking like a hawk until we suddenly noticed the meter going crazy, at triple pace! We yelled at the driver to stop and it took him a while. Exasperated and half way there, we got off and walked back the last section to our hotel. With the weather not clearing at all and the forecast looking the same over the next week, we decided not to wait anymore and booked a 2 days 1 night cruise to Halong Bay. The cruise included some activities such as kayaking, cooking, hiking to a viewpoint and visiting a large cave. Even though the weather wasn’t at its prime, we enjoyed the scenery and the mystic feel the clouds gave the whole place. Above: our boat and small but comfortable room below Below: vendor approaching the boat to try and sell goodies Above: making spring rolls on the boat for our lunch We got back to Hanoi for one night after Halong Bay so we could catch our plane for Hoi An the next day. So far, despite the little shoe and taxi misadventures, we were highly impressed with Vietnam and how nice and warm people were to us (yes, despite our American passports).