We arrived in Hanoi running short for time as Derek was due to start work, however with a short taxi ride to our hotel he was more or less on time (by his standards that is J)
. We checked into the Hanoi Boutique hotel, a small yet very clean hotel in the old quarter of Hanoi about ten minutes walk from the lake. Hanoi this time is a mixture of business and pleasure for us (logistic organization required for our onward travel). We took a break from the organizational stuff around midday and set out to explore a little of the old quarter and to find the information needed for the next planning stage…i.e. Lonely Planet guides for Japan and China! Our search for Lonely Planets took us along the lake when we noticed a crowd of people beginning to gather. Naturally we joined them to find out just what the attraction was and were excited to see one of the lake’s elusive inhabitants….a huge turtle! Legend has it that after defeating the Chinese with a magical sword, Emperor Lee Loi returned to the lake where a giant, golden turtle came and took the sword and swam back to the bottom of the lake, hence the name "Ho Hoan Kiem" meaning “Lake of the returned sword”. Nobody knows how many of the turtles actually live in the lake or whether indeed they are kept somewhere else and only occasionally released into the lake for short periods of time to keep the mystery of the lake alive…..whatever the truth maybe, it is considered very good luck to see a turtle, let’s hope this part is true and that lady luck will continue with us on our journey.
We tracked down the Lonely Planets and returned to our hotel for more planning
. We will leave Vietnam in less than a week bound for Japan; we’ll arrive in Tokyo right in the middle of Cherry Blossom season, the most beautiful time of year to visit, but also one of the busiest. We knew that Japan would be expensive, but hadn’t realized it would be so hard to find vacancies at a price that we could afford. As time wore on and optimism began to disappear out of the window, we decided to take a break and find some dinner. One culinary treat that Hanoi is renowned for is “Ca Cha” or grilled fish. There are several restaurants that specialize in this type of cuisine, where a small grill is bought to your table with the fish sizzling away on top, then you add the other fresh ingredients and cook it yourself at the table – the food was delicious if a little pricey, but what sometimes you have to pay a little more for these experiences ;-) We returned to our little room and with the kids asleep and time running out got back to our Tokyo task in hand. After more frustration and near the point of submission, Expedia of all places offered up a decent looking hotel that we could afford (40% off for staying 5 nights) without having to sell either of the kids…..
Sunday morning was an earlier start than normal; during our search for Lonely Planet books we had passed the water puppet theatre and booked tickets for the morning show. Water puppetry is unique to Vietnam and is best seen in Hanoi. It originated in the Red river delta during the rainy season as a means of entertainment and has evolved into quite the art form. Puppets dance and perform typical scenes, festivals and events from across the country set to typical music. Despite all being performed in Vietnamese it was easy to follow and quite entertaining, particularly for the kids – kind of like Punch and Judy meets synchronized swimming
With happy kids in tow, we left the theatre and ambled along the lakeside where we found the entrance to a roof terrace café and stopped for a very enjoyable break. The café was on the fifth floor and had spectacular views of the lake, with a somewhat muted soundtrack; it was like taking a step back from the city and viewing the hustle and bustle from the outside.
Now with happy kids and adults, we strolled back to our hotel to continue making arrangements for our last few days in Vietnam and the first week or so in Japan. Making travel arrangements is dull and time-consuming, but a necessary evil for a trip like this. We set out from the hotel late afternoon in time to make it to St Josephs Cathedral for mass….no, we haven’t picked up Catholicism but wanted to observe the enormous congregation. Too large to fit inside the Cathedral and often without leaving their omnipresent scooters, the devotees gather outside to take in the service which is projected onto large screens. We also spent some time searching in this neighbourhood for another hotel for our return to Hanoi in a few days (our current hotel is full).
Monday morning bought yet more organization and planning as we set out in a taxi to find the JTB office – the only place in Hanoi where one can purchase an exchange voucher for a Japan Rail Pass. The JR Pass allows unlimited rail travel in Japan for a limited period of time but can only be purchased from outside of Japan within three months of use.
From JTB to the bus station where we will purchase a ticket for our next destination: Cat Ba Island. An expected payoff for all the planning … should be more excitement there.
So, with a dash of sadness (more from them than us I believe), we left the Ngoc Anh and headed for the train station. Our train was (of course) running late and so we had time for a quick dinner before we left. An hour late, we boarded the train and settled into the soft seated carriage for the 2 hour ride to Ha Noi, capital of Vietnam. Travel, no matter how long or short is always interesting in these countries whether it's the view outside or the people inside, it’s rarely boring and our journey to Hanoi was no different. One of our fascinations in Asia has been the face masks that people wear. Their predominance and style variation is quite astounding. There are a few different theories as to their functionality, ranging from virus paranoia (H1N1, etc), pollution/dust to sun protection and there seems to be no single reason to fit all users. Maybe the abundance of ready-made excuses in today’s society simply matches the deep seated desire to cover up buried in the psyche.