Trip Start Mar 15, 2011
35Trip End Jun 11, 2011
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What I did
Really, it's hard to know where to start with Hanoi. We spent three days there, one more than expected, because of the general craziness really! Hanoi was a tale of perfect timings and complete mistimings - all with perfect conclusions.
After instantly becoming millionaires on arrival (we exchanged 60GBP for over 2,000,000 dong), we stepped outside into the chaos of touting taxi and bus drivers. After some deliberation and attempted negotiations to get us into town, we shared a cab with our seat neighbour/translator from the plane. As we discovered after we returned to the airport, this resulted in us taking the 'country' route, as we were welcomed to Vietnam with a stream of constant honking, flashing of headlights and swerving in and out of oncoming traffic. But hey, this is just usual fare in Vietnam (so we've discovered).
An hour later, we arrived in the Old Town of Hanoi and checked into our awesome hotel. With mango juice waiting and the friendliest staff, it was a little oasis outside the pure crazy that is Hanoi. We took off for a little Sunday night exploration to find the whole city spilling onto the streets, on motorbikes or scooters or bicycles, or sitting by the side of the road eating freshly cooked streetfood or drinking with other locals. On a tripadvisor recommendation, we popped into the Blue Butterfly and consumed our first load of Vietnamese cuisine for the trip - Bun Bo Nam Bo and garlicky stir-fried Morning Glory - and discovered that the whole "we'll lose weight in Asia" thing may be a myth! The total for the meal plus beers was less than $10. Are we happy much?
Also, despite the frantic nature of the traffic outside, we quickly discovered that it's a pretty calm and friendly place. Our waiter was so excited to practice his English and French and couldn't have been friendlier. He told us they held a cooking class there, but was hardly pushy about it. We thought we wouldn't have time for it anyway... little did we know.
Monday was to be our day of exploration in Hanoi - as it turned out it was the one day of the week when everything is closed. Oops. So it turned out there would be no embalmed Ho Chi Minh for us, nor any cultural learnings at the great museums on offer. We attempted to go to the one major landmark, the Pagoda, that was open, but we got there while it was closed for lunch... for two and a half hours.
We stumbled across the fascinating looking military museum and discovered that it had been open, but for the morning only. Finally, we came across the Temple of Literature - and that was only after walking around the entire block to find the entrance. And so we went in to watch a stack of graduating students getting their photos taken, discover that every entrance / exit / lampshade comes comfortably to Justyn's shoulder, and otherwise walked the rather pretty gardens.
By this stage we'd managed to get a hand on what is the completely nuts Hanoi traffic, and found that the best option seems to be that if you ignore it, it will go away... or go around you to be more precise. We later found out that within the 6.8 million population, there are 2.8 registered motorbikes... and from what we saw we estimate only half are registered. In the old town at least, there are no traffic lights, no real rules, just a constant stream of oncoming traffic all in a symphony of honking horns. And this isn't honking in aggression - apparently just the accepted norm when overtaking or merging. And in a land that forms the opposite of the British love of queues, and the German love of crosswalks, this happens all the time. We'd read that the only way to cross the road is not wait for a break, but just to go it slowly, and surprisingly this actually works. In fact, one of the most incredible tourist sights in town is just standing on a street corner and watching the calm onslaught. But in all honesty, this would be better with a facemask!
Our other highlights included the botanical gardens, where we saw brides -a-plenty getting their photos taken and then snacking with friends at the kiosks. Weaving through the streets we discovered that it's possible to get almost anything you want at the side of the road, including a haircut, if you so desire.
After spotting all range of meat on the sidewalks, including four-legged friends, we found an awesome place for lunch, another highly rated recommendation for Hanoi. Happily stacked with locals, it was another sensory overload, with food being cooked and carted on all sides of the indoors-outdoors set-up.
We later scored tickets to the number one cultural event: water puppetry. We were told the theatre had sold out for the week, but queued up on the off chance we'd get lucky, and despite the guy in front of us being turned away because of a full house, for some reason the ticket lady handed some over. No idea - this is local logic, we guess! And so we trundled in to see the story of the founding of Hanoi, all by little water buffalo, people and dragons splashing in the water.
We called it an early night in preparation of our 'early' alarm on Tuesday, given that we were being picked up at 8.30am to be taken for our 2 day cruise in nearby Ha Long Bay....