Welcome to Vietnam!
Trip Start Aug 22, 2009
22Trip End Nov 07, 2009
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Boarded the train with only 2 other people (a Chinese girl and a Vietnamese man), and assumed the train would be busy as it was the twice weekly direct train from Beijing to Hanoi
Woken up at the border crossing, which of course was at 2am, and we were told to get our stuff and get off, as we had to change onto a Vietnamese train, so after dealing with the usual passport control, customs and health check (ray gun thermometer stuck in my ear) - 3 forms, at 3 different counters, we sat and waited while they appeared to go off and find us a train. By the way, by now I could see that it was JUST us 3 on the whole train, weird. Eventually we were directed down a pitch black platform onto a pitch black train (they hadn't fired up the power yet), and into a really grotty compartment, by this grumpy conductor. Marilyn and I sat there looking bemused by the light of her phone, and then this little voice was heard - 'are you ok?' - the very sweet Vietnamese man next door checking on us :)
As I say, all a very strange introduction to Vietnam.
Woke up to see the outskirts of Hanoi, which is quite a shock - you realise just how poor parts of this country are. The train appeared for quite a while to be going down the middle of a street, so we were able to see right in to the shops and houses
Marilyn & I had both had the foresight to arrange a transfer to our hotels, as we were arriving without any local currency, although it seemed that she drew the short straw, as hers was a motorbike transfer, as least I got a car :)
My hotel here, the Jasmine, is the loveliest place I've stayed on this trip - such happy, welcoming people - before I even checked in they sat me down for the most delicious breakfast. This hotel is way over my budget, but I'm so glad I stayed at least a couple of nights.
Am going to have to start staying in much cheaper places from now on, the budget took quite a hammering with all that train travel in China. At least it's very cheap to eat and drink now, beer on average 50p a bottle, and most of the meals I've had were around 1 to 2 pounds.
I absolutely LOVE Hanoi! I've not done too much, taking it easy as I promised, and just wandering around the Old Quarter (where I'm staying) and the French Quarter. There's a beautiful lake about 2 minutes from the hotel, with a temple in the middle, it has a legend, involving a king, a magical sword and a 'lady in the lake', only substitute a golden turtle for the lady
The French influence is quite apparent, in the street signs and business names. It does also mean that the bread here is wonderful, fresh, crusty baguettes and the wine is generally very good :) Also, the street traders and cyclo drivers call me 'madame' (occasionally madamoiselle, which is always good to hear). It's a shoppers paradise here, which has given me the chance to replace my falling-apart flip-flops, and my beloved sunglasses which I managed to leave behind in Nanning.
I have never seen so many motorbikes in one place - it is quite stunning, I'll have some pictures for you soon. Crossing the road is very difficult, there's no point waiting for the traffic to let up, because it just won't. If you see any sort of gap, you just have to go for it. Of course, every 30 seconds or so, someone will be offering you a motorbike taxi or a ride on a cyclo, but I tell you what, the street traders here are in a world apart, they're actually really smily, happy people - I feel genuinely guilty about not buying from some of them (I did give in to one postcard seller with no legs).
The food here is amazing! So many wonderful places to eat, and not enough time... Have been sampling a variety of local dishes, including Bun Cha, grilled pork & vegetables, with rice noodles, coriander and chilli, yummy. Sorry if I go on a bit about food, but for me that's a great part of the fun in discovering a new country :)
Had the willies scared out of me at the prison museum yesterday - Hoa Lo prison, better known as the 'Hanoi Hilton', where US pilots were held during the war (including Senator John McCain, apparently)
Last night I bought a ticket for the Water Puppet Theatre, as it's just around the corner. My 2 quid got me one of the best seats in the house. I'd had my doubts about this show - every time I pictured it, I was thinking of 'Bellefontaine', which my parents and sister know, is this freaky (possibly drug-induced) puppet show we saw in France. Well, if I thought this was going to be like that..... I was absolutely right! It started with these weird puppets (think ventroloquist's dummy), being propelled through a water pool, which formed the stage, by people behind a screen (also up to their waists in water), but I have to admit it got better, some of it was really charming, with dragon puppets, fairies and other mythical creatures (including the legendary golden turtle) and traditional musicians playing to one side of the stage. By the end, when the screen went up to reveal the puppeteers, who were grinning and waving, I think I nearly had a tear in my eye......
That's all for now, as I'm off up into the mountains for a couple of days, to visit Sapa, home of many hill tribes, and then back here to Hanoi, then down to Halong Bay, which is somewhere I've always wanted to see, then back again to Hanoi, before I decide where next. I'm glad that the next couple of trips are near here and keep me based in Hanoi for a bit longer. I think there's a danger that I could stay here so long, I don't get to see anything else of Vietnam :)
Overall, I am of the opinion that Hanoi, does indeed Rock......:)
Photos now added!