Hanoi - a vibrant but completely insane city

Trip Start Sep 24, 2009
Trip End Apr 30, 2010

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Where I stayed
Prince III Hotel

Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Nội,
Monday, November 30, 2009

(Warning: some photos may offend – or at least, revolt you!)

Arrival at the airport in Hanoi was a reasonably calm affair. A form to fill in, money to be handed over for a visa then walk out to look for our pre-arranged taxi ride to the hotel.    The driver holding our name on a sign was spotted quickly, and our gear was loaded into the car.  So far, so good.

Then the car moved out onto the road.  My god – I thought I had seen crazy driving before, but driving in Hanoi takes things to a whole new level!

Our driver weaved in and out of traffic at rapid speeds, tailgating one minute, and cutting off others the next – and honking the horn for the entire ride.  And never once actually driving within a single lane.   We came to a big intersection that was blocked with cars.  Our driver cuts across 2 lanes behind a bus through the intersection, and cuts in front of the bus just as it was exiting the intersection.  My foot was jabbing at the imaginary brake on my side of the car for the entire journey!  The only reassuring (?) thought – it wasn't just our driver driving like a maniac.  They were ALL driving that way!  Kuta (Bali) is a stroll in the park compared to this!  (Watch the video in this blog entry to get a sample!)

As we drove along, I was horrified to see a stack of BBQ'd dogs on the back of a motorbike.  They were stacked upside down, still with head, feet and tail.  The tails were bobbing as the motorbike drove along.  I knew to expect this – but not so soon on arrival!

Our hotel is in an area called The Old Quarter, and is representative of the typical French-influenced architecture that we have seen in Hanoi – a very narrow and tall building.  Our hotel is about 5 stories high, but only has 2 rooms on each floor, with a narrow circular staircase coming up the middle.  Unfortunately, we are 3 floors up and as there is no elevator, we climb 60 steps each time we come and go to the room.  It’s a bummer when you get to the bottom and realise you left something in the room.   It’s good for the butt muscles, I guess!  Having said all of that, it’s a great, decent-sized room, and is only costing us NZD$23 per night.

It's winter in Hanoi, and I was expecting at least mildly cold temperatures, but it's still quite warm here.  Maybe in early-mid 20's during the day - which is nice and comfortable.  

The sights and sounds

Wandering around the Old Quarter was an adventure – not to mention downright dangerous!  The roads are narrow and they are chocker full of cars, motorbikes, pushbikes and people.  The footpaths are blocked with boxes and stuff overflowing from the shops, so you are forced to walk down the road amongst the traffic.  If you cross the road at an intersection, you need to look in 6 directions at once, constantly, to make sure you don’t bowled over.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Check out the video I’ve posted!  The driving is just insane here!  And the constant sound or horns honking is deafening.  You will also hear a loud broadcast in the background.  I did a google search to find out what it's all about, and here's what I found:

"As signs of the Vietnam War fade away in this rapidly modernizing country, one relic is hard to miss: a nationwide network of loudspeakers from which the communist government blasts propaganda at dawn and dusk, 30 minutes at a stretch, whether the public likes it or not.During the Vietnam War, the loudspeakers aired crucial warnings about bombing raids. Today, they broadcast an odd mix of local news, bureaucratic trivia, communist ideology and patriotic songs."

We spent our first day here just wandering around to get a bit oriented, and to sort out our planned cruise at Halong Bay. The second day we planned to visit either the Army Museum or Ethnology Museum, but both were closed on Mondays (along with several other places of interest).  Argh!  

We did get to the now-defunct Hao Lo prison (aka Hanoi Hilton) – a prison that was established by the French in 1896.  It was used to detain Vietnamese 'criminals’ – ie anti-colonial revolutionaries (or rather Vietnamese heroes and martyrs).  Years later, it was used to detain American pilots that were shot down during the Vietnam War (including John McCain).  It was a pretty nasty place in its time – with many inmates tortured, beheaded and otherwise inhumanely treated.

Getting to the prison was a bit of a laugh.  We had limited time because we had bought tickets to the Water Puppet show, so decided to hire some cyclos (trishaws) to speed up the journey there.  We had one cyclo each – and asked to be taken to the Hoa Lo Prison.  We even showed them the Vietnamese writing on the map.  We ended up at the Hanoi Hilton hotel.  I’m sure they did this on purpose because we bargained them down on the price.  We then had to pay for another set of cyclos to take us to the prison.  I recorded a bit of the journey on video – another hair-raising ride!  (Video is on this blog entry).

The Thanh Long Water Puppet show was fun to watch.  Essentially water puppetry was created by rice farmers as a source of entertainment.  The puppets splash around in the water as the story unfolds (accompanied by a live orchestra) operated by people standing in the water but behind a screen.  Again, I’ve uploaded a small clip to give you an idea. 

You'll see the photo of the pink cat.  Not sure what that's all about - but it looks like a bit like my cat Jezzie (without the pink, of course!!)  Just another bizarre sight...

The smells - dinner delights

We found some interesting things to see as we wandered around at dinner time.  Check out the photos for some of the more, er ….. unusual ones.  Hungry, anyone?  Thit Cho (dog) is a local delicacy.  It obviously grosses me out, but in their defence, dogs which are eaten are usually farmed.  Kind of like our cows and pigs.  Here is an interesting review by a traveller that gave it a go:   Being fed Fido: Eating dog in Vietnam.  Needless to say, I won’t be trying it.  (It’s surprising at the number of pet dogs with collars that are around, though.  All safely chained up, I noticed).

We saw some tiny feet poking out of dozens of soft drink cans.  The lady tried to tell us it was chicken, but it looked too small, and more like rat to me!  

The tastes

The food here has been awesome (dogs and rats aside).  It is a nice change from the heavier rice and noodle dishes that we have had for months in Indonesia.  They seem to focus on large quantities of fresh vegetables, which is just fine by me.  They also make use of lemongrass and coriander in the dishes, which I love.  Best dish so far is a grated mango, carrot and chicken salad with lashing of coriander dressing.  Yummy!    I have seen a couple of places that run cooking classes.  I wouldn’t mind doing one of these somewhere along the way.  Chris – you would be in cuisine heaven, here!

Next – Halong Bay

Tomorrow we head off for a 3-day/2 night cruise on Halong Bay, an area with stunning scenery.  There were a few last-minute concerns about the highly-recommended boat cruise company that we had chosen (related to internet stories of cockroaches and rats making themselves at home on the boat) but it sounds like the issue has been dealt with.  

Debbie – you should have come!  You would love it here!!

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Trudy on

What an interesting read for the morning - brings back memories from my trip to Vietnam. Loving the pictures and the videos too :-)

Lisa on

Thanks Trudy! So far, it has been fascinating! I do remember you enjoying your trip here - you're one of the people that inspired me to come!

Debbie on

Wow....that place looks amazing....I love the video clip of the traffic...Jay thinks they need traffic control..hahaha...U THINK...??? ? .
Looks like you will a lot of fun here...I wish I was there too

lisa_nz on

I think this city is beyond traffic control! I love it, though. Have just uploaded one more gruesome, food-related pic that I forgot the other day - have a look!

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