Time to be a Tourist in Hanoi!

Trip Start Oct 14, 2009
Trip End Dec 31, 2016

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Flag of Vietnam  , Ha Nội,
Wednesday, January 6, 2010

I totally get Hanoi. And I love being in Hanoi. I am back in Hanoi for a couple of days before my flight back to Bangkok.
Where I stayed:
I am staying at the Hoa Binh Palace Hotel as The Elegance Hotels where I usually stay are fully booked. Mr. Binh from Elegance 2 recommended the Hoa Binh and I booked it through Agoda. It is located just down the street from Elegance 1, in the old city quarter opposite the small daily market. It is only a short walk to the lake and I am enjoying wandering around the nooks and crannies of the old city, mostly on foot from here. This hotel is a bit larger than the Elegance Hotels. There is a pretty full service restaurant on the 8th floor with a view across Hanoi. The hot breakfast buffet was included in my reasonable room rate and was great. The staff is lovely and helpful. With free wireless and 2 complimentary desktop computers in the lobby for guests, (the Elegance Hotels have this and provide desktops in each room also) these comfortable boutique hotels usually priced from about $40 to $70 per night, have it all over the more expensive western chain hotels that still charge exorbitant internet rates. I would return to the Hoa Binh again, and Elegance 1 and 2 also!

The Hanoi Art and Gallery Scene: Today I wandered around and checked out many of the small art galleries that dot the old city streets. Most galleries have an artist, or several working in studios in the back, or even painting in the retail space. If reproductions of old masters are your thing (not for me), you can buy very well executed hand painted copies very cheap. I particularly enjoyed comparing the different styles of Vietnamese themed art aimed at the tourist trade, and I loved seeing some of the very creative contemporary paintings, exquisite lacquers, interesting collage, and print media.

At midday, I took a motorbike to the Museum of Fine Arts.  I had a quick lunch in the Museum café and set off to explore the highly recommended museum. I was disappointed in the Fine Arts Museum. The gallery spaces are lovely and I found some good examples of early stone sculpture. The group of 1940's and 50's paintings provided fun clues to the French culture of that time period. And many of newer lacquers are quite impressive. Most of the historic or pieces shown as old were actually reproductions! They weren't disclosed as such in English in an obvious place. I am not sure if I saw that fact disclosed at all or if I read it somewhere.  I asked a Vietnamese guide who was giving a small tour in English about this. He replied that if the originals were displayed, they would all be at  great risk for theft or damage. My overall impression is that there has been and is a talented art scene in Hanoi and the many treasures must be somewhere. Sadly, they are not in the National Fine Arts Museum to be shared with the Vietnamese people and those of us who visit from around the world.   

The street scenes: It is hard to describe this country at a cusp. It seems as though you can feel time changing. I marvel that every mode of transportation imaginable share the same streets. There are vendors and shops selling any class of goods you can dream up. Do you need a metal gong? a bamboo ladder? a grave monument personalized? metal fabricated? artists' stamps hand carved while you wait? warm fresh bread, fruit, or fried sweet dough? French food, health food, seafood, or indochinese food? It's all easy to be had in Hanoi's old quarter.

My favorite spot for quiet in Hanoi: This is a really good tip, trust me. NOLA (as in New Orleans, LA, it's easy to remember) is a cafe not too be missed. It is in the old quarter on Ma May street almost next door to Elegance 2. Look for the sign on the street. Find your way inside and what you see is not what you get. Continue upstairs and explore all of the levels of this wonderful old building. There are comfy indoor spots and garden settings to settle into with a book or your laptop. I did not try the food but the coffee is great! Well, all of the coffee in Vietnam is great, right.

Vietnamese Coffee: I went looking to buy some Weasel coffee, the best coffee in the world. Nguyet sped me around the old city on her scooter. I have a ball and feel decades younger with Nguyet! Hanoi is her town. Nguyet was raised here and went to University here. She knows everything about Hanoi. You can see that she knew right where to find the "Weasel Coffee!" What's so special about the Weasel coffee? It's the flavor! Why is it called "Weasel Coffee?" The secret is the weasels. They eat the coffee beans and regurgitate them. I am not kidding and I drink it!

A night on the town: Nguyet took me for "Fish Pho." She knows that I do not eat meat so we went to a Pho "street restaurant" that cooks with fish and seafood. Yum. Then we went to a "fruit cafe." We had an unusual and tasty fruit parfait before heading over to Ho Chi Minh's Mausaleum for the nightly flag lowering ceremony. At 9:00PM every night there is a formal flag lowering with a military parade. Many Vietnamese come out to watch this. I did not see any other tourists. When I am with my Vietnamese friends, wherever I go, other young Vietnamese come up and introduce themselves. They are genuinely curious about where I am from and what I am doing in Vietnam. Most want to try and speak English and all want photos with me. Nguyet, once again you are a terrific host. You can be an evening tour guide in your spare time! Thank you and I totally love Hanoi!
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