Saying 'Hey' to Ho!

Trip Start Jun 15, 2011
Trip End Jun 01, 2012

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Where I stayed
Golden Wings hotel

Flag of Vietnam  ,
Thursday, November 24, 2011

Hanoi is the hub of North Vietnam as well as the Capital and we will spend a few days here between various trips to Halong Bay, Sapa and Laos. 

I know that in previous blog entries I have mentioned that the traffic here is a bit mad but it just doesn't stop surprising you. I guess with such a big population it just means that every square inch of the roads is full, especially in the major cities. Cars have a 200% tax so cost 3 times what they cost in the UK (nobody told one guy who had an Aston Martin in the centre of Hanoi) which is why everyone has motorbikes and believe it or not Saigon/HCMC was topped by Hanoi for crazy roads. There are quite possibly less bikes on the roads, but the roads are much narrower and the main difference is that the footpaths are used for shops, Pho 'restaurants', motorbike parking and as an extension to the road so you are always negotiating the traffic down the small lanes and alleyways. I never thought we would be comfortable with staring at a wall of motorbikes headed towards us and just walking straight into it, but that is what we have to do every time we leave the hotel.

It's not only motorbikes that are over-crowded either, on our way back from Halong city to Hanoi we saw 16 seater minibuses which had more like 30 people in them, I know Vietnamese people are pretty small but even they looked pretty crammed and uncomfortable with a lot of people stood up and hunched over. The roads, even the major roads are full of activity and people selling, at one point there was a row of women in the road selling baguettes every 100 yards, and on the train track was a lady with a food stall, she would just move away if a train came. This sounds crazy but then we had to walk across the tracks to get onto the train anyway so perhaps that's just normal.

All over Hanoi there are Pho Restaurants where there are tiny stools at the side of the road and you crouch down on to the children sized chairs and eat your Pho which is a tasty and very cheap noodle soup. The challenge though is to make sure that you avoid any street stalls that sell dog. It is quite common to eat dog in Hanoi and there is a street a few kilometres outside the centre of the city which has a whole row of specialty dog restaurants. We're pretty sure we saw a cooked dog at one of the street stalls too, it may have been something else but it looked like the back end of half a dog to me and apparently you can tell by the tail. Katy has spent many an hour watching the dogs from the front window in Manly and she assures me that it was a dogs tail. I think our general rule of eating vegetarian at street stalls is for the best!
In Hanoi, shopping is one of the main activities and you can buy absolutely anything and everything here. All the competing stores seem to be in the same area for example there are whole streets just selling shoes and a few days ago we drove past a road with a number of shops in a row which specialise in mannequins. The mannequin shops were jam packed with them all stood there undressed in bizarre poses... It looks really creepy! We went to the wholesale market on one of the days and you can see how these little businesses start. All you need is 2 baskets, a long stick (to carry the baskets) and a few items from the wholesale market, and there you go, you have a business and you know it's that easy because every 5 steps you take someone wants to sell you something. Vietnamese people are very hard working though, and work very long hours despite the low pay, be it on a farm, in an office, or shoe shining on the streets.
After we got back from Sapa we went for breakfast and a guy came up to us asking to clean my shoes. They did need cleaning (unlike the time when one of them asked "Do you want shoe-shine?" and I was wearing flip flops) so we agreed a price an he cleaned my shoes with a tooth-brush crouched over a street drain  while we ate breakfast. He kept turning around as he was cleaning them looking for approval. At one stage seemed to have some thread and I wasn't sure what he was doing but left him to it. He came up and showed me with pride that he had "fixed" my sole by stitching white thread and then polishing over it with black polish... these are walking shoes so not exactly what I had in mind. I definitely didn't ask him to do that and actually really didn't want him to do it but he was so proud of the job he had done and showed me over and over. I went to give him slightly more than the price we had agreed and he looked so shocked! No, I stitch shoe, worth $5... not good for me. We told him that he should have asked because we didn't want him to do it and eventually he accepted it and walked away. However Katy then saw him nearly in tears cleaning up the little area he was working in and she gave him some extra money along with a motherly lecture about how he must tell people before he does the job requiring extra payment! He nodded along but I'm pretty sure he had no idea about what she was saying he was just delighted to have extra money!
You can definitely see that the locals have got it sussed that rich tourists come through Hanoi for Halong Bay. You can get some bargains, but you have to seriously negotiate. I wanted a book about the Cu Chi tunnels and there are people selling books all over Hanoi. One of these ladies was sat outside our hotel and called over "You want book?" I did, so went over to have a look and she had a copy of it there although you can be absolutely certain it's a photocopied version. I asked how much, and she replied 350,000 dong. It says 6 dollars on the back and she is asking for $17 for a photocopy of it. I just laughed and said I wanted it for 40,000 ($2) and we parted company both thinking the other was an idiot. I eventually got it for 50,000 so glad I didn't assume she was being fair.
We've eaten out a fair bit (every single meal) and food service is always an interesting one in South East Asia. We've had some really good service but often people are just so blunt and we have often been sighed at or had eyes rolled when we're having a meal. At one restaurant I asked for the menu and she thought I said bill and got so annoyed when she had to go back and get the menu, I could actually hear her tutting and muttering to herself as she walked away. Also, everything comes when it's ready so you may get your meal, finish it, have a starter afterwards and then the other person's meal will arrive. It just gets sent when it's cooked and isn't planned out at all.
Whilst here we've tried to do some touring around Hanoi to see as many of the sights as we can. On the first day we spent in Hanoi we decided to do the walking tour which began by walking around the lake in the centre of the city. There are hundreds of people in that area and within about 10 minutes of walking around the lake Katy grabbed my arm and whispered, "That's Colin and Gill", my first thought was "who??" and then noticed Katy was following two people, (who slowly worked out were Katy's mum's cousin and his wife) back in the opposite direction from which we had walked. She was trying to be subtle and coughing/shouting Colin's name, she soon realised this was not having the desired effect so ran around in front of them and went for the surprise technique, not the best technique when every tourist is on their guard from pickpockets but it definitely worked! We spent a good hour chatting and all of us could not believe how lucky it was that we bumped into each other in the whole of Vietnam! 

Later we visited some of the essential tourist spots such as the confusing army museum (with barely any descriptions), the Temple of Literature, went to a water puppet show and weirdly saw Ho Chi Minh's embalmed body at the Mausoleum. His wish was to be cremated but they decided to ignore his wishes and have him embalmed for visitors and millions of Vietnamese to visit. We caught a moot (3 of us on a motorbike) to the Mausoleum where's there's a Ho Chi Minh museum (which doesn't explain much about him or the war) and then queued for quite a while to see the man himself. There are soldiers in uniform everywhere and they're very stern and tell you to take your hands out your pockets or straighten up so that you look acceptable to see Uncle Ho. You're then led through the area where his body is lying and the guards stare daggers at you if you slow down at all and there are no camera's allowed. We were actually quite lucky to see him because he goes on holiday to Russia every year between September and November to be fixed up. He had come back to Hanoi a bit earlier this year so was there for us to visit and it was a very surreal and bizarre experience. There are lots of rumours that actually Madame Tussuad's have had some involvement in his "embalment" and you can see why they're skeptical but having never seen an embalmed body before it's difficult to tell.

The water puppet show was great. We had heard it was for kids and expected it to be performed on the lake but there is actually a specific theatre setup for it. The water puppet shows started in Vietnam in the Mekong Delta, every year the rains came in flooding the paddy fields and the people would entertain themselves and each other performing puppet shows in the water. The theme of the show is basically farming so there are scenes with water buffalo fighting, people harvesting and cruising about on boats. In was mainly in Vietnamese so you couldn't be too sure what was going on but it was good fun and really different! The theatre is trying to keep it alive and has done tours all over the world so we were glad we weren't put off by comments that it was only for kids.

Anyway that draws a close to Hanoi for now as we fly to Laos for a few days. Then back to Hanoi for one more night before we return to sunny Australia.
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Ann on

Still can't believe you ran into Colin and Jill!!

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