A week in Hanoi, VietnamEmma - 24 January 2017
We arrived in Hanoi still dripping from the rain in Danang, the flight was so short. It was less than half the price of the train (shockingly) and the airport was walking distance, so flying was a no brainer really. Getting to Hanoi centre on the public buses (bus 17 - 9000 VND/each) was painless too, with an adorable bus driver / conductor duo who sang along to the Vietnamese love songs they were playing.
We’d booked a last minute hotel in the Old City called Happy Moon Hostel, and it felt a bit like we were going to get the hotel no one wanted. Quite the opposite, we ended up staying there for six nights! Rates were the most expensive we’d paid so far in Asia, but the cheapest we'd seen in Hanoi ($15-18 for double rooms of varying size). The rooms were clean, breakfast was included, but the real stars were the staff. They go out of their way to be helpful, and when Mike got ill in Hanoi they offered to cook him simple ‘get well’ food for free until he was better! Plus they were in a far less touristy area than the majority of Hanoi hostels. Winner.
We started in Hanoi by getting our bearings and booking a Halong Bay trip for the next couple of days. We'd been ummimg and ahhhing about whether to skimp or save on a Halong Bay tour. I'd heard horror stories about the cheap ones, but it seemed mad to spend four times our daily budget on a cruise! A lovely Christmas gift of ‘money to spend on something we wouldn't otherwise do’ from Mike’s parents finally swayed us, and we splashed out on the gorgeous Treasure Junk cruise leaving the next morning.
It turned out to be a very good decision!
After the four hour journey to Halong Bay we were taken aboard the ship (masts and everything!) and spent the next two days gliding through spectacular scenery being fed incredible meals involving clams, king prawns, and all manner of sea life. It was fantastic for me, not only because I love seafood, but also as an opportunity to prove to the ever skeptical Mike that seafood isn't a dangerous thing to eat.
Ahhhh, the best laid plans…
Five days later Mike was taken to hospital in an ambulance for treatment for severe food poisoning, after suffering for several days. The clams are Suspect Number One. And I feel like my point about seafood being totally harmless has been a little undermined.
On healthier days, we did manage to see a little bit more of Hanoi itself! We explored Hoa Lo Prison, or as it is ironically known, the ‘Hanoi Hilton’. This is the French colonial prison that was later used to imprison American POWs. Most of it has been knocked down, but one corner has been preserved as a museum. You begin by learning how horrific the French were, and how cruel and oppressive they were to the brave revolutionary Vietnamese (true, no doubt). You then move on to how sweet and welcoming and gentle the Vietnamese were to their American prisoners, which I am slightly more skeptical about. It looks a bit like a holiday camp in the pictures and descriptions they show. The signage is next to useless in most of the museum, more concerned with emphasising the glory of the Vietnamese revolutionary ideal than with actually giving information about the place and artefacts. I stealthily shadowed an English speaking group of tourists who had hired a guide, who provided far more information! For example, in one of the rooms they had a sack as an artefact. The very informative English signage beside it simply said “A Sack”. It was only when I skulked around the tour guide that I learned the sack had been used to tie prisoners up in, and impoverished local Vietnamese men were hired to beat them up, in order to break any nationalist feeling. Similarly a bottle used in horrific torture of female prisoners was labelled only as “a bottle”. The signage became much more verbose when talking about the volleyball the American prisoners enjoyed, and how wonderful a Christmas they had, and how they received gifts and souvenirs when they left…
We also spent a couple of hours in the Vietnamese Womens Museum, which taught us a little about marriage customs, birth, women's work, poverty amongst women, and traditional clothing. Plus it had loads of incredible stories about female soldiers and revolutionaries being pretty amazing, which is always a crowd pleaser where I’m concerned.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum wasn't so great, but seeing Ho Hi Minh’s embalmed body was totally worth it. What can I say, I have a strange desire to see as many dead communist leaders as I can, and ‘Uncle Ho’ brings me to three! If you've ever been to see Lenin or Mao, the experience is very similar. An hour of jumping through hoops, behaving yourself in front of guards, and queuing endlessly, and you're rewarded with 30 seconds to shuffle round Ho Chi Minh’s ACTUAL body! It's a bit sad, since he'd explicitly said he wanted to be cremated and not put on display, but after his death his wishes were overruled. But on the other hand, it is evident that people love him. The lady behind me in the queue had already been to see him four times, and was now bringing her four year old to meet ‘Uncle Ho’ for the first time. Nightmares much?
While you're at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum you may as well see his house too, so I popped by the neighbouring presidential palace, where Ho Chi Minh was meant to live, but refused to. He instead lived in a very stoic, minimalist house in the grounds, respecting his communist roots to the last.
The best piece of advice I heard about Hanoi is to just to exist there, rather than hearing around trying to see sights, and I kind of agree. Some of the best things I did were just when I was enjoying the city, not its sights. Dodging the completely mental Hanoi traffic is definitely one such experience. You have to walk like the locals do, or you'll never get anywhere. And by ‘walk like the locals do’ I mean step out unblinkingly into the path of three cars, a bus and twenty motorbikes and assume they'll find a way not to squish you. Also, there's no pavements in the old city, as they're all used for motorbike parking, so you basically just end up manoeuvring as if you were a bike without wheels.
Another of the joys of Hanoi has been its coffee culture. We particularly enjoyed the gorgeous egg coffees at Cafe Giang (basically pudding, but you can pretend to be sophisticated) while munching on sunflower seeds. It's essentially a mug full of tiramisu custard. Tell me that doesn't sound like the most delicious thing ever! Another good’un was Cong Caphe, where the coconut ice cream coffee was heavenly (thanks for the tip, Lisa)! You might be able to tell that I like my coffee sweet…
While we liked the coffee, we were a bit disappointed by the ‘Bia Hoi Corner’ where you're meant to be able to get 5,000 Dong glasses of beer (£0.11) but everywhere we saw had stopped doing it or trebled the price. I've spotted it elsewhere around the city for 5,000 Dong, but you have to look a bit harder for it. The beer is so cheap because it has to be used within a day.
And a final example of Hanoi just being a nice place… One Sunday morning I went for a jog around Hoam Kiem Lake and it was wonderful. The road around it it closed to all traffic at the weekends, and a festival-like atmosphere takes over. Groups of friends or entire families go out to stroll, musicians perform to the crowds, and keen photographers take the opportunity to practice. Children take to the roads in toy cars, and teenagers play jump rope. I participated in a fifty-person tug of war! The park was also full of marauding packs of high school students eager to meet a foreigner and practice their English. I met so many lovely people this way, and was sorry to hear that many foreigners will not stop speak to them. If you're a tourist in Vietnam, it can be hard to feel like you're getting to get heart of the country. Being handed an opportunity to chat with a local is gold dust, and I love helping out with English as I travel. I'm losing count of all the random impromptu English classes I've given!
We had provisionally planned to spend four or five days around Ha Giang near the Chinese border, where the scenery is meant to be stunning, but Mike’s food poisoning meant that we needed those days as recovery time rather than flying around icy mountain roads on a motorbike! So instead it was time to head way south to Ho Chi Minh City to get festive for Christmas!