A 13 + hour flight is not what I call fun but my plan for the flight was executed perfectly. Glass of wine (or two) accompanied by half a sleeping pill and I must have slept on and off for 6 hours. Cathay Pacific definitely makes it easier. Comfortable seats. More leg room. It is no business class or first class pod but for economy, it’s not so bad. And for a scared cat flyer like myself, the flight was pretty smoothe. A few bumps along the way but nothing that I couldn’t handle. We were flying through Hong Kong and as soon as we landed we were met by DragonAir staff who herded us through the airport. I had been worried about making our connection with the tight time between but they were on the ball. Before we knew it we were up in the air and on our way Hanoi.
I really didn’t know what to expect when we landed. I had heard amazing things about the country and I had done my research but I don’t think any of that really prepares you. We hopped in a taxi and were off to the old quarter where we were staying. I think Sue and I were pretty silent on the ride in. Just took it all in. It is hard to put into words. I was explaining to a co-worker how I was struggling with putting it into words and she said it perfectly. It is like you were plucked out of Vancouver and put into the set of a movie (Thanks Aly!). It was so different. So stripped down. Culture shock. Big time.
The closer we got to the old quarter the crazier the traffic got. And the honking. I did not understand the honking at first but there is a method to the madness. They honk to say they are turning, they honk to pass, they honk to say watch out I am here or move over. You get used to the sounds but when you first experience it…. it’s just nuts!
We got dropped off at our hotel and after our taxi driver tried to make us pay more than we were told (we didn’t let him get away with that), we settled in our hotel room and then immediately hit the streets. The next thing we experienced was trying to cross the street. Again, there is a method to the madness. You can’t wait until there is a space because more than likely there is not going to be one. You can’t run across the street because you will get hit. You have to slowly make your way across making eye contact with all the mopeds, motorcycles and cars who are coming at you from all angles. They will move around you but you have to be slow and steady and basically go in between them all. Petrifying at first but we became professionals by the end of our trip.
Here is a video of what it is like. Not one of the busier streets but you can see that there is no stop signs or lights. Anything goes.
We just walked around the streets of the Old quarter that day. Walked around Ho Kiem lake. Got lost pretty much every second turn. Avoided getting hit by a million mopeds. We got aquainted.
That afternoon we napped. There was no way we were going to make it through the day so as much as we hated to miss out, we had 18 days so getting on a schedule was important. A short nap and we were back out ready to find a place for dinner. We really just wandered around until we found something that looked good. It ended up being a Lonely Planet recommendation, Little Hanoi. A great meal to start our trip. And the fantastic meals never ended. 18 days. Not one bad meal.
We had an early night but woke up in the morning with no power in our hotel. So me deciding not to have a shower the night before ended up being a horrible idea as I now wouldn’t be showering for another day. Was a little bit of a theme for us in Vietnam. Things went a little sideways at times resulting in showerless Jen and Sue. Oh well. What can you do?
We headed down for breakfast but of course there is no power so no food can be cooked but the guy downstairs puts a menu in front of us anyway. So we are looking at it thinking they must have figured something out until the people next to us said that they couldn’t cook anything but they have bagettes. We laughed as the guy was standing waiting for our order. Clearly, we will have the bread. So I say “I will have the bread” and Sue says “I’ll have what they are having” and points to the couple next to us. So freakin funny! So we have our bread and head off into the streets of Hanoi once again.
A busy day! We took a taxi to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Total cost for the taxi was 30,000 dong. About $1.50. As we entered, there was a sign that said we had to drop our bags off as well as any guns, weapons, explosives etc we might have. Good to know that we can carry them but just can’t bring them in with us. We filed into line to enter the mausoleum. A very strict process. No talking. Single file. But so crazy filing passed him. So perfectly preserved. And a little creepy to be honest. We then got to wander around the grounds and visit the Presidential Palace.
The stilt house where Ho lived on and off from 1958 to 1969 is beside the palace. A humble abode. Here is a picture of the inside of the house.
After the Mausoleum, we walked down to the Army Museum which has a large collection of planes, helicopters and wreckage captured from the years of warfare in Vietnam. It was really interesting walking around.
Probably shouldn’t be smiling as there was so much death associated with all of these wars but it was cool to be able to go inside and see what it was like.By now, I was starved so it was time to eat! We stumbled into a restaurant that once again we realized was another Lonely Planet recommendation. Cafe Smile. It is part of the Hoa Sua chain that trains disadvantaged kids for careers in the culinary and hospitality industries. Our server was the cutest thing. He was just so happy and a perfect host. And the food was fantastic! There was a moment though when i got my meal, that I thought “Is this chicken” but it was and it was great!
Right across the street from Cafe Smile was the Temple of Literature. Along the wall of the Temple, were people of Hanoi selling their artwork. I actually really wanted to get one but new it wouldn’t pack well. Below is one of them creating.
The Temple of Literature was packed that day. Made for a hard visit. Not much room to enjoy it. But it was beautiful.
Our next destination was the Hao Lo Prison Museum. Heart wrenching. What these prisoners went through here. Apparently the prison was supposed to hold about 450 prisoners but in the 1930’s it housed about 2000. Below is a model of how they prisoners were cuffed to long beds.
Making our way back to the Old quarter we wandered the streets. Some pictures of our travels.
The one thing about Sue and I and our travels is we always end up stumbling upon things on our list. Le Pub was one of those things and by this point in the day it was most definitely Beer O’clock so we were grateful to have randomly passed it! And the best part…. Jager bombs. I had been dying for a red bull and so when it is cheap as it was here, jumped at the chance! So a jager bomb and a beer later, we were off to find the spa for our first of many massages on this trip.
We didn’t find the place recommended in our book but found another spa. Decided on a manicure and a massage for $20. The manicure was decent until they wanted to do our massages right away after they had just painted our nails. Totally ruined by the time we had gotten on the massage tables. Pointless. But the massage was pretty good. They literally walked on our backs which I haven’t had before. A funny moment when all of a sudden there were 4 feet below my bed and there was a change of the masseuse. And then a shuffling of other feet as someone else left the room. But left there relaxed and ready for our over night train to Sapa.
Some thoughts about Hanoi. Although busy, it is a wonderful city so full of life until midnight then everything shuts down and the streets are empty. Mid February, they still were playing Christmas music and had Christmas decorations up. They love Backstreet Boys. Actually all of Vietnam loves Backstreet Boys (more on that later). The people are super friendly and loved to smile. As an introduction to Vietnam, it was perfect.
There is a part 2 to our Hanoi adventures. We came back to Hanoi after Sapa and Halong Bay. Stay tuned.