Hanoi, Halong Bay and a little bit of Sa Pa too
26.11.2009 - 06.12.2009
Although we disembarked the overnight train from Lao Cai at 5am in the morning, we immediately had to peel off our jerseys as the humid warmth of Hanoi greeted us! We hoped to have finally escaped the cold that had been following us from Lijiang all the way through southern China and into north Vietnam.
Armed with a sheet of instructions written in Vietnamese (emailed to us by our Hanoi hotel) indicating the exact address of our accommodation and the price we were willing to pay to be taken there, we braved the taxi drivers waiting outside the train station. We had been warned by our guide book and the hotel that taxi drivers were notorious in this city for telling tourists that their preferred hotel was full or that it had moved (often there are more than three hotels with the same name, each trying to poach one another's clientele) and then taking them to another hotel so that they could get their commission. This can result in an unpleasant exchange with the hotelier, even becoming physical!
Our experience during our short time in Vietnam had taught us to be careful: in Sa Pa, we were quoted a certain price for our room the evening of our arrival, and then when it came time to pay the next morning, another 130000 dong was added to the bill. Luckily we had insisted on taking our passports back the night before, and so they had no leverage. We prevailed, and paid the original price! Another traveller in Sa Pa was chased down the road by a man on a scooter, wielding a knife. This guy had offered him a laundry service, and then returned his washing still dirty and so he had refused to pay. Needless to say, he felt forced to pay the guy! (Having said this, these were our early experiences of Vietnam and I am happy to say that things have only improved since then).
Anyway, because of all our precautions, we arrived safe at our hotel in the Old Quarter, US$35 double. It came well recommended and we were pleased with it.
After a quick hour's nap to recover from the train journey, we breakfasted at one of the many cafes in the streets around our hotel. As soon as we ventured out of the hotel, we encountered the infamous Hanoi traffic: throngs of motorbikes, scooters and cars coming at you from all angles as you try to get across the road. Advice from other travellers and the guide books is to walk very slowly, never to run, to give them the chance to go around you and generally it works.
We set off to explore our local area. Going for a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake at the centre of old Hanoi, we stumbled upon the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre and decided to buy tickets for a show that night which turned out to be a series of short tableaus based on old Vietnamese fables and customs, particularly agricultural (water puppetry originated in the rice terraces), all performed by wooden painted puppets on a pool of water, set to the prettiest traditional live music. Very clever and funny, and of course charming: it's lovely to see the delight on the faces of the children.
Back to our first outing in Hanoi, we came upon the smallest of temples after following some people into a tiny unassuming entrance from where we could hear music playing. At the top of the stairs, we saw an ornate altar, complete with gold adornments, a large colourful paper horse, as well as money and fruit offerings. Peering behind the altar, we found a group of musicians seated on the floor, playing and singing.
Another place of interest is Memorial House, an old Chinese merchant's house, now a small museum, still with original fittings preserved and restored. The front room obviously was the merchant's showroom, furnished with a gracious hardwood table only inches from the ground, surrounded by matching little stools: obviously for the merchant to entertain his clientele with tea, I'm sure duly dispensed by the maidservant! The rest of this floor and the upper floor were restored to how a well-off merchant would have lived with his wife and family last century: an antique hardwood bed, complete with bamboo pillow in the bedroom; the living room doubled as a room for worship of the family's ancestors, the kitchen was beautifully restored, there was an old squat toilet in the bathing area at the back.
We also took in the Temple of Literature set in a large tranquil, well-treed garden. Founded by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, the first university in Vietnam was then later established here in 1076 to educate noblemen. They sat examinations in their respective districts, and those who excelled were able to take their doctor laureate examinations at the university. The small number of candidates who passed these were recorded on stelae, large commemorative stones set on the backs of stone tortoises, which were put up at the university. 82 of the original 116 still stand here.
Across the road from the Temple is the Fine Arts Museum of Hanoi in the former French Ministry of Information. This is well worth visiting. (We have particularly noticed in the Old Quarter how artistic the Vietnamese are as the artisans chisel gravestones by hand and war propaganda posters are on display in many of the shops.)
The museum exhibits a wide range of Vietnamese art from applied arts in the costumes, embroidery, tools and furniture of the minority people to temple artworks and sculptures and includes beautiful and distinctive paintings on silk and lacquered wood. It was astonishing and quite moving to see how much their art had been affected by their struggles in the American War.
After pho for lunch at Pho24, and a delicious cake from KOTO next door, we caught a bus back into the Old Quarter and continued exploring. We headed for the traditional street market on Pho Thanh Ha. Walking from stall to stall, we saw fat fish still glistening, plentiful produce, and headless large frogs being skinned as they squirmed.
Next to the Opera House, the history museum is housed in one of Hanoi's most stunning architectural buildings. Designed by the French architect, Ernest Hebrard, it combines Chinese and French elements, to striking effect. The museum charts the history of the Vietnamese from cavemen to their struggle for independence from the French colonialists.
It is said that if you go to northern Vietnam and Hanoi, two places you should visit are: Sa Pa, a mountainous region in the north west, particularly known for their rice terraces and for their unspoilt minority cultures. Although we did spend a few days in Sa Pa, we didn't really sightsee because we had just spent some time at the Yuanyang rice terraces in Yunnan, southern China which is a similar, if less touristy, experience.
The other tour is to stay over on a junk boat in Halong Bay in north east Vietnam. Halong Bay is renowned for its karst limestone formations, similar to those found in Guilin and Yangshuo in southern China and Krabi in Thailand. This was something we were assured you mustn't miss.
We did a bit of research on the best companies for this trip, not being tourgroup-type people, and found that Handspan had the most positive feedback - no rats in cabins, decent guides, good safety precautions etc. It is expensive though, US$197 per person for two nights! After a three and a half hour transfer on a bus there, we spent the first night in a lovely cabin on our "junk", but we had to check out of our cabin at 8am the next morning, I presume because the boat was to be immediately used by the next group. In all, we only spent 17 hours on this boat, although the brochure photos of it had been the selling point for this very expensive tour. (Also, although we were served good seafood, the portions were very small). We were then transported to a support boat, far more basic, definitely no frills. We spent the only full day of the Handspan tour on this support vehicle, from which we went out kayaking, which was really fun and I can`t wait to do it again. Late afternoon, we arrived at Cat Ba Island where we were transported to the Cat Ba Sunrise Resort for the second night of our tour. It was a lovely hotel with spacious room - a highlight of this experience.
We returned to Hanoi for a couple of nights after Halong Bay - it was like returning home! I must say now that we've moved on from Hanoi that I echo what a fellow blogger says: "Oh Bun Cha, how I yearn for you...", I still miss the Hanoi Bun Cha, the food was excellent in general! I miss the character of the city, the lovely French colonial buildings, it retains its historic charm, I miss the Old Quarter, it's a lively city that at the same time feels small and manageable, it's a city with lakes, which I've never seen before. Go there, go to Hanoi!