Saturday, December 6, 2008

Dodging Motorbikes in Hanoi


Destination: Hanoi, Vietnam

Number of Days there: 4

One thing unexpected: Screeching motorbikes EVERYWHERE. Hanoi is crazy!

Times we took the: Boat: 0; Bus/Minivan: 0; Train/Subway: 0 Taxi/Car: 3; Motorbike: 1

Where we stayed: Pacific Prince Hotel - US $20 & Blue Star Hotel - US $7 (for day rate)

Favorite Restaurant: Hanoi Garden - fresh spring rolls for 60,000 dong ($4) & grilled pork with coconut sauce - 100,000 ($7); Pho Gia Truyen (located on 49 Bat Dan street) - 25,000 dong for a steaming fresh bowl of pho & Quan al Ngon - a mixture of street food at its best! Served in an open air garden!

Best of: Birds of a Feather, Flock together: all like businesses can be found in the same section on the same road, so there are all the casket makers next to each other, next to all the flower shops, etc. It's a great experience just to walk around the old quarter and try and guess which sector you are in! Also, you have to love the kiddie play sets that serve as tables and chairs for all your street dining needs!

Worst of: While we were talking to a tour company we told their representative that we were from the US and she got up, left our table to make a cup of tea, and sat down elsewhere without saying another word to us sipping on her tea. Nice.

Special Moments: Sharing a cup of tea after a great Pho dinner with a local couple we met in the park.

In order to avoid a 4 day trip up the river and through the woods on our way into Vietnam we decided to fly into Hanoi (Lao Airlines - $135). On our first day in town we explored the old quarter, took in a water puppet show and the pagoda on the lake. The water puppet show was really entertaining! The music alone was enough but the puppets added a little something extra special and was even a little comical at times. The water Pagoda was across the street so we took a quick stroll around it watching the old men play some version of chess that we could not understand.

Jason was sick our second day in Hanoi so we took it easy (guess that's what happens when you give some of your blood away :-)). Tracy strolled around the old quarter, checking in on the shoe street and the fancy dress street (sadly no purchases though)! Our next day in Hanoi we visited the Temple of Literature and the Army Museum (one of many in Vietnam) with a quick swing by Uncle Ho's place.

The Temple of Literature is one of the oldest structures in Hanoi and served as one of the first universities. Built over a 1000 years ago and dedicated to the teachings of Confucius, it is a beautiful place and a surprisingly quiet oasis in an otherwise loud Hanoi, aside from the tour groups of course :-).

The Army Museum was also an interesting place. Most of the place talks about the atrocities of the French when Vietnam served as a colony and, of course, the American War (it's not called the Vietnam War here). The courtyard outside houses several pieces of armament detailing proudly the number of American planes that particular gun or regiment had shot down. The exhibits inside were filled with some interesting (but mostly silly) items from the war times ranging from handkerchiefs to one sick canteen that a soldier had used to drink his own urine to stay in the battle against the "Americans and the Puppet Government of Saigon". There was also an interesting pop art piece with a Vietnamese lady dragging a wing of a downed American plane. It's certainly a one sided view of the war, but hey, to the victor goes the spoils I suppose.

Ho Chi Minh is to Vietnam what the pope is to the Vatican or the King of Thailand is to Thailand. "Uncle Ho" as he is affectionately known as studied in the US and Europe for nearly 30 years before returning to his homeland and starting the Communist movement. He led the revolution against the French, claimed independence for Vietnam, and was the President of North Vietnam until his death in 69. His face is everywhere, and on every single Vietnamese Dong note. Going against his wishes of a cremation, his body is preserved and set out on display (ala Stalin in Russia) for all to visit...except for the months of September thru November where he takes a vacation to Russia for touch ups (and perhaps to escape the heat??). Since he was not there, we walked by the Mausoleum and headed over to Stalin (yep, there's a statue of him here as well) park. Under the gaze of Stalin, children play football (soccer) skateboard around, and ride little motorized cars around.

It was at the park where we met a nice Vietnamese couple and their little boy. They invited us out to dinner at a local Pho (pronounced Fuh; a soup dish with noodles and meat) place that was the best we had ever had. After dinner we all went to have a nice cup of tea and really enjoyed our chat. They were just coming back to Hanoi from all the flooding where there house was flooded and they had went to stay with her mom for a week. After leaving them, we headed over to one of the popular "fresh" beer places. Pulling up a plastic kiddie seat, we had some cheap beer and called it a night (7000 dong per glass - about $.35).

In between returning from Sapa and heading to Hue (see separate posts) we spent our last day in Hanoi at the Hoa Lo Prison aka the Hanoi Hilton. Built by the French 100 years ago, it served as their prison until independence. During the American/Vietnam war it was home to downed American fighter pilots held as prisoners, most notably John McCain. It's an interesting place to visit complete with a French Guillotine used to know...chop off heads. There were a couple of rooms dedicated to the American pilots showing how well they were treated of course. John McCain's flight suit, reading materials (Uncle Ho's greatest hits), and other personal items. One room was filled with pictures of the GI's playing soccer, decorating for X-mas, and other PR friendly photo ops.

In all it's quirkiness we actually enjoyed Hanoi and began to think that all the horror stories about Vietnam were just isolated incidents. Our only negative impressions came from the one lady at Handspring (recommended by LP/Travelfish but we certainly were not impressed) and the taxi drivers - rip off artists are 9/10 in Hanoi - chances are you WILL get ripped off. At the time of this writing, I read an article in the English Vietnamese paper that said they were going to start to fine them a $1000 dollars if they get caught tampering the meters so at least the government recognizes the problem and hopefully that annoyance will be a thing of the past.

We boarded the overnight train to Hue and said goodbye to the capital of Vietnam.

To see more pictures of Hanoi, click here.

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