Thursday, 4 October 2012

The City (Hanoi - Part 1)

We caught our flight from Vientiane, Laos to Hanoi, Vietnam in the late afternoon, it was quite possibly the best flight either Natalie or I had ever taken. It took about forty-five minutes, we were served a drink, a sandwich and a cake and the seats were nice and comfortable. We landed on time, travelled quickly through arrivals and we were greeted by our driver who took us to our hostel.

Now, let me tell you about this sham of a hostel. The Hanoi Backpackers Hostel on Ma May Street had received some pretty decent reviews, thus giving it a pretty good rating on tripadvisor, however, this was a hostel that masqueraded itself as a backpackers hostel run for backpackers by backpackers when really it was just a sneaky way to rip you off. It is owned by two obnoxious Australians and the downstairs reception area was a rave from early in the morning until late in the evening, not a moments peace. We were in a room with a bunch of gap-year schmucks whose only purpose for being in Hanoi seemed to be to get wasted. We were ripped off when we brought our train tickets through them, by a pretty large amount and when we asked to upgrade to a private room we were quoted a whopping fifty dollars. So, we left. We found an amazing hotel about three doors down that for a private double bed en suite room was the same price as what we were paying in the loud and uncomfortable dorm room. We were thus, finally settled into Hanoi.

Outside of the rough accommodation (which we cleared up) Hanoi is an amazing city. It’s busy. Busier than any city I’ve ever been in. This is nicely exemplified by the traffic. The majority of vehicles on Hanoi’s streets are mopeds, scooters, motorcycles and cyclos (as the locals call them) and they are freakin’ everywhere. To cross the road in Hanoi or indeed anywhere else in Vietnam you put your life in the hands of the hundreds of oncoming motorbikes and cyclos. There are no pedestrian crossings, there is no waiting for a gap in the traffic (it will never come) you literally step out into the road and the traffic will move around you. You walk at a steady pace, you do not stop (very dangerous), you do not speed up or slow down (that way the cyclos and cars can judge where you will be and effectively manoeuvre themselves around you), and you cross the road. Crazy.

We got used to the hustle and bustle pretty quickly and we had an amazing time. Hanoi feels a lot more European than any of the other cities that we’ve been in so far and we felt a lot more comfortable here than in Thailand or Laos. The architecture felt strangely familiar (mostly French) and the language was readable as it used roman characters, therefore navigation was simple.

We went to the Hoa La Prison on our first day, this prison was originally used by the French during their colonial occupation of Vietnam, and then later it was used by the Vietnamese to hold American prisoners of war that were captured from downed aircraft. They even claim (on show near the end of the tour) to have John McCains flight suit, but whether it’s actually his or not, well, your guess is as good as mine. So, like most museums and memorials we’ve seen dotted about South East Asia this wasn’t much different in the sense that it’s being used as a propaganda tool to make tourists feel sympathetic about the hardships the country had to endure. Whilst I’m sure that some terrible things happened at this prison there is no way that the Vietnamese treated the Americans as well as the museum suggests. The death room was quite atmospheric and gave a small insight into what it was like being a prisoner there, and all in all it was a worthwhile tour.

Next on the list was the Women’s Museum and this was a little more balanced than the prison and depicted the story of Vietnamese women’s history. It was fairly interesting but what was most interesting was a video about street vendors on display on the third floor. I had no idea how dreadful the life of a Vietnamese street vendor is. They are usually working miles away from home in the big cities raising money to support their families, they might go home every two months and will bring approximately twenty dollars with them that they earnt on the job. They’ll get up at 3am to go to the market and buy their goods at a cheap price somewhere out of town, they will then head into town ready to start selling bright and early in the morning. They won’t finish until they’ve got rid of a vast majority of their stock this could be anywhere from 5pm until as late as 10pm, then they will go back to their sleeping quarters (usually a small concrete room shared with about fifteen other vendors) to sleep ready for the next day. How different our lives are, huh?

That afternoon we went to see the water puppet show at (low and behold) the water puppet theatre. This is an ancient traditional Vietnamese art which involves telling traditional folk stories using water puppets set to music. It was moderately interesting for about the first three performances but quickly became repetitive. However, it was a great experience and the music and choreography were nothing short of astoundingly impressive.

We went for dinner soon after this and had a walk around the lake which lies in the middle of Hanoi. The food has been great. I’m a big fan of Pho (a rice noodle soup with chicken or beef) and we’ve eaten a lot of French food, that’s’ what they have here. The Vietnamese can get creative with their food though. They eat what seems to be anything that moves. We’ve seen frogs getting chopped up on the side of the road, we’ve read about duck embryos and fetuses being eaten and the cherry on the cake is snake wine.

At a snake wine restaurant you’ll go along with some friends, sit down at a table and say something like “snake wine, please!” then the host will go to his little snake pit and pull out a live cobra. He’ll take the cobra to your table and slit it open and let the blood drip into a shot glass, then he’ll rip the heart out and pop it in there like a little cherry and you’ll down it. Then comes the second shot, snake bile, when you kill a snake it throws up, that’s your second shot. You can’t waste the snake though, so after that they will grill it up for you and you can enjoy some lovely snake steak. I know, right? Pretty sick. Needless to say we didn’t try any of this.

The next day we wanted to check out the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. We were hoping to tick Ho Chi Minh off of our checklist of communist dead bodies (the other two would be Mao in China and Lenin in Russia) but Ho Chi Minh was away for maintenance at the time of our visit. Usually you’ll go and see Ho Chi Minh in his glass coffin, under very strict regulation and supervision, he is perfectly preserved much like Lenin, Mao and Kim Il Sung (North Korea) and we were a little disappointed that he wasn’t there. It is a rather strange tourist attraction though: a corpse. But this guy seriously means a lot to the Vietnamese. He is their national hero, he is on every note of money, on almost every souvenir, the Vietnamese people even go on pilgrimages to this mausoleum to see him. A strange scenario if I ever did see one.

We did walk around his house and a rather absurd museum which was more like an art exhibition dedicated to his life and works, we got a fair enough insight into the old man to feel at least a little like our morning wasn’t wasted. After lunch we headed to the temple of literature which was the most unique temple we have visited so far. It didn’t seem to have a specific religious proclamation (it couldn’t make its mind up) but was more so dedicated to scholars of the ages, mostly Confucian scholars or Taoist. It was a fairly big place, with a small pond (Natalie was more interested in the fishes and frogs than anything else) and some beautiful temples that you could explore.

That evening we had Vietnamese barbecue  whilst the goat’s udder sounded appealing we opted for beef. We are ticking off barbecue styles as well as dead communist leaders, so far we’ve collected Korea, Laos and Vietnam, Laos clearly comes out on top but Vietnam tries pretty hard, it was some tasty food and we ate it on the side of the street which was an experience all by itself. What with all the motorbikes whizzing pass, horns beeping, people going about their lives in the funny triangular hats.

It seems like we spent a long time in Hanoi and so far we are really enjoying Vietnam. It might be our favorite country so far, we’ll keep you posted. We actually spent longer in Hanoi than I’ve detailed here so I’m going to split this thing in two and write about Ha Long Bay (an overnight trip we took from Hanoi) in a separate post. We’re currently sat on a sleeper train from Hanoi to Hue and it’s much more comfortable than the Thai version of the same thing. So, we’re going to kick back and get some rest. We can’t believe how damn fast this trip is going, whatever you do, don’t mention how long we have left to Natalie, she bites.


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