My early morning taxi ride from the train station to the Old Quarter took only a few minutes, and after a couple of head shakes and puzzled looks, my driver found the small alleyway where my desired guesthouse was located. After finding where the guesthouse was supposed to be, I saw a sign that said they were closed for remodeling, so I went into the one next door where a few other people were already milling around the lobby. After talking to the young woman running the place, she said they had a room but that it wouldn’t be available until after 11 when the person checked out. I said that was fine, but in reality was so tired that I just couldn’t imagine walking around trying to find another place. Since it was only about 6am, I cleaned up a bit in their bathroom and walked around the streets for a little while, and had some coffee. It was a nice morning and Hanoi was almost peaceful at this hour, though there were plenty of people already buzzing around. After wandering around for about an hour, I headed back to my guesthouse and waited for my room, and watched TV in the lobby. Luckily, the room opened up sooner than they thought, and I managed to get in there a bit after 10am. Not wanting to waste the morning, and since I was up already, I quickly showered and went out again to explore.
My first order of business was the get some Vietnamese money, and I set off to find a bank that would exchange Hong Kong dollars. I had taken out more HK dollars than necessary, thinking I could exchange them for dong in China, but no bank sold any dong, so I was left with a large amount of HK dollars, and no need to change them to yuan. I found a bank that would do it, and after counting out what was the equivalent of about US$250, I was given almost 3 MILLION Vietnamese dong. The stack of money in my hand was ridiculous, and I had to wrap it up it paper and put it in my backpack instead of my wallet because it wouldn’t fit. 1US$ was about 10,000 dong, and I now had a pile of money. WIth my new found riches, I found a little restaurant and had breakfast, and as it was also a recommended travel agency, started to find out prices for trips to Halong Bay. I had told Adam I would look at prices and wait for him in Hanoi while he climbed Fansipan mountain near Sapa, so I did a bit of research on the kinds of trips that were available, and found an internet cafe to send him the information.
The rest of the day was full of wandering, my favorite way to explore cities, and Hanoi was a great place to wander, especially the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter is full of tiny little streets, that are all named after the products they used to sell, like fish or salt or pottery. Now, a lot of the streets would be called cheapie souvenir crap street, but they still had plenty of character and great people watching. I found the street selling shoes, and managed to buy a fake pair of Teva flip flops to replace mine that I lost down the train toilet in China almost two weeks ago. Someone I managed to backpack without flip flops for two weeks, something that is unheard of in these circles. Anyway, I bought a decent pair for $3, which were clearly not real Tevas but would do the job that I needed. Walking around the shoe street was difficult, they had so many cute shoes, but as a blessing in disguise, rarely had my size when I asked for it, and my flip flops were my only purchase. It was hot in Hanoi, like everywhere else, and I wasn’t used to walking so much in a city, and since I had barely any sleep on the train and an early morning, I went back to my guesthouse for an afternoon nap.
I woke up groggy and confused, as the sun was starting to set outside. After another shower, I set out again to find some dinner, and settled on a small place serving both Vietnamese and Western food, with a nice view of the bustling streets. Vietnamese food is a bit different than other Asian foods, and I find it really a refreshing change. They don’t use as many heavy sauces and coconut milk, and instead rely on a lot of fresh herbs and crisp vegetables, which makes for very nice, lighter meals. After China, it was definitely a nice change of cuisine, and I had the first of what would be almost daily fresh spring rolls with shrimp. Vietnam also has many national beers, all brewed in the region, and I tried a Hanoi beer with my dinner. I still didn’t really feel 100% after my night and long day, so after dinner and a bit of a walk around, I went back to my guesthouse for some much needed TV time and reading.
The next morning, determined to get a few things accomplished, I set out to the Museum of Ethnology, a vast complex with displays on the ethnic makeup of Vietnam and its many different tribes. I hired a moto driver for the ride out there, and was surprised to find it actually scared me a bit, as the traffic in Hanoi is much crazier than anywhere in Cambodia which was the last place I was on a moto. But we arrived safely, and I paid the very cheap entrance fee of 5000 Dong and went in. There were two huge new floors in the building with displays on the many different tribes and groups of people living in Vietnam and how they are related to tribes in other parts of Asia. After a good hour in there, I took a walk through the garden and found life size replicas of different styles of homes and houses that the tribes live in. It was interesting to see how different the types of homes could be made out of wood and bamboo and palm fronds, and they have evolved so differently from each other. I headed back and found my moto driver, and asked him to take me to see Ho Chi Minh, but when we arrived it was closed, and the guard told me to come back tomorrow. Since there weren’t any other museums or anything I wanted to see that day, I paid my moto driver and decided to walk back to my guesthouse. Along the way, I took a detour to visit a small restaurant that trains street kids in restaurant work, one of many of these kinds of restaurants in Asia.
I sat down at the small restaurant, and was pleasantly surprised by the eclectic menu and the prices, which weren’t out of range. The table was at a nice window facing the street and I watched loads of tourists pass by on their way to the Temple of Literature, a popular tourist sight across the street. After my lunch, I decided I couldn’t stomach going to another temple that day, so I made my way home. I just happened to walk by a hair salon that was recommended in my guidebook and went in to find out the prices. My hair was looking very shabby as of late, and though the price was more than what one would expect in Asia, it was a nice modern place and decided to treat myself. And what a treat it was! A nice young Vietnamese man, probably training to be a stylist, washed my hair and gave me a scalp massage for about 15 minutes, already worth the money I had spent on my haircut, and gave me a much needed conditioning treatment. After that, another man went over my hair and discussed what I wanted, just like at home, and then quickly dispatched the ends of my hair. My bangs were a bit more trouble, as I don’t think he realized how much my hair would shrink up when it dried and he cut them a bit too short. But it was a good decent haircut, and even though it was more than the $8 cuts I get at home, I decided it was worth it, if only for the scalp massage.
Feeling oddly glamorous with my shiny straight hair, I finally made my way back to my guesthouse. By the time I reached the guesthouse, I was a sweaty mess again, and I think my hair was starting to frizz. The girl that worked there was so sweet, and immediately noticed my hair. How I must have looked before that! After some rest and relaxation in my room, I changed my clothes to get out for some dinner. Though the Vietnamese food was good, I was in the mood for Western food now, and found a bar that served typical bar food and watched some TV with beer and a burger. It was hard to imagine that outside was Vietnam and not a street in Chicago somewhere. After dinner, I walked around a bit more, and passed by the opera house. I noticed the banner outside, and realized they were having a special performance of The Magic Flute, the same opera I had seen in the Sydney Opera House. I couldn’t let the opportunity for comparision pass by, so I bought a ticket for a few nights away, as the other nights were sold out. I still hadn’t heard from Adam but assumed he would be in Hanoi in a few days. It was getting late now, and not feeling like being out alone any longer, went back to my guesthouse and pretty much immediately fell asleep.
For some reason the next morning, I couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed, and ended up lounging around for a long time. I finally dragged myself up and into the shower, and after a quick breakfast of Pho, the national dish of Vietnam, which is basically noodle and beef soup, and an iced coffee, I set out to visit the Hanoi Hilton. Hoa Lo Prison, nicknamed the “Hanoi Hilton” by the inmates held there during the Vietnam War, is famous not only for the apparent conditions that the prisoners were subjected to, but also for the fact that many American POW’s, including Senator John McCain, were held there. It was a short 15 minute walk from the Old Quarter, and I found the building easily down a small side street, next to the street which was now home to the real Hilton Hotel of Hanoi. The first part of the tour takes you through the main holding and sleeping area of the POW’s, and then through various different displays of photos and propoganda of the war. In one room were pictures of John McCain and other POW’s, and included his flight suit in a glass case. There were also a few cells left over where other prisoners were held and presumably tortured. It is always weird and disturbing to visit a museum like this, that was actually used as a prison or something, and is now a tourist attraction. After I thought I had seen everything, I didn’t linger and left quickly, the reminder of the war seemed far too real in there. I had thought that being an American in Vietnam would be weird, that I might be treated poorly or had problems, but I found that in fact the opposite was true. Even in the north, every time I mentioned that I was American, the locals seemed almost pleased that I was there, and I didn’t experience any hostility at all while I was in Hanoi. But being in the museum was just too strange for me, and it was the first time that I felt the impact that the US had had on another country.
Since it was a Friday, the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum was closed, so I didn’t really have a lot to do the rest of the day, and spent a good amount of time in the internet cafe, trying to catch up on this blog and upload some photos. My CD’s of China didn’t scan for some reason, so to be on the safe side I found a photo shop and had new CD’s burned off my memory card, since I was waiting to hear from my mom if they had arrived home safely. I also decided that I could not spend another day in Hanoi wandering around alone, and my guesthouse, while nice, didn’t seem that conducive to meeting people, so I booked a tour to visit the Perfume Pagoda the next day, more for the chance to meet people and get out of the city rather than any desire to see another pagoda. The rest of the day went by quickly, and after some dinner and a few drinks and wandering through the night market, I headed for home again.
My tour guide picked me up at 9am the next morning, and since my guesthouse was on an alley, I hurried after her towards our bus that was waiting on the main street. There were a few other people on the bus, and I sat next to a single woman in the second row. After only a few minutes, we started chatting. Amanda was from DC, and was wrapping up a quick trip to Asia after teaching English in Prague for two years. Unfortunately, she was leaving in just two days, but we got along well and talked the whole two hours while we headed out of the city into the country. Our bus finally stopped by a small river, and we got out and boarded incredibly small little paddle boats. We had one rower for three people on one boat, and we quickly but calmly started heading down the small river towards the pagoda. There was one couple of the other boat with our guide, and Amanda and I were joined by another solo traveler Ben from London. The boat trip took about 45 minutes, and we arrived at a small dock and deboarded.Our first stop was a small temple located at the foot of the mountain, and after a quick stroll around, we headed up towards the pagoda, a very steep exhausting 50 minute climb. We had bought cable car tickets to go down, but as a group decided to walk up. In the heat of the jungle, we were all quickly drenched but made it up quickly.
The perfume pagoda was sort of uneventful, an altar to Buddha in a huge cave in the side of the mountain. The views were pretty of the hills, but having seen many pagodas in caves, I wasn’t very impressed by the sight. But as I had set out to do, I had met some people and gotten out of the city, and the boat ride to the pagoda was beautiful, through the rice paddies and great scenery, and a very quiet comtemplative trip. On the way back to Hanoi, Amanda and I made plans to meet up for dinner and we reached Hanoi in the late afternoon in crazy traffic. After showering and resting for a bit, I went to Amanda’s guesthouse, and we headed towards a restaurant that was above the main street, where we had great views of the crazy traffic below. We quickly ordered spring rolls and some beer, and then dinner and talked and watched the world go by beneath our feet. After a quick run to the bathroom, I came back to find Amanda talking to a guy at the table next to us, and after a few necessary chit chats and questions, he moved to our table to continue talking. Julian was a doctor from London and on a short two week holiday around Vietnam. We quickly ordered more beers, and more beers, but at 11am, the restaurant was closing, as were all the bars around. We asked the restaurant if there was anywhere to go, and they gave us some sketchy directions to a bar that was supposed to be open late.
We eventually found the bar, actually two separate ones that were clearly popular for expats living in Hanoi. We grabbed the last comfy couches by the door, and more beers were ordered and more talking continued. A vast number of characters joined us and left us on those couches, and every time I looked down Julian had ordered another round of drinks for us. It was truly an ecclectic mix of people, with the older German man who just could not believe I was American but spoke German, apparently missing my obvious American accent, or the crazy Kiwi who was able to insult all of us in about 4 minutes of sitting down, or the French guy who was married but was clearly hitting on Amanda all night and seemed drunkenly puzzled as to why this was a problem. It was a hilarious night, and looking at my watch, realized it was past 4am. THe bar was starting to finally shut down, and the owner offered us free moto rides home from his staff so we wouldn’t walk alone. Unfortunately, I had no idea the name or street address of my guesthouse, but luckily had a card of the internet cafe I had been using around the corner and directed him there. WHen I arrived, the guesthouse was shut completely, with corrugated tin doors shut and locked. After quietly and embarrassingly knocking, I banged a bit harder and harder until the poor girl woke up to let me in. Thought surely not the first time, they were nice and I felt awful I had woken them. Sleep overcame me quickly and I soon forgot all about it.
The next morning, or late morning as it were, I felt like crap obviously. AFter a refreshing shower, I went downstairs and immediately apologized for waking the family, but she shook her head and said it was okay, they knew it happened sometimes. The doors close at midnight so they are used to people coming in later. I was supposed to meet Amanda and Julian for lunch, so after checking my email and sending Adam another one to see when he was due to arrive, set out to meet them for lunch. Somehow only Julian was there, and after eating and Amanda not turning up, we went to her guesthouse, where they said she had just left. We had just missed each other, so I left her a note to meet us for dinner, and Julian set off to sightsee and I went back to bed for a bit. A few hours later, I got dressed and checked my email. I got a strange email back from Adam, or not Adam as it turned out, asking me who I was?! Apparently, I had his email wrong, which was a shame because he didn’t have mine, and also I didn’t want him to think I had blown him off. But these things happen sometimes traveling, so I realized I had been in Hanoi too long waiting for him, so I booked a three day trip to Halong Bay for the next day. I met Amanda and Julian for dinner, and after a quick meal, set off for the opera, making plans to meet Amanda later for a few drinks and said my goodbyes to Julian and exchanged emails to try and meet again somewhere else in Vietnam.
I arrived at the opera house, and was pleasantely surprised at the gallantry of it all, and how dressed up people were, more so than at the Sydney opera house for some people. They were celebrating Mozart’s birthday, and had consulted an Austrian conductor to teach the opera and some German to the singers. I have to say it was a bit disconcerting to have all the singers be Asian and singing in German, but quickly got used to it. The songs were still in German, and were subtitled in Vietnamese, whereas the speaking parts were in Thai and subtitled in English. The lead female had a great voice and I enjoyed listening to her, but the others weren’t that good. The set design and costumes were a bit childish, but it was really cool to see this production, as they were obviously trying very hard and had a difficult time learning the German and putting everything together. As with many operas nowadays, and as they did in Sydney, there were some modern touches to the opera to try and bring in the whole audience. The opera house itself was beautiful, but you could hear some of the louder traffic noises from outside which was a shame. Even though I had a box seat, I still was partially obstructed from the left part of the stage, and the events of the previous night began to catch up with me. I decided to leave in the middle of the second act, as I really wasn’t paying much attention to what was going on and gettting very tired and late to meet Amanda.
I hopped on a moto taxi and zipped to her guesthouse and found her emailing, and we found a small restaurant down the street to have a small bite to eat and a few drinks. She was flying home the next day, and I was heading to Halong Bay, and it was nice to just chat and catch up with another American girl for once, as I have met so few on my trip. It was interesting to hear her perspective of traveling, as she said she was completely stunned by Cambodia, whereas I didn’t find it that shocking for some reason. We both seemed to be in that same state of flux with our jobs and careers and such and we had a lot in common. But it was getting late, and we finally traded emails and said goodbye, wishing her a safe flight and me safe travels, and set off on our way. I got home and packed for the next day, just packing a small overnight bag to take on the boat and leaving my big backpack at my guesthouse. I finally finished and got into bed, a full exhaustion overcame me with many random nights of sleep and walking and all the activities of the past few days. I was looking forward to getting out of Hanoi now and into Halong Bay, one of the “must-do’s” of Vietnam, but a far cry from Hanoi City life.
Tags: Hanoi, Hoa Lo prison, Vietnam