After another night bus, they’re frequent these days, we arrived in Hanoi. This time, there was more of a hastle getting rid of the tour operators who ran our bus. They literally tried to trap us on the bus while they transferred our luggage to their office, so they could drive us to their hotel. (Private buses operated by tour companies are a cheap and comfortable way to travel in Vietnam, but they often try to pressure you into a tour or hotel that they own early in the morning when you just a want a coffee and a shower at a fair price.) When we charged the door, the guy asked me what I was doing. With a big friendly smile on my face, I told him that after sitting on my a all night, I was quite capable of walking 2 km to find a hotel on my own. I don’t think he understood me, but he stepped out of the way.
So we walked proudly and briskly into the market area of Hanoi, which was already bustling at 7 in the morning. For a few moments I was taken back to India, as the air was mixed with the smell of incense and spicy curry. We found a room easily, but breakfast was more of a challenge. For a city bursting with cafes and restaurants, it’s amazing how few of them serve scrambled eggs in the morning. We finally found a local cafe with a breakfast menu, more expensive than we had paid anywhere, but we were starving. When our order came out it resembled nothing of what we ordered, and it was a bit greasy, my ”toast” had been fried in oil…but what can you do? Sometimes it’s the basic things that leave the biggest impressions.
By noontime, we were ready to see the capital. First the Temple of Literature, then the Hoa Lo prison and last a traditional Water Puppet Show. An interesting mix of culture for one day. The Temple of Literature, also the oldest university in Vietnam, was built first as a temple to Confucious. The complex is divided into 5 areas. The 4th area honors students who, specifically medical students who had good results. Their names are inscribed on plaques carried by stone tortoises. Other important Vietnamese academics are honored, including Chu van An. The grounds and architecture were simple, but I was impressed with reverence displayed towards education and academics.
After the temple, we walked to the nearby Hoa Lo prison. Hoa Lo prison was built by the French in 1896 and housed political prisoners (Vietnamese revolting against the French occupation.) It later earned the nickname, the Hanoi Hilton, as it housed many American prisoners of war during the Vietnam war. The visit to the prison was sobering…displays on the mistreatment of prisoners, also the last 2 surviving guillotines in Vietnam. However American prisoners apparently had first class treatment, playing volleyball and attending church services. The few accounts I’ve read on-line by American soldiers give conflicting viewpoints.
We spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing by the Hoan Kiem Lake, a pretty little lake near the center, before going to see the Water Puppet Performance. We also visited the cute little Ngoc So’n Temple located on a small island in the lake. As 5 o’clock rolled around, we headed to the theater. The theater was packed, about 100 seats, stadium style, in front of the unusual stage. The background was a beautiful pagoda, the main stage a large square pool of sparkling green water. The musicians were set up to the left side of the stage. They began the performance with a small prelude of traditional Vietnamese folk music. Then the real excitement began. The puppets appeared from behind the small curtain submersed in water and began to dazzle us with their stunts and storytelling. There were numerous short acts (I think around 10 or 12) showing various aspects of Vietnamese life. Including planting the rice, fishing, welcoming home an important member of the community, horse races, boat races and the dance of the lions. Each of the acts was mixed with humour and emotion. We both greatly enjoyed the show, an extremely original presentation of theater.
After an early dinner, we got to bed early. The next day we were going to Halong Bay to spend 2 days visiting the bay by boat.
In the last 8 months of traveling, we could count the days of bad weather on one hand. (Not a bad record considering sometimes it’s impossible to do that in one week in Paris Unfortunately, this day was going to be one of those days. In grey and rainy weather, we made the 3 hour bus trip to get to the port where we would take the boat; then it started raining even harder. As we were deep in conversation with an Australian family we met on the bus, we hardly noticed the terrible weather. We had a traditional Vietnamese lunch on the boat and then set sail for the islands. (We actually went under power.) Halong Bay is sprinkled with hundreds of limestone formations of various shapes and sizes. We visited a huge cave on one of the larger islands. The inside was impressive, large stalagtites and stalagmites formed from thousands of years of rain (I guess rain is common there) and an unusual wavy formation in the rocks formed from the sea water. At some point in the past, this was all underwater. After visiting the cave, we stopped at a small beach where we went for a swim. It was still raining, and there wasn’t much difference between the water and air temperature. A few took kayaks to explore the island. After about 30 minutes, we were freezing, so we changed our swimsuits for pants and a sweater. (It’s funny, but we seemed to get rained on everytime we take a boat on this trip.) The end of the day came quickly; we anchored off an island, had dinner (the same menu as lunch) and retired to our cabin after a few rounds of cards. The boat was quite charming, built for tourists in a traditional Vietnamese style; our cabin was tiny but with an en suite bathroom. It was very romantic, except for the generator that the crew left on until 3 in the morning, whose noise and vibration kept us awake half the night.
The next morning, people were in various moods depending on where there room was located in relation to the engine or the generator. The rain had stopped, but it was still cloudy. Occassionally, we’d have a burst of sunshine. We settled ourselves in deck chairs on the roof of the main cabin and enjoyed the views of the limestone formations as we made our way back to the port. We were a bit disappointed with our visit to Halong Bay; mainly the weather…the tour was lacking something as well. In consolation, we met some very interesting people…
By the time we made it back to Hanoi, we were exhausted. Saturday was the first day of the holiday weekend, and the traffic and crowds were amazing. We found a little indescript cafe for dinner, and went back to the hotel for an early night.
Sunday, we had the whole day to visit Hanoi before catching the night train to Sapa. After packing up and eating breakfast, we went to visit the Ho Chi Minh museum. As we neared the museum, which was located inside the same complex as Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, we were shocked. There was a line half a mile long to get into the mausoleum. After walking around the perimeter, we finally found the entrance to the museum, no line, but packed with Vietnamese. It was too much for Fabien, so he decided to wait outside in the garden, and I made a quick visit to the museum. It was a modern tribute to Uncle Ho. There were some interesting exhibits about his life, the independence struggle, the rise of the communist party and his death. From the museum, we walked to the West lake, the largest lake in Vietnam. There were lots of Vietnamese enjoying their Sunday afternoon in swan boats, or picnicking with friends near the river. We visited the Tran Quoc Pagoda,located on a small island; it’s the oldest pagoda in Hanoi.
We then walked back towards the historical quarter to do a little gift and souvenir shopping. One of the typical handicrafts of the area are beautiful embroidered pictures, depicting scenes of daily life. To round off the day, we stopped for a beer and a sandwich in a cafe on the 5th floor of a building, with a balcony looking out over the lake. The city was alive, Sunday evening of a holiday weekend, and we had to fight our way back to the hotel to get our bags before going to the train station. Next stop, Sapa.