We arrived in Vietnam with only 6 days left on the visa we’d bought in Australia in December. As we’d underestimated how long we’d need in Nepal we had to rethink this stage of our trip. Initially we had hoped to spend two weeks in Vietnam and two weeks in Cambodia, but once we worked it out we were only going to have ten days to see as much as we could in both places. Once we looked at the logistics and costs of getting around we realised we were going to have to miss either Vietnam or Cambodia. As we already had flights to Hanoi and a visa paid for, Cambodia missed out – much to our dismay. We decided to spend the 6 days in Hanoi to get a taste for Vietnam and are now planning to come back to this part of the world to see more of Vietnam and Cambodia.
Our flight landed at Noi Bai at about 8am local time and within 5 mintues of our taxi journey we’d seen rice paddies populated by people wearing traditional Vietnamese conical hats and plenty of people on bicycles also wearing the aforementioned hat! We liked it already! We were pretty knackered after our 3.30am start in Bangkok so we slept and wrote the Pokhara blog post until late afternoon.
Before I go on to describe our evening activity, I should mention that a very good friend of mine spent around 12 months in Hanoi learning Vietnamese and undertaking research for her PhD on the transition from colonial to revolutionary art styles in Vietnam. Phoebe had very kindly provided us with a list of things to do, and more importantly, places to eat!!! So that evening we decided to try her number 1 recommendation, a French-Vietnamese fusion restaurant called Verticale. It was nothing short of spectacular. We chose the tasting menu, and had a total of 10 courses. I won’t go into too much detail, but we ate seafood, buffalo, cheeses, chocolates and cinnamon ice cream, all washed down with some French white wine. We were in love with Hanoi.
The next morning we decided to get up early and combine working off dinner from the night before with a Hanoi ‘must see’, Hoan Kiem Lake in the early morning. We jogged around the lake a few times and were thoroughly impressed to see a significant number of the local Hanoi denizens participating in Thai Chi and brisk walks, usually accompanied by a lot of random swinging arm movements. We had no idea that the Vietnamese were so into exercise, but the paths around the lake were packed with people (many of them decked out in their finest silk pajamas), it was almost as bad as Oxford Street around Christmas time. After our jog it was back to the hotel for breakfast and a shower before taking off on a walking tour around the Old Quarter. All the streets around the Old Quarter were originally named for the items that were sold in the shops on that street. While it’s still the case that you go to a particular street for a particular item, I think it’s all a bit more mixed up than it used to be. We really enjoyed wandering around, trying to avoid being hit by the hundreds of scooters and popping our heads into shops and cafes. We saw the beautifully restored Memorial House which used to be a merchant’s house and even managed to pop into house 102 on P Hang Bac which has a fully functioning temple where most houses have a living room! We spotted traditional street markets with baskets of leaping frogs and seafood and ‘Counterfeit Street’ where imitation money is sold for burning in Buddhist ceremonies. We had another lovely dinner that evening at a restaurant close to the hotel and then went to see the famous traditional water puppet theatre. Water puppetry originated in the Red River Delta of Northern Vietnam amongst the rice farmers who worked the flooded fields there, it is at least 1000 years old. The modern shows are performed in a square tank of waist deep water. I really enjoyed the performance (Anthony was a little ambivalent), but was envious of people who would have been able to understand the words in the songs that accompanied the performance.
Next morning we were up early for another jog, followed by breakfast at a little cafe we’d found the day before. Then we were off to the Museum of Fine Arts! We were very impressed with this well thought out museum and the beautiful buildings that it’s housed in. We spent most of the morning wandering around and admiring the laquer paintings as neither of us had seen anything like them before. We certainly have a lot to ask Phoebe about when we get back to Sydney. We headed to a place called Koto for lunch. It’s a restaurant that employs and trains young people from poor backgrounds to be waiters and chefs. We had an excellent meal delivered by some very enthusuastic young trainees, at times we had five people studying us and the menu and taking notes about what we wanted to eat. It was a pretty inspiring place and we decided we’d try and make the effort to go back. In the heat of the afternoon we wandered somewhat lethargically around the beautiful Temple of Literature. This lovely retreat from the hectic streets was founded in 1070 and is dedicated to Confucius. Unfortunately we seemed to have stumbled into a photoshoot, so it was a bit stressful trying to stay out of shot! After this we walked back to the Old Quarter and browsed the silk shops before making our way to another wonderful restaurant, Green Mango, for dinner.
Wednesday morning we were up early again as we were starting to get addicted to our morning jogs around Hoan Kiem Lake. The mornings were always quite damp due to the weird monsoonal downpour that woke us up at about 4am each morning. Then we walked up to see our second of the four ‘pickled’ communist leaders. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a pretty daunting piece of Communist architecture (ie. lots of concrete) that apparently resembles a lotus flower, a claim we thought somewhat unfounded! We found out that the poor guy actually wanted to be cremated, but against his wishes he was embalmed. So we queued with hundreds of Vietnamese to have a look at Uncle Ho. He’s very very pale and frail looking… Anthony helpfully suggested he looks like this because he’s dead. It was a fairly similar experience to seeing Mao in Beijing, except the Chinese are much better at making people shut up and move along. After looking at him we went into the disappointing Ho Chi Minh Museum. We weren’t quite sure what this space was supposed to be, it failed to be informative but certainly managed to be confusing and a bit interesting because of it. It seemed to us such a shame that the museum gave so little of the history of Vietnam, it has the opportunity to really inform tourists (and young local school children) in a visually interesting way about the Vietnam war and the rise of the Communist Party. Instead it’s got some weird modern ‘art’ pieces and some random comments about volcanos being like communism. After that we walked over to the neighbouring One Pillar Pagoda and then north over Ho Tay Lake to Ho Tay Pagoda and a little ex-pat cafe called Kitchen for lunch. We had quite a long walk back to the Old Quarter in the afternoon, but were rewarded when we got there by dinner at another Phoebe recommendation, Cha Ca La Vong. This is a great little fish place that only serves one dish that you cook at your own table. We got chatting to some people at the table next to us, they were from Ho Chi Minh City and were experiencing the novelty of cooking their own grilled fish for the first time too!
Thursday, our last day in Hanoi. We walked to the Opera House which is an exact replica of the Palais Garnier in Paris. In the afternoon we went to the Bui Gallery which was showing an exhibition by Ha Manh Tang. We really enjoyed the exhibition, once again it was not like anything that we’d seen before. We made return journeys to two of our favourite places for lunch and dinner and said our goodbyes to Hanoi.