The taxi drive from the airport gave us a first view of vietnamese rural life. People at work in the paddy fields, bean poles and numerous unidentified crops lining the sides of the road.The villages had the usual one story dwellings we were expecting and then randomly the very colourful new builds 2-5/6 story building 2-3 rooms deep and 1 room in width with louvre doors/large windows would pierce the skyline. Sometimes on its own, or sometimes in a cluster of 2 or 3 buildings similar to the French colonial style which is throughout Hanoi.
As we approached the city the road suddenly became awash with mopeds and motorbikes. They would weave in and out between the cars, buses and lorries like birds between branches. Motorbikes and mopeds were by far the most popular mode of transport and during our time in Hanoi we witnessed a variety of people: students, professionals, stiletto clad glamorous ladies, entire families (parents plus up to 3 children), groups of friends, couriers of all manner of things including aluminium girders or steel cabling which completely enveloped the driver and the surrounding area. Some on their phone and on two occasions there were people texting while driving along-in particular one case where the person in question was pretty engrossed in their text they almost had an accident. The streets were also lined with millions of cables which resembled locks of hair which turned into spiderwebs between buildings and down side streets. Some enterprising street barbers had set up on the side of the road with their mirrors and equipment pined to a tree.
On arriving at our hotel (Green Street Hotel) on the edge of the old quarter we had a quick shower each and then fell asleep for 16 hours. The first few days in Hanoi were fairly jet lagged. We didn’t really feel alive until Saturday. That combined with the head cold/cough combo I managed to bring with me from the UK has lingered on and is still not completely over even with being here over a week. So we started the trip nice and easy on the first full day (Thursday) we had a walk around the Hoàn Kiểm Lake (it has a nice legend attached to it, and is know as “Lake of the returned sword” legend has it that the turtle who reclaimed the sword still lives in the lake. There is at least one turtle living in the lake, an endangered species). We then headed down by the French Quarter to the History Museum. Unfortunately we arrived at 12.15 and it was closed for lunch, so we wandered around looking for somewhere to eat, ended up the museum Garden Cafe which was reasonably cheap and the Pho Ga (chicken noodle soup) was pretty good (despite the poor reviews on Trip Advisor I have seen since), washed down with local Han oi Beer and coffee.
We went on to the museum which is split over two buildings but unfortunately we spent far too long in the older part and didn’t get to finish the more interesting recent history part.as it closed at 5. That evening we fell into a tourist trap on our street (which was all tourist traps in fariness) and went to 69 which had lured us in when we saw some guys dish which looked really interesting. The food was nice but the whole meal and drinks was a whopping $30 for a few courses (we are allowing $10 max for our evening meal so got stung a bit there). That said we tried some fish sausage and pork wrap (you can see the makings of it there) and the spring rolls were lovely.
Friday we got moving about 10.30 am and after the basic breakfast from our hotel we headed off in search of Hỏa Lò Prison (“Hanoi Hilton”) which was also a POW camp for American soldiers during the Vietnam war. Now this looked relatively straight forward to get to, we set off in the right direction but ended up taking a wrong turn back towards the lake. This happened twice! Arrrgh! I usually have an excellent sense of direction but with feeling poorly it wasn’t working! We got there eventually, via the cathedral, and it was quite interesting. It also started to rain when we there but only a short shower luckily.
After the prison we went back towards the cathedral for lunch, was a bit of a chain place called Gecko and was nothing to write home about. After lunch we headed to the Water Puppet theatre to grab some tickets (ended up in the front row), went for coffee and smoothies at Kallina (a very touristy but nice coffee shop on the bottom of the lake) and then back for the show.
On Saturday we got some delicious street food for breakfast from a place called Xoi Yen, one bowl of rice with corn topped with Char Sui meat (it was pork) and stir fried chicken, washed down with beer all for 83K Dong (£2.60!). Yes I know, beer with breakfast but it was about 11 am, so brunch I guess! We headed up towards the Botanical Gardens, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the one pillar pagoda. With my sense of direction now back intact we quickly got out of the city centre, passed a funeral procession, passed a square dedicated to Lenin and the Military Museum. The area around the Mausoleum consists of a large parade ground with the tomb itself guarded by two guards at the front at all times. The area around the botanical gardens was really peaceful in comparison to the noise and buzz of the city.
That night we went for dinner to a place called Nola, just round the corner from the hotel. It had quite a funky rooftop garden and the food was nice but a bit more pricy. I had sweet and sour pork and a margarita (It worked out at about £3 for the drink, no more cocktails for me I think!); Gav had beef with noodles and a Hanoi Beer.
On Sunday we went to Xoi Yen,before heading off to the Military museum.
We then met up with our friend Ronan who happened to be passing through Hanoi and he brought us to this really cool place where we had egg coffee (strong coffee with egg white) for 15K dong (£0.46). The place was chaos with sunflower shells all over the floor and people everywhere. They squeezed us into a tiny gap next to the balcony basically trapping the four guys who were on the balcony. We arranged to meet up later for dinner and were joined by a guy called Andreas from his hostel and went to a place called Xoi Pho for what was basically a cook your own food for 100K dong (~£3) each. This was a bit pricey considering the work involved (poor Ronan did most of the cooking). It was ok, I wouldn’t do it again though.
So that was our first stop, Hanoi. Although it was fun, for us we were ready to move on. The next day we planned to head to the bus station for Cat Ba Island.. that is another story.