Day One – 24/12/2011
Villages and cities clamour for space within boundaries of dusty roads. There are patchy areas of green for miles around, punctuated by the occasional lake or river. The amount of fields and crops seems phenomenal. The sky today is grey, and as the plane taxis slowly into Hanoi airport, I can see the smoggy outlines of the apartment blocks in the city centre. As we turn around the mountains come into view, faintly visible behind today’s unpleasant air. They’re strangely beautiful.
As soon as we step out of the airport we are immediately shepherded into a taxi. The roads are dangerous; barely marked, and the driver doesn’t really seem to know where he’s taking us. The buildings outside are small and dusty, and even here fields are hidden away amongst decrepit shelters and streets full of motorbikes, and trucks which seem to be on the verge of tipping over. We eventually reach our hotel, where we discover we have a second floor room with a balcony, looking over the bustling street below.
There’s only one way to describe the Old Quarter in which our hotel is situated – manic. Mopeds, cyclists and hawkers make it impossible to move. The air is thick with smoke and strange smells. Every street specialises in something different – from silver jewellery to haberdashery to hardware. Markets and shops spill out onto the pavement. The sounds of engines fills the city. It’s such an exciting place to be!
Day Two – Christmas Day
It’s Christmas! The streets are slightly emptier than I’d anticipated today, but still not exactly peaceful. Fruit and veg stalls fill the path, and large groups of people sit on low red and blue plastic chairs eating breakfast. We walk for about five minutes, and come to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where we queue for a while. Our bag is then taken, and emptied by a small woman behind a desk. She pulls a banana out of the side pocket. “Can’t take in. Eat.” She hands it back, and we follow her instructions. Then we carry the empty rucksack, camera, and guidebook to the metal detector and bag scanner. The camera is placed in a bright red container, which we must take to yet another desk and hand in.
Finally, we enter Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, which is guarded by numerous soldiers in a mix of white and green uniforms, who tell us to take our hands out of our pockets and stay silent. We are then herded past Ho’s pale body. His skin, which is a ghostly shade of white, has been preserved for hundreds of years. Then, we are taken out onto a granite path. Our camera is returned, minus the red bag. We pass a garage containing three old cars, which belonged to Ho. Then, we follow everyone else to Ho’s home and study, where you can see the immaculately set dining and study tables through the windows. There is a building on stilts, where Ho Chi Minh also lived at some point in his life. We pass through an amazing garden, where the trees are held up with thick wires. It’s still very pretty.
As we go through a set of gates, we are led to another part of the mausoleum. Tourist shops now surround us, selling postcards, photos, t-shirts and conical hats (which, I have noticed, quite a lot of the locals wear). We meander down to West Lake, where we order some spring rolls from a local cafe. The lake is spacious, containing only a couple of paddle boats, shaped like swans. There are millions of them waiting to be hired over on the opposite shore. The water is dark, but if you look off into the distance you can see the relatively fair sky reflected in it. The smell of fire is incredible as we make our way into the Tran Quoc Pagoda. Sweet smelling incense wafts over anyone who enters, and people selling fake money and other offerings for the gods crowd around us. Inside it’s quieter, surrounded by statues. We sit and look up at pagoda, which watches over us from above. The night market is great fun, sprawling across numerous lanes as people squeeze past us. The stalls contain everything, from unusual food and drink to tiny quilled paper ornaments. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Day Three – 26/12/2011
There’s the usual bustle this morning. We’ll be catching a night train to Sapa this evening. Then we’ll return to Hanoi to catch a bus to Halong Bay. That’s as far as out plans go – we’re playing it by ear.
It surprises me how many people here speak at least some English. Quite a lot of the slightly larger resturants have the names of the dishes, but otherwise you can always just point at the photos of the dishes which are usually displayed in the menu (if there is one) or on the walls.
As we arrive at the Hanoi History Museum, we are directed to the ticket office by a few jovial ladies who are devouring an early lunch. The museum turns out to be interesting, with just the right amount of interesting information to read and plenty of artifacts from a number of different eras. The diorama like scenes are interesting, and I notice that it isn’t just tourists who are visiting – a number of local families inspect the displays too.
The food in Vietnam is healthy and filling, and there’s a lot of variety too. There are often lots of local specialties, so if you think something sounds good, don’t wait to try it, otherwise you’ll most likely miss out. Even for people who’d prefer to stay on the safe side, there are plenty of places serving delicious but not too adventurous traditional dishes. If you’ve been traveling for a while and want a taste of home, quite a lot of the resturants serve a mix of Western and Vietnamese food. Also, you’ll find a lot of the drinks you know here too – Coke, Fanta, Pepsi and Seven Up are all pretty standard. Fresh juice is found in many places, and it is usually made while you wait, with local fruit. One favourite of mine would have to be passion fruit juice, which is orange coloured, tangy and really refreshing. Despite that, nothing beats a whole coconut, hacked open before your eyes.
Lenin park, where we are now, is relaxing after pacing the streets of Hanoi. It is relatively empty, the remains of an early morning market packing up in the warm sun. The people here, wandering slowly, as if tired and worried, give the park a strange aura, as if it’s the morning after some terrible disaster. Still, it’s nice to sit by the lake and look around. Although the street is only metres away, the park is a sanctuary, surrounded by high fences.
I’m starting to get a little more used to the hustle of busy Hanoi, but that definitely doesn’t mean it isn’t still constantly exciting (and a little nerve-wracking). The smells, sights and sounds here are amazing, and there’s always something to see, something happening. I like the way that although foreigners are treated differently it is easy to avoid the tourist traps and mix with the locals. It’s a continual adventure.