Retro: Hanoi, Vietnam

I’ll be writing this as one post about the city, since it was originally broken up by Ha Long Bay.

So Laird, Daina and I, after a night of too much beer, soju and whatever else happened during our end of camp celebrations, find ourselves midday at the COEX Mall in the Gangnam district of Seoul, suffering hard.  Well, I was, at least.  Soju is pretty much a silent assassin in that you don’t feel it messing you up until, all of a sudden, you’re messed up.  We had set up COEX as our meeting point before Daina and I took Laird back to our hotel to catch our shuttle to the airport.

The fancy food court, fancy bus, general fanciness, would all be gone in just a few hours.

Before I talk about Hanoi, I have to mention a small obstacle in getting to Hanoi.  At some point during our stay in Seoul, Laird had left his passport in his pants pocket before sending it into a Korean washing machine.  It wasn’t a total “wash”, as Laird was able to save it and to dry it out enough to make it usable, but it had seen better days.  We weren’t too worried about Cambodia or Thailand, but Vietnam, which required a special Visa, which was already in Laird’s passport, had us a bit worried.

Incheon airport posed no obstacle at all, and soon we were on our three and a half hour flight to Hanoi.  Arriving late.

Daina and I got through immigration with no problems whatsoever, but Laird ended up having a whole team of Vietnamese immigration officers taking a look at his washed out passport.  It was almost comical if it weren’t for the potential moral quandary of leaving Laird to Vietnamese officials so we could have our vacation.

Okay, we wouldn’t have done THAT, but I was glad that he made it through eventually and I can make jokes about abandoning him as opposed to actually doing it.

Which we wouldn’t have done.

Laird’s Hot Dog Bed

Rather than head from the airport to a hotel, we ended up having a “local” connection.  One of Laird’s friends from cruise ships, a guy named Alan, was teaching at the United Nations International School here.  Living in an expat compound, which we got to by referring to it as “Ciputra”.  Not sure if that was the neighbourhood name, but it’s where we ended up for the night, and darn if it wasn’t pretty comfortable.  Daina and I shared a massive L-shaped couch, while Laird found himself enveloped in a semi-inflated inflatable mattress, but considering how exhausted we were from the night before, it would definitely do.

Plus, it had all the amenities you’d want – clean, BIG washroom (especially considering our prior goshiwon accommodations in Seoul), a washing machine (which we’d need), and running water.

Of which Daina pretty much immediately drank a glass.

Which went about as well as expected.

When I use the term “Spoiler Alert” here, I’m not giving away a key plot element, more referring to the fact that Daina’s stomach was ruined for a little bit by a parasite which, eventually, we brought back to Toronto.  The rationale was that, since it was an expat compound, the water must be treated.

Yeah, not so much.

It didn’t really hit us too bad for the vacation – or at least, we don’t think it did, because your stomach tends to flip around a lot in Southeast Asia – but it made for a scary moment, to be sure.

The next morning, we get up and we go over our itinerary for the day, asking Alan for tips on how he would attack the day.  Well, in spite of being in Hanoi for over a year, Alan hadn’t actually seen most of the touristy parts of the city.  So, not so much help in terms of planning the day, but he did get us to a travel agent near his school (which had this statue near it) who booked us a boat tour of Ha Long Bay for the next day, so there was that.  He also got us a cab which took us to our first destination, the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh!

Keeping in the tradition of communist leaders like Lenin, Mao, Kim Il-Sung and, apparently, Kim Jong-Il, Ho Chi Minh is preserved forever, lying in state, in a massive tomb that was built on the site where Minh read the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence in 1945 (the building went up thirty years later).  Apart from the occasional trip to Moscow for touch-ups, Ho Chi Minh lays silent for all visitors to see (but for nobody to photograph, as all cameras and cell phones are checked before you can make your way in).

Visitors with pants.  In spite of Hanoi being above 40 degrees that day, you can’t get in to see Ho Chi Minh without pants.   No exceptions.

We ended up getting to the Mausoleum before it opened but, fortunately, the nearby Ho Chi Minh Museum was open!  As much as we knew the Mausoleum itself was going to be a serious affair, there was enough leading up to it that led some wacky humour to the day.

First off was this kid. 

Now, I’m not one to take random pictures of kids.  I’m not saying it hasn’t happened, but I do feel odd taking pictures of children without parental permission, so it has to be a pretty spectacular picture.  This little guy was wandering around outside the museum in his mom’s shoes with a big smile on his face.  I caught mom’s eye, held up my camera and asked her “Is it okay?” and she nodded yes.  At that point, the kid looks at me, then looks back at mom, and then runs back to her.

Mom then MAKES the kid put the shoes back on and wander out so I can take this picture.  Hence, the lack of smile on the face.  Kind of funny, kind of sad, but a fun little picture before seeing an embalmed Communist leader.

It would not be the last random photo op of the day.

The Museum was pretty much pure propaganda, as you’re greeted by a gigantic gold statue of Minh in the front lobby and several communist-inspired art pieces.  The whole place is bathed in a reddish-gold light, which gives it an eerie feeling to it.  Soldiers are in-and-out of the museum all day, taking in the exhibits, and Daina was getting all the looks in the world.  Big, tall, blond guy wandering around a museum where the average height of a trained killed was 5′ 8″.  A bunch of them finally came up to D and asked they could take a picture of them, and you can tell by the look on his face that Daina enjoyed his temporary celebrity status. 

Apart from the inside of the museum, the grounds also feature the the stilt-house where Minh grew up, the one-pillared pagoda and plants from all over Vietnam.  It made for a nice stroll around while we were waiting for the Mausoleum to open.

The Mausoleum itself is located in gigantic concrete square, which was just lovely on this sweatiest of sweaty days.  Don’t you hate pants?  Anyway, the interior of the Mausoleum was nicely air conditioned and and the silence, combined with the constant eyes of security watching you every single second, made for a surreal experience once you got in side.  Ho Chi Minh was there, of course, lying in repose, looking a lot smaller than you’d think the leader of a country that went toe-to-toe with America would look.  Apart from funerals, I haven’t seen too many dead people just lying there, especially one who was there for so long.  It was nice to see a bit of the recent history of the country to start our day.

After some shenanigans getting my camera back – I almost got the wrong one, which would have been a fantastic way to welcome me to Vietnam – we found a taxi nearby and made our way to another one of Hanoi’s major sights, the Temple of Literature.

It was at this point that we really got to notice the insanity that is traffic in Hanoi.  I remember reading in Lonely Planet that the best way to cross the road is to “Move confidently, don’t change course, don’t stop, the bikes will avoid you.”  When you hear that, you know you’re in for some fun.  We didn’t have to test that theory yet, but the number of motorized bikes were slowly starting to outnumber the cars and, soon enough, they would completely outnumber them as the city started to come alive.  I challenge anybody from Toronto who’s ever bitched about the Gardiner or DVP to come here for five minutes and then TRY to complain when they get home. Insane.

If you haven’t driven on the Gardiner or DVP, please insert your own traffic quagmire into the mix and be assured that it’s not nearly as bad.

Anyway, on to the Temple!

Known as Van Mieu in Vietnamese, the Temple of Literature is a Temple of Confucius built back in the 11th Century.  It housed Vietnam’s first ever university and was the largest centre of study in the country at the time.  The layout of the temple is stunning, surrounded by the Lake of Literature and dotted with reflecting pools on the inside.  It contains five courtyards filled with beautiful Vietnamese architecture and some beautiful flora, whether it’s lilies floating on the ponds or gigantic trees that look like they’ve been there forever.  It is located smack in the middle of the city, but you do feel like you can get lost in the place for a while.

Also, gotta love a temple with some modern conveniences, such as fans (49 degrees with the humidex at this point!) and an ATM.  Just in case you need some random Dong while you’re inside the temple.

Dong, of course, being the name of Vietnamese money.  Get your head out of the gutter, people.

We probably spent the better part of an hour wandering around the temple before we decided it was time to make our way to the Old Town and Hoan Kiem Lake.  We had the option of taking a cab, but it looked like a straight line from the temple to the lake, so we decided we’d try to cover the route by foot at midday.  Why not sweat some more?

Neat little walk, punctuated by a couple of oddities.  Like wires.

I guess you take things like “electricity” for granted when you live in a city that was only laid out a few hundred years ago and grew with the industrial revolution.  Hanoi’s power strategy seems to be “Connect as many wires as possible to one place, hope it works out”.  Massive swaths of wire strung out in front of windows, humming along in the boiling heat.  Imagine waking up every morning, opening your window to this.  Also, imagine your kids growing an extra head.  Not sure if the latter is true, but it doesn’t seem like the safest set-up.

The motor scooter brigades were out in force as well, with a couple of them being nice enough to send us a little honk.  Hanoi is an entirely safe city to walk around during the day, but I don’t think a lot of people do, especially not tourists.  Three big Canadians wandering down a street in Hanoi is worth a honk, I guess.

You also come across stuff like this on the road.  This was at a random crosswalk, no signage, no resident artist lurking in the background.  Could have been street art, could have been somebody moving merchandise, could have been somebody being lazy and leaving their stuff at the side of the road.  Either way, it made for a nice, if not confusing, picture, and justified a lot of the walk.

As we started to get closer to the lake, both Daina and Laird reiterated the need to sit down and eat someplace air conditioned as soon as we got there.  This was always the plan, but I guess me being the guy who led us the direct (yet long) way to Hoan Kiem, I needed some reminding.  So, after a few more blazing hot minutes, we managed to get right to the edge of the lake.  Rather than take a walk around, we figured we’d head right to the side streets and grab some eats.  Basically, we went into the first place that looked cool and hunkered down for some cheap Vietnamese eats.

The restaurant we went to was nothing spectacular, but it served its purpose and gave us a good baseline on prices for half decent restaurant food was.  It’s cheap.  You’re not busting your budget eating in Vietnam, unless you decide to go fancy. 

We made our way back down to Hoan Kiem Lake and managed to take in a nice stroll.  The lake itself is the basis of a sort of “Lady of the Lake” story.  Except the lady is a golden tortoise and the sword originally came from heaven and was then returned to the lake.  Plus, the Chinese were the bad guys.  So slightly different.  Apparently, some of these giant tortoises (not golden) live in the lake, but they haven’t been seen since 2006.  You can get a good look at one of them (embalmed) at the nearby Ngoc Son Temple at the north end of the lake.  Hanoi’s defacto symbol, the Turtle Tower, juts up from the middle of the lake and makes for a cute shot from pretty much any angle. 

Not content with just leisurely strolling around the lake, we thought we’d check out some of the old quarter as well.  THIS is were we really got the best sense of how chaotic the scooter traffic could be.  Believe it or not, walk and don’t stop moving works as a strategy, as the bikers really do pay attention.  Made for some fun crossings and a few “Are we ready” moments, but by the end, we were fearless stepping off of curbs in Vietnam. 

One of the things we really wanted to check out was the Water Puppet Theatre, which was running shows all day long.  It’s like they knew tourists would just buy the tickets up or something. 

We snagged seats for a mid-afternoon show but had about an hour before it started, so we wandered the downtown, looked at some lacquerware (you can’t swing a pole with produce on it without hitting lacquerware), declined the chance to have our picture taken holding poles with produce on them (which would have come with a small fee, of course) before finally getting to the show.

The show was cute, nothing that is going to blow you away but a definite cultural experience nonetheless.  The “highlight” for us was a woman in the live band who looked like she had given her last F out earlier that day.  The rest of the band would generally look human and occasionally register some sort of facial emotion.  Not this lady. 

See if you can spot her.

In spite of a guide that tells you what is happening during the show, you actually have no idea what the hell is happening during the show.  There’s squirting water, fireworks, birds, dragons, farmers, kinds, tortoises and a lot of traditional music.  Other than that, I don’t think I learned that much about Vietnam.

That being said, puppets are cool. 

It was starting to get dark around the Old Quarter, so we ended up getting a cab back to Ciputra and heading out with Alan and some of his teaching colleagues for traditional Vietnamese British Style Curry. 

So we basically had British Style Curry.

Alan doesn’t do the traditional Vietnamese thing.

Our stay in Hanoi was interrupted by our trip to Ha Long Bay, which will be handled in a later post, but we did manage to have some “traditional” tourist experiences upon returning to the Old Quarter.  First off, we found ourselves a bang-up hotel room for $16 a night with two big beds, a computer, a television, a phone, its own bathroom, and air conditioning.  It was nice having a place in the “heart” of the city, even if it was only for a night.

We also reconnected with some of the folks we met in Ha Long Bay and went to a few bars, including one called the Red Buddha.  The bar itself had a real chill vibe to it until a cop came in.

Apparently, the police wander into bars at night and have a look around to make sure nothing illicit is happening.  The way they do it is rather intense, though.  The cop, who is basically a soldier, enters the bar, stands in the doorway, basically assumes a stance, stares around long enough to make everybody there uncomfortable, and then leaves.

Well, it’s Vietnam.  Guess it comes with the territory.

I know lots of people who have been to Ho Chi Minh City in the south but who have never made it north, and a few who have done the Hanoi stop, but have never made it to Ho Chi Minh City.  Seems odd that one would get passed up over the other, because I really did enjoy my time in Hanoi.  You don’t need a massive amount of time to see it, but after having just spent a month in Seoul and a month a few years prior in Japan, it’s a different type of Asia.  Different than Cambodia and Thailand, which we’ll get to later. 

I get the feeling you could get lost in Hanoi for a while and be perfectly fine with it. 

Plus, you have the nearby beauty of Ha Long Bay.  That, however, is a story for another time. 

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