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Trip Report VN Part Two - First Few Days in Hanoi

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With the whirlwind experience of HCMC, we were looking forward to a more relaxed investigation into life in Hanoi. This leg began with our first chance to fly with Vietnam Airlines. Would that all airlines’ flights were so well handled. The staff was courteous, the boarding method smooth, if puzzling, and we had a meal on every flight! A note about booking and boarding: I booked all flights online directly with the airlines. Make sure you print out the complete record and carry it with you. You will need it if you want to make any changes over the phone. The main airline offices are in Hanoi and HCMC and staff is very helpful, but in other locations you will probably need to work by phone. There seems to be no priority for the boarding process on Vietnam Airlines, so if you have any amount of carry-on luggage, I recommend lining up as soon as there is activity at the gate. Sometimes they will encourage you to sit back down, but won’t press the matter.

We were planning some home stays in the cities, but decided to start things out with a degree of caution and perhaps more comfort, so I had prearranged hotel accommodation and hotel pickup. We settled on the Splendid Star Grand Hotel on Au Trieu Street in the old part of the city near Hoan Kiem Lake. We aren’t normally so concerned about making our way into the city from foreign airports. However, in HCMC we were arriving after midnight, and in Hanoi, the hotel offered it for free. Initially I had booked through Asia Rooms, but subsequently changed that to booking directly with the hotel. It is usually cheaper and you have more ability to get exactly the room you want. In this case, it was their only room with a balcony. It is also the way you can sometimes get free shuttle service to/from the airport. However, each case is different, so I advise you check both 3rd party booking sites and the hotel, if you’re booking at all.

I highly recommend the Splendid Star Grand (there are several Splendid Star hotels, all owned by the same company and I can’t comment on the others). All the reviews we had read were accurate. The staff was extremely friendly and attentive. When we arrived and each time we returned during a day, we were offered a refreshing drink. The breakfast was quite good and I think we could have had it delivered to our room if we had asked. The bed and room were very comfortable. We loved our little balcony with not too exciting a view, but where we spent many happy hours away from the city chaos. Be prepared though for the church bells announcing every quarter hour, and the roosters announcing the dawn. We never did learn why there are so many roosters in Hanoi.

With the shortened days it was almost dark by the time we were settled. Mike insisted that we get out and have a walk. How fortunate that we did! The church was in fact a Catholic Cathedral. We witnessed a great celebration and ceremony with multiple processions of what appeared to be priestly and nuns’ orders and culminating with the Bishop (Archbishop?) accompanying a small carriage with statue of the Virgin Mary. There were loads of tourists of course, snapping photos as I was, but also many from the congregation. We discovered later, that this was not such an uncommon event on Sundays, so check it out if you’re in the area and interested in such things.

We then headed out to the lake, our main reason for booking in this part of town. The evening was clear and now reduced to merely very warm. Despite the hour, the traffic was astonishingly heavy. And noisy! While HCMC seemed to have heavier traffic overall, we found Hanoi’s motorcycle traffic worse. We were both more bothered by the decibel level and pollution of the motorcycles than we ever were of the cars in the south. And as some other writers have mentioned, they also have a tendency to take over the sidewalks, which is truly annoying. We went in search of a quiet vantage point and a couple of beers. We ended up at a lakeside restaurant where we had uninteresting but rather expensive pizza and the only bad wait service on our trip, so not recommended. But we did have relatively quiet beer and a very nice view. I should say that contrary to so many postings, we didn’t find the lake at all a restful experience. In fact we felt that the only quiet to be found on the lake at any time is when you cross the red bridge to the island. However, the hotel’s location was still good for access to the old town and some of the museums. And as I said, we had our private balcony, which was quiet save for birds and bells.

Well prior to the trip, we had reached out to all our prospective home stay hosts. In Hanoi there were two. Both we found on www.Airbnb.com . We chose two because they had dramatically different offerings, at two price levels and in two different parts of Hanoi. One was charging very little and was living in an area completely away from the tourist part of town. His main interest was in practicing English – a not un-common thread among VN hosts. We had not planned to stay for more than a couple of nights with him, but wanted to take advantage of his offer to meet as often as we liked. So we had arranged to be in touch with a tentative plan to meet with him after he finished work. This involved several phone texts, but we managed to set a time. We would be identified individually as a woman in a straw hat and a man with a bushy beard. He would be recognized as tall and wearing a black leather jacket. We met in front of the church, hoping to head for a cold beer. Instead he suggested lime tea at a nearby shop. While some drink it cold, he recommended hot for a new tourist with a potentially upset system. Initially disappointing to be deprived of our beers, the tea turned out to be a perfect drink for a hot evening.

As we settled in to conversation, one of his first remarks was that he found out that we had also booked with his niece. Astonished, we probed further. It turned out that he had gone to the other host to seek advice about renting out a room in his house as she had much more experience. They discussed their prospective guests and discovered they were hosting the same couple on different dates. Now I ask you – what is the chance of linking up with two related persons on a website listing hundreds of potential hosts?! Once again serendipity had guided our lives. Their joint assistance was a positive boon to our stay in North Vietnam. We had a glimpse into two different districts of Hanoi. They worked together to arrange a couple of trips outside the city and we experienced two distinct lifestyles – a married couple with children and a young, single, professional man.

The next morning we were up early with the bells and the roosters. After breakfast we received our usual hotel map and general instructions on how to navigate the old town. I also served as resource if we got lost and were told to show it to a taxi driver who would drive us home. Even where there is a language barrier, everyone seems able to read maps and direct you, sometimes by pointing, sometimes by finding someone who speaks English, and sometimes by just taking you there on foot. This helpfulness astonished us. We were somewhat worried about a negative attitude towards Americans that might be left over from the war. We found none of that, even in the South. Now part of that could be due to the fact that Mike looks unlike most American male tourists, and part of it could be due to the deferential attitude that we have when we travel. We find it best if you start from a position of self-effacing friendliness no matter where you travel. In fact, I think it’s good advice in general, just harder to carry out on home turf.

So out we went, secure that we two experienced travelers would have no trouble navigating the streets. All the signs are transliterated into English, and we were armed with the hotel map, and the larger map of Hanoi that we had brought from home. We were sure we would be able to find the two things on our list for the first day: kitchen goods and traditional musical instruments. We soon became hopelessly confused. The small streets were not marked on either map. Streets started out with one name and then changed at a corner to a different name. It was hours before we figured that one out! We were like rank amateurs. However, with numerous stops for assistance, we did finally figure out the street system, found the kitchen goods, and stumbled over the venue for a traditional music performance, if not the instruments themselves. This turned out to be one of our highlights of Hanoi – the Catru Concert. It takes place every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturdays at 28 Hang Buom Street, in an old house. It is sponsored by an organization seeking to preserve an ancient music tradition by training young people in study and performance. And for you Indian food enthusiasts, there is an excellent Indian restaurant a few doors away – Foodshop 45. If we had done much advance research, we might have noticed the reviews of it on TripAdvisor. http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g293924-d1097061-Reviews-Foodshop_45-Hanoi.html

As their reviews seem to match our tastes, I will probably take advantage them for another trip. Strange as it might seem, I researched these links only in writing these reports. Perhaps that’s the way it is for others though – the tendency to mistrust reviews until one is sure the reviewers taste in restaurants, culture, activities, etc. matches our own.

Our other daily passions included multiple cups of hot and cold coffee – with condensed milk, please. If you can’t manage the Vietnamese, I found that shivering delivers the understanding that you want it over ice. Honestly, as a long-time black coffee drinker, the idea of super-sweet coffee did not appeal. However, once tried I became an addict to what was like having dessert several times a day. And as evening approached, we replaced our normal routine of wine with rounds of beer – Hanoi style this time. Both the south and the north have local distilleries, and both offer quite appealing lager style beer. And in the north we were also looking for “bia hoi” – fresh beer made and consumed that day. We had to wait awhile to find that.

While we enjoyed the shops in the old city, we were ready to move to the first home stay.
This was with the more experienced of the two. She and her husband have a travel agency as well as renting out rooms in their home for visitors. They have several points of web access other than AirBnb. I am including details, as if there is one regret I have for our trip to Vietnam, it is not following her advice. She is an expert “exceptionelle”! She is the one who offered to get our visas in advance; I did not find one hotel across the country that she did not know about; she has traveled and investigated herself, before recommending them to her clients. She is also fluent in French and her husband in Italian.Trust her!

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/212643
http://www.hanoihomestay.com/
http://vn.linkedin.com/pub/chezlinhlinh-house-travel/25/687/6b0
http://www.tripadvisor.com/Hotel_Review-g293924-d1972412-Reviews-Hanoi_Homestay_ChezLinhLinh_House-Hanoi.html

We had a wonderful stay with Thuy. Their large home was comfortable. She and her husband were extremely generous with their available time. She offered occasional meals, which were outstanding. We had the use of the washing machine, which was fantastic, as I was tired of washing out our clothes in the sink. We tend to bring 3 sets of clothes: one on our bodies, one saved for a mid-day or evening change, and one in the process of drying. It means daily or twice daily washing, which is a drag, but I still prefer it to lugging huge bags around.

She gave us advice on how to navigate “the village” as she called her district. It is a warren of small alleys and it is very easy to get lost. However, once again the friendliness of the locals means you are very easily “found” again. During our stay we had our first VN seafood meal. It was in a restaurant with no English, and no pricing on the menu. There were however, pictures of the food, and we later discovered that seafood pricing is by the kilo. We had an excellent if unadventurous meal and thoroughly enjoyed finally being away from other tourists.

Another night, she directed us to both the neighborhood location serving bia hoi, but also to the Bia Hanoi brewery, which was nearby. Both were great fun. I don’t think either of us preferred the fresh beer to the bottled beer, but at 5 cents a glass it is worth a try. We hit the brewery fairly late in the evening, when it was full of groups, some with their own tap vessels on the table. When we arrived we notice that a group of 4 had started on one. By the time we left they were starting another. They seemed to have the same kind of tolerance as the Seoul workers we became well acquainted with – work hard and party hard. Hey, isn’t that the southern California motto too?

She seems to make a point of doing something special for each guest – in our case it was a trip to a countryside suburb of Hanoi. We thoroughly enjoyed the excursion. We went out by taxi and home by public bus. We had some time with her family helping make the lunch. I am afraid I would never be hired as a prep person, but I at least have some rudimentary knowledge now on how to make nem (like a thin fried eggroll), as well as how not to cut up any variety of veggies. It was a great source of laughter and frustration I think for her and her mother. After lunch, Mike and I went for a walk around the village. It was yet another sweltering day, and we were hunting for a beer. We found it in a little shop with a couple of tables. There were construction workers doing the same. We had no language or life in common, but we had a great time. Lots of smiles. Lots of toasts. They refused Mike’s offer to buy a round, but instead bought a round for us. It was still break time for the town, so we had many encounters as we made our way through. This is not a tourist town, and Thuy said they were not familiar with westerners, so I am not sure what kind of reputation we left behind for her to deal with.

This tour also included my first encounter with dog meat – on the hoof as it were. I found this quite disturbing, and this hypocritical attitude bothers me somewhat. Why do I not have an aversion to beef, or pork or other meats I eat? The obvious answer is that we keep dogs as pets, but that is hardly satisfactory to me.

- on to another topic.

We were also grateful to have instruction on how to ride a local bus, as it isn’t intuitive. We learned how to get on and off (front on, rear off). How to pay – easily, they collect the fare and give you correct change. Fares are fixed by district and are very cheap are a good alternative to taxis. Not only are buses less expensive, taxis can be hard to find in certain areas, and it is sometimes a daunting task to get an honest tariff. A note for all taxis in VN: the smaller, the cheaper; try to get an estimate of the maximum in advance; and watch the meter! - it should move regularly, not jump suddenly. Even some of the highly regarded taxi lines have drivers who “fix” their meters.

The next day we had arranged to have lunch with ex-pat from the U.S. whose contact information I had received from a “friend of a friend” stateside. He is a Vietnam veteran who returned after the war with the intention of spending a couple of years doing something to counterbalance the physical harm done by the war. Decades later, he remains in VN. His work involves unexploded ordinance removal and organizing micro loans to individuals through Project Renew. Here is a somewhat dated but still valid article.

http://www.dtinews.vn/en/news/024/891/decades-later--war-s-aftermath-still-is-deadly-in-vietnam.html

The Vietnam War remains a volatile subject today. I won’t offer further comment except to say that if you are interested in supporting his cause, Project Renew is a recognized charitable organization here in the U.S. The website offers a good summary of what they do and the list of sponsors and partners may surprise you.

http://www.landmines.org.vn/donate.php

As far as other common tourist destination, the only other one we hit in the first go round was the Temple of Literature which we found quite disappointing.

After a few days, we moved on to Tung’s care. His neighborhood is bereft of tourist facilities. However, that didn’t mean we couldn’t find good morning coffee on the street. It also meant we had yet another set of small lane vendors to discover. These included one selling the best croissants we had in VN (this includes a fancy French run place in HCMC). The only problem was that next door you might have to avoid a dog on display, if you get my meaning.

The first weekend, we had decided to visit an area outside Hanoi near Ninh Binh called Tam Coc, otherwise known as “Halong Bay on Land. We had decided against going to the true Halong Bay. Thuy had advised at least an overnight trip, and preferably 2 or 3 night trip to do it justice. We had seen limestone carsts on a couple of trips to Thailand, and the overnight tours pricing was beyond our budget. That said, everyone we who has done that trip has rave reviews.

Tung arranged for the bus and we were anxious to meet his girlfriend My, who had decided to come along as well. This glimpse into couple’s interactions enhanced our trip. It seems lovers everywhere are much the same.

Tung and My had been before, but it is a common destination for locals as well as western tourists. Our bus was typically small, and like so many buses we would encounter, filled to beyond capacity before leaving on a trip. Much like jitneys in the Bahamas, they have seats that pull down so that no center aisle remains. It doesn’t bear thinking about what would happen in case of emergency. Seating is rather cramped even if you have an Asian body, which neither or us do. Mike found the only tolerable seat was the first one by the door, as there was no wall or seat and he could unwind his legs through the rail opening. The scenery en route to this area is varied and interesting enough to warrant just the bus ride. You see the transition from city, to suburban, then on to rural. Late fall is not the best time to see rice paddies – no verdant green that time of year, but still a pleasant drive. We enjoyed the stop at an old temple dedicated to the kings of the Tran dynasty. We didn’t tag along with the guide, because our friends knew the history, but as with all things cultural, it’s not just about the picture you snap.

After that, Tung had the bus drive drop us off a restaurant. You’d think we would remember its name. I think it may have been the Bamboo. Tung had ordered lunch ahead of time and what a feast we had. The lotus flower salad was a favorite, but we also had a marvelous fish and some kind of nem. After devouring the food, we headed back on foot to the main part of town to look around the small market.

Then it was back onto the bus for a visit to the lake where we good get a closer look at the limestone cliffs and caves. They would not allow us all in the same boat. My and I wanted to go in one, and Mike and Tung in the other, however, before we knew it they had hustled Mike and I into one, with Tung and My in the other. We had a feisty older woman and man rowing our boat. I not even a great rower with my arms and this guy did it with his feet! Our friends arranged the bus, so I am not sure who ran the tour, but please read the comments in the trip advisor link. We had a similar experience, and the negative reviews might be a deal killer.

http://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g293924-d1763855-r122593880-Hoa_Lu_Tam_Coc_Day_Tour-Hanoi.html

We talked with our boat operator about her life. The scenery was spectacular. The water was clear. The cost incredibly cheap. ($5/pp for a 2-½ hour boat ride). Then about half way through the trip another boat came along side. Did we want to buy a treat for our rowers? What do you say? When we asked how much ($10! No way!) We asked our rower to intercede. She was mute. By then, she and the man were merrily chomping on the cookies and had opened the cans. Our enforced “tip” was the purchase of 2 coke, 2 packets of. It was such a shame, as we had really enjoyed the trip until then. When we returned to the dock, she actually asked for a tip. Mike told her she had already eaten her tip. I am convinced we would not have been hassled if we had been not been separated from our friends. Despite this, I still recommend the boat trip – just be prepared to say no. Of course, if had been manhandled like one of the reviewers on the TripAdvisor website, and I might have tried JH’s steely eyed response to hands’ on pressure. But so far, no such heavy pressure on any of our trips to SE Asia.

There are loads of things to do in the Ninh Binh area so check out doing more than a day tour. Public transport from Hanoi is available and hotels, guides and tours plentiful. The link below is to the tourism website.

http://www.dulichninhbinh.com.vn/en/ninhbinh-attractions/Thai-Vi-temple.html

We almost extended our stay in Tam Coc, as we were enjoying the relief from the traffic and pollution, but I felt like I was coming down with a cold, and we were traveling again on Monday, so we headed back to Hanoi.

A note on probably the best way to see Vietnam – by motorcycle. Mike’s hips aren’t up to it, and there are certainly safety concerns any time you ride a motorcycle. More so in VN as most available helmets are far from protective. However, from the small amount I did, and the much I have heard and read about, it promises to give you access to areas cars can’t go (a lot) with a speed beyond foot and bicycle travel. Be warned though about renting and driving anything on your own. It’s not legal without a local registered license and like in the U.S., the license is specific to the type of vehicle It is not like some countries where an International License is valid - your country’s license isn’t valid for VN without getting it registered. Apparently it is cheap and relatively quick and easy to do, but you also need to have a visa at least three months long. Check with the Agency for Granting Driver’s Licenses.

http://www.driverabroad.com/countries/driving-in-asia/vietnam/

I took to my bed while Mike and Tung went for an evening walk to a nearby park. Next morning we were to be off again by plane – this time to the Hoi An and Hue.

Links to picture:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/114247595@N07/sets/72157639839683123/
https://www.flickr.com/photos/114247595@N07/sets/72157639837385205/

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