Having left the UK a week ago today, I’m feeling a tiny bit ashamed of the lack of Vietnam related blog posts so far. But, I can excuse myself slightly given that we’ve only had about four days actually experiencing the country: our 25 hour flight (which included a lengthy stopover at Beijing airport) didn’t actually touch down in Ho Chi Minh until 1am Vietnam time on Thursday morning, at which point we spent about two hours reporting Sam’s lost luggage (it went missing somewhere thanks to Air China) and finding our hotel, before collapsing into bed for a much needed twelve hour sleep.
As you can see, Thursday was a write-off, and on Friday knowing that we had an internal flight up to Hanoi that evening put us off trying to do much sight-seeing, so instead we meandered around the area of Ho Chi Minh close to the airport, which isn’t particularly tourist friendly and where, being over tired and easily stressed, we didn’t have the best time. First impressions of Ho Chi Minh? Busy, dusty, messy, chaotic and much too hot. Hopefully, when we return for a few days before our flight home in December the experience will be a different one.
Between the lost bag – which thankfully was found and forwarded to the airport in Hanoi – and the various other stresses (having the world’s hardest mattress on our hotel bed in Hanoi, the delayed internal flight, repeatedly getting lost, the £22 round trip taxi ride to the airport to collect Sam’s bag, spending hours looking for the train station to buy tickets to Sapa, the trickier-than-expected language barrier, and the not-as cheap-as-expected food seriously affecting our planned trip budget), I have to admit I wasn’t best disposed to like Hanoi, and I was starting to have second thoughts about the whole country.
But, once we had Sam’s bag back and had caught up on a little sleep, Hanoi was a pretty interesting city to explore. I’m not a lover of cities, especially while travelling, as I prefer getting outdoors into the mountains, countryside or beaches. And Hanoi is a tough city to love – cooler than Ho Chi Min but also dustier, messier and more chaotic – at least in the Old Quarter, a crazy network of traffic-packed streets, like a giant bazaar. With it’s perpetual overcast sky and grey streets, it isn’t the prettiest of places, but look up and suddenly you see a different picture. Street level is ugly, in a charming sort of way – pavement-less roads busting with motorbikes and pedestrians, dingy shops spilling their cheap or knock off wares out onto the pavement when there is one, forcing you into the road, the whole thing looking like the souqs in Marrakech but without the magic – but above the ground floor many of the buildings were surprisingly beautiful. Hanoi looks like a gigantic puzzle pieced together from sections of larger houses. The buildings are tall and narrow, and none of the seem to match, with a colourful, colonial-Asian architectural mix which is very pretty.
From the Old Quarter, where all the streets are named for what used to be (and often still is) sold on them – like shoe street Hang Giay – we took walk around Hoan Kiem lake. Crossing the pretty red bridge onto the small island near the northern shore, we headed into the Temple of the Jade Mountain, an 18th century temple dedicated to Confucian and Taoist philosophers and the national hero, Trần Hưng Đạo. It was pretty, and very interesting, but also completely rammed; I definitely don’t recommend visiting on a Saturday! I mostly enjoyed watching a pair of elderly Vietnamese men concentrating intensely on their game of Xiangqi (a popular Vietnamese board game), and also spotting the hundreds of graduating students who had come down to the lake in suits and stunning white silk dresses to pose for photos. That night in the Old Quarter was the night market, which was great for street food – especially sticky sesame-seed covered meat kebabs – but again completely packed and not much more than a slow, jostling shuffle alongside brightly lit stalls.
The next day we headed over to Hoa Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton, which housed a number of American POWs during the Vietnam war (known here as the American war), but was originally built by the French colonialists to imprison and torture revolutionaries. Hoa Lo had a pretty fascinating history, but while the exhibits were interesting (and quite disturbing), they were lacking in information and I was left wanting to know a lot more. From Hoa Lo, we took a walk up to the West Lake, purely because it was mentioned in the book I’m reading – The Sorrow of War – and we discovered an enormous body of water in the centre of the city, although thanks to the particularly dim, grey day it wasn’t the prettiest sight.
Back at Hoan Kiem lake, we found ourselves accosted by a pack of Vietnamese students wanting to improve their English. About ten of them surrounded our bench and asked if we could spare some time to chat to them, as they don’t get any other opportunities to practice, so of course we said yes. It was really nice to talk to them about their country, and as well as a couple of Vietnamese phrases they also taught us a few interesting things about their culture, like the national holidays – I like the sound of Women’s Day on 20th November!
Finally, there was just enough time to watch the beautiful and very clever Water Puppet Show, which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. The puppets are controlled from behind a screen by sticks which are hidden beneath a pool of water, so that they almost seem to be moving independently, and the show included lots of short acts accompanied by live traditional music. I loved the dragons, which spurted fireworks from their gaping mouths, and the amusing scene involving a fox trying to steal some baby ducks from a farm, but – although I hate to admit it – the show was just a tiny bit on the long side and, being exhausted, I started finding it hard to keep my eyes open in the dark, warm theatre! Still, it was a really interesting show to watch and I loved seeing that piece of Vietnamese culture.
Although the first impressions of Hanoi weren’t great – stressful, damp, grey, dirty, messy, chaotic – after two days there I’m more of a fan. We squeezed a lot of cool stuff into a short time, and it turned out to be a fun, if stressful, couple of days.