Hello from Hanoi
Jitters set in the night before we flew out, neither Will nor I slept, we were anxious about the visas, airport pickups and whether or not we really had everything we “needed” for the next few months. 24 hours later we were flying over Hong Kong. I'd easily rate this as one of the most mesmerising experiences of the trip so far (we've had a few this week already). Heavy clouds rolled past and revealed outcrops of tall buildings below. If you're a first-time international flyer such as myself - it's easy to find yourself uncontrollably gawking out the small window.
Racing through Hong Kong International Airport on the tail of a 4 foot something stewardess was another thing. With a few minutes to spare we were on our way to Hanoi. Everything we had been anxious about, turned out to be a breeze. E-Visa’s, passport photos and $25 in hand, we made our way to the visa counter, waited to collect them and then headed through security.
We had done it. Minus a few communication issues with our airport transport - we stepped out of the airport and Hanoi hit us with all her force. The heat. Wow.
I thought Zimbabwe in December was hot, I thought Namibia in April was hot. No, Hanoi in June is a whole new kind of heat I was not ready for. I've never been more excited to be rushed to a cab before in my life. Real feel temperature - 44 degrees. We zipped through the streets of Hanoi ( My eyes were covered half the time in fear of hitting one of the thousands of scooters crisis crossing through the roads) and arrived at our accommodation.
We walked the streets of the Old Quarter, my body pleading for sleep, but my mind putting it off like the flu in winter (William, soon informed that this was indeed jet lag). I didn't know where to look or where to go, I was too overwhelmed. I just followed William, trusting him to find us a cold beer.
I had been looking forward to our planned trip to Lan Ha Bay from the moment we added it to the itinerary. They sold us on the air-conditioned bus, and it did not disappoint. Our tour guide Hiep was a definite highlight of the trip, when explaining the food culture of Vietnam, he casually looked at the group and said ‘anything can move, anything can eat.’ Well that, and the fact that he introduced himself by singing the opening lines of Lionel Richie's ‘’Hello.’’
The two-hour drive out of the city was captivating. Narrow, colourful houses peeped out from behind the luscious green trees and while water buffalo grazed along the rice paddies as ladies tended to their crops. Along the way, we also saw an astonishing amount of cemeteries. In all honesty, they are hard to miss. Their distinct architecture, colours, and location in between the rice paddies are weirdly enticing. We later learned that family members were buried in the field where the family grew their crops. The more lavish (larger, more colourful and more glazed tiles used) the headstone, the more wealthy the family.
We arrived at the docks in Halong Bay and boarded our cruise boat for the day. It did not take long to understand the hype that surrounds the bay because the views are awe-inspiring. You feel minute as you weave between the hundreds of towering limestone islands, making sense of the emerald waters below and the flourishing forestry abovea the islands. I could go on for hours about the beauty of the terrain, the caves on Cat Ba Island or kayaking through the waters, but looking back as I write this — there is one stand out moment.
We had come to a stop in a quiet bay and Hiep informed us that it was now to swim. A few people hopped off the first deck of the boat and into the water, the next lot chose the stairs and the remaining group headed to the second floor deck to jump. The crowd already in the water cheered as one by one people jumped and the whole experience was quite fun.
Glenn, Williams best friend, has joined us for the first two weeks of our journey and was as eager as us all to swim in the crystal clear waters of Lan Ha Bay - or so we were led to believe. After a few “come on — do it” shouts from below, I jumped. Next I was shouting for Will to do it too. He did. Were waiting for Glenn to take the next plunge. We waited in anticipation, I mean not everyone is equally eager to jump 7 meters off the side of a boat. He jumped and naturally sunk quite deeply. He came up for air and after taking in several breaths, let out an almost inaudible ‘I can't swim.’
Initially William and I both brushed it off. Who would jump off the second floor of a boat and into waters even deeper if they can't swim? I carried on swimming through the clear waters, moving away from the group around the boat and towards an island. When I looked up to find William, there he was, helping Glenn to the steps of the boat. I moved back towards them and checked he was okay. Needless to say, we didn't stop teasing him for the rest of the afternoon.
Our bus dropped us off ‘200m’ from our accommodation, all we had to do was turn left and carry on straight - we’d find it in no time.
We now associate ‘no time’ with roughly four hours. He dropped us nowhere near home and no one had saved the address of the accommodation on their phones. It was 20:00, we were tired and just wanted to eat some food and get home. We ended up in the centre of the night market where we found a place that looked over the market and found our accommodation online. Some candy floss and pork kebabs later we made our way home, where it didn't take longer than five minutes to pass out.
Sunday morning came and went before ventured onto the streets of Hanoi. We headed towards the Hoan Kiem Lake (we found it by accident on Sunday and decided to head back there) where we walked around, exploring The Temple of the Jade Mountain and taking in a water puppet concert. To be honest, we were eager to get out of the heat and the theatre looked interesting so we took a chance. We ended up being completely transfixed by the show and all came out of the theatre a little surprised that we enjoyed it as much as we did.
The rest of Sunday was taken up by visiting St. Joseph’s Cathedral and the boys deciding to do a spontaneous beer tasting at the New Gentry Beerhouse (even though they were highly disappointed that the bar was fresh out of Fuzzy Logic’s Celestial Blonde).
Monday took us to the Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the Hanoi Hilton. I had read the reviews on the Prison and was prepared for a level of frightful sights. I did not expect to be left feeling heartbroken or angry. Displayed for everyone to see are the tales the Vietnamese revolutionaries who were confined within the walls when the French lorded over Vietnam in the early 20th century.
After walking through the French quarter for an hour or two thereafter we made our way home. Out of all the ailments and illnesses I catered for, flu was not one of them. William was hit hard with the typical airplane flu and was down and out for the rest of the day. I took the time to catch up with some work.
Tuesday was another magical day in Vietnam, we took a tour to Hoa Lu Tam Coc, known more commonly as Halong Bay on land by the locals. Promptly picked up at 07:45 we made our way through the lush countryside to Ninh Binh. We visited the Ancient Capital of Vietnam took a walk around the two remaining temples dedicated to King Dinh & King Le. We cycled through the country lanes of Tam Loc, besides the slight wobble, almost tumble and minor heatstroke — it was definitely a highlight. Shortly after we found ourselves seated in a metal row boat, propelling forward by only the force of the ladies feet peddling the ores. We followed the curves of the river and moved through the Tam Coc Caves along the way.
Besides from being hustled out of a few hundred thousand Vietnamese Dong for a beer at the end of the trip, it was nothing but breathtaking throughout.
Our last day in Hanoi approached faster than expected, we had our overnight train to Da Nang at 20:45 so we had an entire day to go out and explore the streets again. We walked to the Vietnam Military History Museum where I am sure we walked down a road we weren't supposed to. The museum acts as a tribute to Vietnam’s 20th century struggles against their French and US enemies. As a result we really wanted to spend some time here, learning and broadening our understanding of the struggle from a vietnamese perspective.
Towering over the museum is the Cot Co Tower, one of the few remnants of the Royal Citadel.On display outdoors, sit the army tanks, planes, and bomb casings used during the war.
The heat encouraged us to retreat indoors where we made our way through the indoor exhibits. The museum is full of photographs and captivating information to immerse yourself in. One of the last rooms we entered had a display dedicated to the Củ Chi underground tunnels. A miniature and cross-sectioned version of the tunnels was on display to illustrate the complexity of their construction. The museum does an amazing job of displaying different tools made by soldiers, as well as weapons and medical equipment used during the war. Overall it is possible one of the most visually interesting museums we have ever been inside.
Next on the agenda was the Citadel, We strolled through the beautiful gardens, admired the architecture and saw what little remained of the Citadel. However, the relics preserved on the property are remnants that date back as far as the 6th century. After our meander through the Citadel, we visited the the Temple of Literature. Walking among the buildings of Vietnam’s first national university is truly enchanting. The enclosed site was built in 1070 to honour Confucius. Later becoming Vietnam’s Imperial Academy which was known as an esteemed school for top academics. Stone memorial plaques surrounded the buildings were dedications to the students who graduated. Today the temple honours Vietnam’s finest scholars and is the signifier for the beginning of a uniform educational system in Vietnam.
The beauty of Hanoi is vast, throughout the city the temple’s lawns and gardens are all carefully maintained. The streets are clean and even though the traffic is chaotic, everything works and falls into a humming of organised chaos.
Google informed us that if we found ourselves walking through Hanoi’s infamous Train Street at 15:30 or 19:30 we’d be sure to catch a glimpse of the train making its way through the residential neighbourhood. Upon arrival, we were told that the 15:30 train only passes through the neighbourhood over the weekend. Nevertheless, we wandered through the well-trodden street and took in the beauty of the neighboured so perfectly constructed on either side of the tracks. We saw children playing on the tracks, men playing Draughts, mothers hanging up laundry and teenagers smoking their bamboo pipes through windows. On the other hand, as 15:30 approached, the more tourists flocked to the street (clearly we weren't the only ones hoping to the train). Selfie sticks, iPhones and cameras emerged as everybody snapped their “train track shot.” Instagram will tell you that at the moment (and probably more now), there are over 19,000 posts with the hashtag trainstreet.
With one last stop at the New Gentry, we took shelter from the heat for an hour or so before William took to the streets in search of a photographic opportunity and Glenn and I did some last minute shopping. Bags collected from our accommodation and snacks purchased, we made our way to the train station.
Hanoi is a city that bustles with life, colour, and markets. Its architecture, unlike anything I’d seen before. Pagoda’s on every street and narrow houses in between. Learning that the only way to cross the road between the bicycles, scooters, cars, and busses was to “just go”.
The streets of Hanoi are filled with trade, barber shops, food and constantly blaring horns. If Hanoi is the prequel to Vietnam, than I cant wait for what lays head.