Helen and Randall on the road

A bit about our adventures 2011-2012

Tuesday 6th – Friday 9th December: Han Oi

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Arrived in Hanoi on Tuesday evening – ‘visa on arrival’ process at the airport fairly straightforward – we had the letter from the embassy saying we were entitled to a multi-entry visa but to be honest we got the impression that even without it, if you had the dollars they would have the stamp. Another full-page visa sticker…starting to run out of pages! In the queue we met a guy who was working in Hanoi who advised us that the taxi service into town was a fixed price service so to ignore all the touts, which we did, but our driver still tried to rip us off by asking for another 100,000 VND (about £3.30 or about 1/3 again of the cost of the ride) for the road toll – we got around this by taking a photo of his taxi license when he wasn’t paying attention…that got him to back down 🙂 Still, after laid back and super honest Luang Prabang it was a bit of a culture shock.

The Old Quarter – where our hostel was located – is a maze of mayhem – winding streets that change name every 30m or so because they are named after what they sell, plus thousands of mopeds, the odd car and bicycle all competing for space on the pavement and road with pedestrians…it seems to work though (as in we only saw 2 accidents in 4 days!) – the trick to crossing the road being to launch yourself into the traffic and everyone does their best to avoid you.

The buildings in the Old Quarter range from shacks to gracious old colonial buildings (even if the colour-scheme is distinctly Vietnamese:)

The utilities were also somewhat Heath Robinson:

While most of the Old Quarter  was fairly authentically about local people going about their business, the edge near the Hoan Kiem lake was where you could find all sorts of tourist tat for sale, including this rather splendid ensemble:

However the Hoan Kiem Lake itself was very much a locals’ haunt, with Vietmanese people jogging, power-walking and simply strolling arm-in-arm around it at all times of day and evening.  At one end is an island with the Temple of the Jade Mountain on it:

The rather lovely pagoda of the temple:

The Old Quarter in the evening was just as hectic; Hanoi seems to be one of those cities where even the locals dine out every evening, so there is a glut of super-cheap pavement eating stalls serving various noodle dishes, where you sit on a tiny child’s plastic stool and slurp your noodles with the locals:

or like us you can stumble upon the only tapas restaurant in the city, run by a guy from Valencia and his Vietnamese wife, and eat huevos rotos, bravas and tortilla de patatas.

Later we found this excellently named restaurant where we had a few beers and watched the chaos unfold on the street below – my favourite moment being when two small children decided it would be a good idea to have a game of badminton on what passed for the pavement.

In a bid to be a bit more authentic, the next day we had lunch at Cafe Smile, a branch of the Hoa Sua foundation, an organisation that trains ‘disadvantaged’ young people for careers in the hospitality industry – a bit like Jamie Oliver’s ‘Fifteen’ (except ‘disadvantaged’ kids in Vietnam don’t get universal free-at-point-of-access education, healthcare, unemployment benefit, legal representation etc).

Overall they did a good job – the layout of the place was good and the service was courteous and efficient if a little nervous. The food was tasty and well presented:

and the pastries (Hoa Sua started out as a bakery/patisserie) were superb.

If anything it could have been a bit cleaner but obviously after they receive my feedback I’m sure they will sort that out 🙂

After completing our Xmas shopping next door at Craftlink Vietnam – a fair trade organisation that helps traditional handicrafts producers market and sell their wares – we crossed the road to the Temple of Literature, a Confucian temple which we had been recommended as one of the ‘places to see’ in Hanoi. It was interesting, but mostly interesting in a rather sad and cynical way as we reflected on the similarities between humanist philosphers like Confucius, Buddha and Jesus whose teachings on living and ruling ethically and with humanity have been twisted into weird rituals that require priests and incense in order to interpret them. The astonishingly tacky gift shop in the midst of this temple to learning was the cherry on the cake.

Still, it was interesting to learn about the history of the place. We particularly liked the stelae on turtle’s backs that recorded the names of all those who had achieved their doctorates between 1442 and 1779.

The lake of literature was a bit murky. Not sure what this is symbolic of.

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Randall musing that a stone stele on a turtle definitely wins over getting a copy of your thesis in the British Library when it comes to being given kudos for getting your doctorate:

No idea what the book thing says.

We think this is the great hot stove that you have to be able to lift in order to pass out of the Shaolin monastery. Or maybe I’m getting confused with Kung Fu:

This rather splendid item is apparently a sign requiring you to dismount from your horse before you enter the temple. You’ll be pleased to know that we remembered to do this.

The other side of the Hoan Kiem lake from the Old Quarter seemed like a completely different city; all wide boulevards and gracious buildings, not to mention high-end luxury brands. This is the Opera House:

And a mittel-europa-style Grand Cafe just opposite the opera house:

In the small park next to the Opera House we saw what we thought was a wedding photo-shoot, so were surprised at how harsh and physical the stylist was being with the bride and groom until we saw another, and another, until we realised it was actually a fashion shoot for meringue-style frocks. Very strange.

That evening we ate at another ‘foundation’ restaurant: KOTO or ‘Know one, teach one’. This is a VERY professional operation that has catered to world leaders visiting Vietnam – highly recommended if you are in Hanoi and we fully intend to check out their restaurant in Saigon. I had big ravioli stuffed with Ha Long Bay crab and Randall had Stir Fried Duck with chilli, roasted peanuts and basil served with steamed rice – both were superb and the puddings (dark chocolate mousse and passionfruit marshmallow respectively) were also excellent.

As I had singularly failed to get a massage so far, even in Thailand, land of the massage, I booked myself in to Just Massage, another foundation providing skills to disadvantaged youth, and got a fantastic 60 minute Swedish massage for 175,000 VND, or about £5.30. The place is in a lovely old colonial house; all dark wood and high ceilings. It’s a bit out of the centre in Tay Ho which is a residential area on the West Lake, so while I got massaged Randall went and explored:

After my massage we caught a taxi back to our hostel to collect our luggage then on to the station as we were booked on the 19.00 overnight train to Da Nang. We’d booked the 4-berth soft sleeper (see The Man in Seat 61 for information about trains) so we knew we would be sharing – always some trepidation about sharing an enclosed space with strangers of course, but our cabin-mates turned out to be Christine and Marco, a German couple from Leipzig, so the evening passed quickly in a haze of beer, chatter and amusing toilet experiences:

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