We departed Hue on our first night bus bound for the capital city, Hanoi. The night bus was quite interesting with three rows of double bunk reclining sleeper seats. Mostly tourists purchased the seats and then locals boarded the bus and packed the aisles for their nights’ rest. Luckily we had both opted for top seats, otherwise we would have been sleeping next to a bunch of strangers. The night wasn’t too bad and we both got a decent sleep given the accommodations. We arrived in rainy Hanoi at 9am the next morning. We were immediately bombarded by taxi and moto drivers as we stepped off the bus at the local travel office. We had already been warned about the fake taxi driver scams so we were extremely skeptical in accepting any rides. Christie had three reliable taxi companies written down but none of the drivers appeared to be with any of the companies that used meters. The drivers wanted to charge us 150,000 dong ($7.50). The problem was that we had no idea where we were in relation to the Rising Dragon hotel…… and there are like five hotels with some variation of that name in Hanoi (we later discovered the Vietnamese copy business names and trick tourists into paying for the wrong service). So, we knew (after Hoi An & Hue) they would somehow try to over charge and take advantage of us. We asked another local and he said it should only cost 50,000 dong ($2.50) since our hotel was 2-3 km away. We negotiated with the driver and paid 60,000 dong ($3.00) for a ride he said was 5km. We arrived to the hotel in about 1 km and knew he ripped us off, but after the long night bus we didn’t care much. Christie did have to point out to him that it was more like 1 km and that he lied. You go Christie!
The Old Quarter
We stayed in the Old Quarter near the Hoan Kiem Lake. The Rising Dragon staff were incredibly nice compared to everyone we met in Vietnam. The location is ideal for peaceful walks a bit away from the coldness of the street hustle. The water puppet theatre is located at the northeast corner of the lake and a very popular tourist destination. We decided to skip the show after watching Samantha Brown participate on television…. that was plenty entertainment for us. One thing apparent around the lake is the its French architecture. We wondered about the significance of the Turtle Tower and Huc Bridge. Legend says the emperor Le Loi handed a magic sword to the Golden Turtle God helping to defeat the Chinese Ming Dynasty
Our first day in Hanoi was rainy and cold and quite a departure from the hot sunny days we had spent in Thailand, Cambodia, and even Quy Nhon, Vietnam. The city reminded us of London as far as weather goes. We were super excited to find out if there was a music/arts scene like what you’d find in Europe. While strolling around, we stumbled upon Hanoi Backpackers Hostel. The place had such a needed youthful vibe with tons of European and Aussie guests hanging around the lobby eating, drinking and travel planning. We had a few beers (with lunch) and asked about the night music calendar. To our dismay, there was not a single event planned for that Saturday evening. No live music, no art show, no club DJ, nightlife, etc. How could this be possible? Could’t we go dancing in the big Asian captial city?
The Temple of Literature
Our hotel informed us that most public attractions are closed on Mondays (e.g. museums), so we decided to roam the city on Sunday in search of a history lesson. The Old Quarter streets are filled with motor bikes parked on the “sidewalks”, so pedestrians are forced to walk in the middle of the street. The two biggest attractions in our minds are the Temple of Literature and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The latter we had no interest in touring, but planned to snoop around and take photos… Japanese tourist style. Our walk to the Temple of Literature was quite nice in that we had plenty of room to maneuver around traffic. Vendors everywhere were selling flowers and other offerings for the mausoleum.
The Temple of Literature is a temple of the philosopher Confucius, constructed in 1070. This temple is special because it houses Vietnam’s first national university, The Imperial Academy. Although full of tourists, the compound was quite calming and open. The site is really a massive compound surrounded by the Lake of Literature. There are five courtyards and several beautiful gates. The open pavilions in the courtyards were used for students to study. The first two courtyards are mainly gardens with trees. The third courtyard is consumed by a large pond called “The Well of Heavenly Clarity”. The third courtyard is the Sage courtyard with the “Great House of Ceremonies” and a large lacquered statue of Confucius. The last courtyard is Thai Hoc, with the large drum and bell tower. On both sides, there are pavilions with steles on top of large tortoises. These steles are dedicated to the schools’ successful graduates. Today the site is one of the most important historical and cultural sites in Hanoi. It is still used for organizing cultural and scientific events. In its honor, the compound is featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese đong banknote. Of course, Ho Chi Minh’s face is all over the front of every banknote!
How would you react?
A vendor woman transporting vegetables on a long bamboo stick holding one large basket on each end suddenly approached Brett and placed her 50+ lb. contraption on his shoulder. Stunned, he took a swing backwards at her and moved her away. We later found out that these vendors search for money in exchange for silly photos of tourists carrying Vietnamese baskets.
Night Out on the Town
We had a fun night planned for Sunday evening. Christie found this amazing vegetarian restaurant called Com Chay Nang Tom. Upon arrival, our taxi tried to charge us 300,000 dong ($15) instead of 32,000 ($1.50) for a 2km ride.
Note: There is no such thing as an honest interaction with a Vietnamese vendor…. even if arranged by your hotel.
We never understood or appreciated the art of mock meat cooking. Nang Tom specializes in just that, turning soy into delicious bites tasting like chicken, pork and beef. We had two different set menus showcasing a variety of their culinary talents for about $12. After dinner, we headed over to Binh Minh Jazz Club, the brain child of renowned Vietnamese saxophonist Quyen Van Minh. Who knew that Hanoi had a jazz scene? There, Quyen and his students perform nightly. The ambience is very friendly, which Van Minh openly promotes to his staff. Van Minh sat right behind us drinking red wine with buddies for most of the night. He jumped on stage three times to play with his students who were all very talented and played multiple instruments. This two hour show was one of few highlights from our time in Vietnam.
We kept hearing how great Northern Vietnamese cuisine was. To be fair, we were not able to eat many traditional dishes such as Pho (noodle soup with chicken or beef), Bun Rieu (meat rice vermicelli soup) and Banh Cuon (rolled cake with pork, mushroom, shallots). That said, Vietnam was supposed to have a strong vegetarian tradition from its Buddhist values. Aside from Nang Tom, we weren’t overly impressed with our meals in Hanoi. Koto was very good and established as a non-profit to teach disadvantaged street kids the art of cooking. We found Tamarind just okay and overpriced. New Day is situated up several floors and is loud and dirty. The staff didn’t seem interested in accomodating our vegetarian request to mix two dishes into one simple concept (lemongrass mixed vegetables). Some research revealed that Northern Vietnam lacks the right weather to produce many spices abundant in the south (e.g. red chili). This could be why we found many dishes lacking in flavor and overall tastiness.
Ho Chi Minh Hard-On
We concluded our stay in Hanoi in aw over the whole Ho Chi Minh thing. There we stood staring at his Lenin-inspired mausoleum inaugurated in 1975. HCM’s embalmed body is preserved in the cooled, central hall of the mausoleum, which is protected by a military guard. The body lies in a glass case with dim lights similar to Hans Solo. Visitors are only allowed between 9am to 12pm, Tuesday through Sunday. They must cover their legs, stay silent, and keep their hands out of their pockets and straight. No photography or video taping is allowed by anyone. Hundreds of tourists were outside the afternoon we visited just taking pictures of the external buildings. It’s amazing how popular a figure Ho Chi Minh still is over 40 years since his death. He is the symbol of freedom from the French and HCM can do no wrong in the eyes of the Vietnamese.
Allergetic, sluggish and uninspired, we were stoked to leave Hanoi for the gorgeous Ha Long Bay. Cat Ba Island is the big island in the region and known for being low key compared to Ha Long City. It is very popular for rock climbing and kayaking. The trip is a bit daunting since you have to take three buses (through Hai Phong) and a ferry boat over the course of four and half hours. We heard several nightmare stories about scams on the way, so we prepared carefully.
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