Cities are great. I'm all for the scenery of the countryside, being at one with nature, insert other hippy cliche in here, but sometimes you need to just wander around cities and explore their culture amongst the hustle and bustle. Hanoi has plenty of bustle and only a little hustle, which I'm still not used to. You don't get the hard sell in London or Bristol, so coming to a SE Asian country where very little of this happens (after the intensity of Bangkok), draws favourable comparisons.
Having said that, there are plenty of things that aren't so great. The main one is pollution. With so many motorbikes (see previous post for video), the streets soon get thick with fumes. Add this to the compulsory smoking habit of pretty much all Vietnamese men, and the smoke given off by the many street corner barbeques, and you have yourself a carcinogen-fest free of charge, simply by walking out of your hotel door. Also, if you come to Hanoi you soon get used to the honking. You can't go more than 8 seconds out on the street without hearing a bike or car horn. The frequency is such that I actually believe, like whales and bats, they navigate by some sort of sonar. We've now mastered crossing the road, and have yet to see an accident which I can only put down to either compressor fields around each vehicle, divine intervention, or sheer good fortune.
Our hotel is excellent. The wi-fi stopped working a couple of nights ago, and the staff had it fixed by the morning. I'd highly recommend staying at Camellia, it is very comfortable and friendly. Also loving the memory foam mattress; I think we may have to invest in one in the future.
After a well earned lie-in, we took a stroll up to the north of town. There are a few traditional houses which have been restored in this area, and in one of them we met a lovely Vietnamese local volunteer called Lan. She was there to practice her English and told us all about the symbolism in the cultural houses in Hanoi. The main colours they use in a lot of buildings around the area is yellow, which was the colour of the French royal family. Similarly, red is often used in places of worship as it denotes power (the colour of blood). There are often two horses in temples - one is white which protects the occupants, the other is red which chases away bad spirits. There are also lots of statues around the city of a crane standing on top of a tortoise: the crane represents the sky, whilst the tortoise represents the earth and longevity - in conjunction they represent the harmony between heaven and earth. Lan invited us to a performance of Ca Tru music on Sunday at the house, which is a type of folk music; tickets were limited and I believe there are only 15 or so people that can along to keep the atmosphere intimate. Since we were going to be around, we thought why not - let's get immersed in the culture.
We ate lunch at Newday which wasn't bad (a 5 course set menu) but not as good as I'd hoped considering its placement on Trip Advisor.
Wandering around some of the art shops, we stumbled across Bao Nguyen. This guy is one of the greatest artists I've ever seen. His simple charcoal drawings are almost photo-realistic, to the point where I had to do a double-take on a number of them to check if they weren't actually photographs. Based out of a small shop on 47 Hang Ngang street, his walls are covered with drawings of people, famous and ordinary, and all stunning. If I had a week and a few hundred dollars to spare, I would definitely be buying a commission from him. If you get the chance, take a look at his shop when you visit Hanoi.
We walked down to the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake - the main lake in the centre of the city. There's a huge 6 foot long turtle on display in the entrance room which was found in 1968, and which locals believe is a legendary turtle, possibly related to the turtle god which an ancient emperor handed a magic sword back to, after it gave him victory. It looked like a stuffed turtle to me, but the story sounds cool.
After a lovely sunset, we went to buy tickets at the Water Puppet Theatre, and were served by a woman who could give Anne Robinson a run for her money in the stroppiness stakes. I've never felt like buying something was as much of a hassle to someone as it was to her. Thankfully, she wasn't indicative of Vietnamese people in general, who have been very pleasant so far. So, on Sunday we are going to see the Water Puppet Theatre at 3:30pm followed by a Ca Tru performance at 8pm.
In the evening we decided to go to an all-you-can-eat ice cream buffet at Kem Fanny. This only runs on the first Friday of every month, so we were pretty lucky to be here. We gorged ourselves stupid on a variety of ice creams, sorbets, toppings, wafers and fruit, and after an hour and a half of sugar intake, we were buzzing. We did eat some savoury street food as well, just to ensure that ice cream wasn't the sole dish of our evening meal...
On Saturday we continued the Hanoi building tour and trawled around a number of popular sites:
- Temple of Literature: Established almost 1000 years ago, this is still an important venue for scientific and academic events today. It's also on the 100,000 dong banknote. Students would travel here to attain professorship, or at least attempt to - only a handful would be accepted out of the thousands of applicants, and they would have to pass a series of exams - the last being set by the king himself. These days, most of the temple is given over to wedding parties and souvenir stands, but there are peaceful areas in there and a few Confucian statues calling back to olden times.
- One Pillar Pagoda: It's a pagoda that stands on a single stone pillar. We didn't actually get in there, so only saw it from the outside as there were queues of people wanting to offer incense and money and pray.
- Ho Chi Minh Museum: This is an odd one. A huge building containing a bizarre collection of permanent installation art. These range from Picasso sculptures, geometric carvings, a range of different war memorabilia and, near the end, an oversized table and chairs adorned with an equally huge bowl of fruit. Because nothing symbolises the revolutionary cause like a massive pineapple. Each area was supposed to represent some aspect of Ho Chi Minh's life, but I went out not knowing any more about Uncle Ho than when I entered. The big fruit was pretty cool though.
- Army Museum: More dry war material, most of which was only captioned in English so we couldn't get the full benefit of the Vietnamese struggle against the US. This disappointment was offset by a fun courtyard of cannons, aircraft, tanks, and jeeps in the courtyard, including a MIG fighter jet, which we got to take photos on, in, or around.
We had lunch at Cafe Smile (a 4-course set menu again, better than Newday and cheaper to boot) and an evening meal at Kangaroo Cafe (who are in the top 50 burger joints in the world according to International Cow, and after trying one, I can see why). We met another English couple - Tom and Holly - at Kangaroo, and spent the evening discussing Halong Bay tour options with them. We're all undecided on how we want to get there. Our Russian-American friends Julie and Lev did it on their own by making their way to Cat Ba Island and setting off from there. However, Kangaroo Cafe also run a tour which - from the reviews and blurb inside the cafe - sounds pretty good, and different to the identical tours being peddled by the rest of the Hanoi guesthouses. Having said that, the Trip Advisor reviews for Kangaroo Cafe Tours are not that good. That's not to say it's a bad tour necessarily, as we also heard that a number of dishonest competitors to Kangaroo Cafe were deliberately paying people to post negative reviews in order to hurt their business. I can well believe that; if stealing a business's name doesn't work, why not hurt their reputation too?
The KC tour sets off on Tuesday and the weather from Tuesday onwards looks fairly miserable so we may just bite the bullet and go with them to save the hassle of organising our own transport to and accommodation in Cat Ba in the rain.