Thursday, December 01, 2011

Day 50 - 51: Hanging out in Hanoi

The bus to Hanoi was probably the best of the many journeys we've had in the last couple of weeks, mostly because it was quicker. We stocked up on fruit and snacks beforehand, so we didn't need to stop off for lunch (not that the driver gave people much time to eat). Arriving in one of the Hanoi bus stations, were immediately set upon by a gang of motorcycle taxi drivers. By that, I mean we were literally surrounded by 7-8 men who were all talking at us, waving money in our face (not to give us, but to tell us how much we should pay them to get a lift), and generally getting a bit too close for my liking. Obviously they fancied their chances, as the first offer for a taxi was 200,000 dong to the centre of town - about £7 (it should be about 90,000). We ignored them and decided to get something with four wheels instead. Call me crazy, but I don't particularly trust transportation which, when you let go of it, falls over.

Having read up beforehand, we knew better than to tell them the guesthouse we were going to, and instead gave them the road name. The reason for this is apparent as soon as you get to the Old Quarter in Hanoi: there are dozens of places with identical names. The reason for this is two-fold: there is no copyright protection in Hanoi (and neither in Vietnam, I would assume), and secondly any hotel or tour operator that has a good reputation - perhaps thanks to appearing in a guidebook - is immediately cloned by a less reputable guesthouse who changes their name to try and capture some of the original's business. They then work in tandem with taxis or motorbike taxis to snare unwary tourists who give them the name of the place that they want to go to, and are taken to one of the copies - usually run by a mate of the taxi driver - and given a hard sell for a room, or a tour. I've seen over a dozen "Sinh Cafe" places, multiple "Especen Hotels" and at least three "Hanoi Backpackers". Cunning.

We found a place called Camellia recommended in Rough Guide, and checked it out. The first thing we noticed in Vietnam was the change from the local currency to American Dollars for hotel payments. It makes things seem a lot more expensive; in actuality, Vietnam is on a par with Thailand in terms of accommodation costs. We got a decent room for $15, nicely laid out and with super fast wi-fi. I think we will stay here for a few days - we shopped around a bit later, and the majority of places are at least the same price, if not more.

After dumping our bags, we went out for a wander around the Old Quarter. Hanoi is completely crazy, at least from the traffic side of things. How people aren't injured or vehicles damaged on a minute-by-minute basis is beyond me. Crossing the street is an event unto itself. Have a look at the kind of thing we have to contend with:

At this stage, it's a case of shutting your eyes and walking. As long as you walk slowly enough, the bikes will just go around you. Running is not a good idea unless you fancy a new appendage made from rubber and/or metal.

We dropped off some laundry, exchanged a book at a bookshop, then had a look around St. Joseph's Cathedral and Ba Da Pagoda, and strolled down some of the many side streets. I can say one thing for Hanoi: it doesn't waste space. Every inch of pavement is crammed full of shops, cafes, guesthouses, restaurants or tour places. You can buy pretty much anything you're looking for here, as long as you're willing to search for it. Having spent the last 3 days eating pretty much all rice and noodles, we decided to go to a place called "Pepperonis" for an all you can eat pizza buffet. It was decent enough, but nothing special. Whilst there though, we met a Scottish couple - Craig and Rebecca - who are on a 3 month whistlestop trip around the world, and had some great tips for us about Cambodia and southern Vietnam.

After a decent night's sleep, we got up early this morning to meet them again, before heading over to the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution. This was a dry collection of photographs detailing the Vietnamese struggle firstly against the French colonial occupation, then the war with America. The photos could have done with a bit of context; whilst they were pretty much chronological, a lack of backstory made them somewhat impenetrable to people who know little about that period (shamefully, I include myself here).

The next stop was the History Museum over the road, which was actually smaller than the Revolution museum and had a standard array of pottery, carvings, bones, teeth and whatnot. There were some decent cases but the majority of items dug up by archaeologists tend to bore me to tears. I'm sure it's fascinating to many people, but once you've seen one bit of broken jar, you really don't need to see another forty-eight.

After lunch at Ciao Cafe we went to the Museum of Vietnamese Women. This was the surprise highlight of the day - it explained the female role in Vietnamese culture, both from the traditional day-to-day sense and, more importantly, the role they played in helping liberate Vietnam from French colonialism and US aggression. Fascinating stuff, and well worth a visit. We also popped into a few of the many, many art galleries lining the Hanoian streets - I could spend a day just trawling around them.

In the evening we met up with Craig and Rebecca again at Pickles, a sandwich/western/Asian restaurant with fairly decent food at decent prices. They are heading to Luang Prabang tomorrow, so hopefully they'll find this blog useful!

The weather today has been miserable. It rained from about 7am until almost 5pm, and was fairly cold to boot. Still, it's the first rain we've experienced for about 3 weeks so I guess we can't grumble, especially when comparing it to the UK.

Hanoi is an interesting place. There's something new on every street, whether it's a funky looking restaurant or a book shop or a gallery. The locals aren't as in-yer-face as Bangkok, which is a relief, and the only attempted hard sell we've had is for one of the umpteen tours to Halong Bay which every tour company, guesthouse and hotel are peddling. After a timely and helpful message from Julie and Lev, I think we're going to make our way to Cat Ba Island in a few days and organise a Halong Bay tour ourselves. It'll be cheaper, and we won't be in thrall to the time restrictions of the tour operators who are notoriously hit-and-miss when it comes to this particular tour.

Tomorrow we're having the first lie-in we've had for the best part of a week, followed by a walk up to the French Quarter.

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