KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Note: The two cities share the same letters in their names!
Once again, we traveled along the new road that gave us a clear view of the Ocean and the famous China Beach. Our flight to Hanoi was scheduled to depart at 2:00 p.m. and we arrived in plenty of time for the check in and settled in to wait in the small waiting area. The Danang airport is a pretty busy place because there are international flights to Hong Kong and to Bangkok - this was good news for us because it means that we will be able to fly here directly from Bangkok in the future - when we want to return to Hoi An once again. It wasn't long before we learned that our flight had been cancelled and rescheduled to depart at 6:45 p.m. This meant that we had almost five hours to kill - I was worried that the flight would be cancelled altogether - but was told by the flight attendants that this would not be the case. We were given vouchers for lunch at the airport restaurant and headed over there to pass the time. It turned out the restaurant was air-conditioned, so we each had a large bowl of beef pho (noodle soup) and Jeong Ae brought out her cards and dealt hands for us to play her favorite game - Hearts. Years ago, we spent many a long winter evening playing late into the night - Adia and Raj still remember waking up to the thunderous noise we would make when someone was stuck with the Queen of Spades.
While we were playing, we noticed a waiter bringing a bottle of beer to a man sitting all alone next to our table. He waived the waiter away telling him that his fifteen minutes weren't up yet. He turned to us and explained that he too was waiting for the rescheduled flight, and the waiter knew him well as he takes the flight each week to Hanoi. He is working in Vietnam for an Australian construction company and the waiter knows full well that he only drinks one beer every fifteen minutes. He said there is no need for the waiter to bring him a cold beer any sooner than that - after-all; he is trying to cut down. Yikes, that's a lot of beer over the next five hours while we all wait for the flight. We talked to him for some time as we continued to play cards, he told us in heavily-accented English that he didn't like the Vietnamese very much and we quickly cut off the conversation when he loudly announced that he wished that "the Americans had nuked the whole country". Unfortunately, we had had the misfortune to meet a "non-Vietnamese" pot-bellied pig. David was quick to tell him that we had been in Vietnam for over a week now, and he had found the Vietnamese people to be some of the nicest people he had ever met in South East Asia.
At last we were called to board the plane and we had an uneventful flight and touched down at Noi Bai about an hour later. The Freedom hotel had sent a car for us and we were amazed to see a relatively new Toyota Camry waiting for us. We piled into the comfortable car and a mere forty-five minutes later we were in the heart of Hanoi at our hotel. I don't know if you are aware but George Bush, Vladimir Putin and Hu Jingtao is coming to Hanoi on November 15th for a meeting of APEC (Asian-Pacific Economic Community). We wondered if this trip in the Toyota Camry is a dress rehearsal for the big visit. When we arrived at the Freedom Hotel, they informed us that they could not provide us with the rooms that we had asked for, for the next four days, due to all the extra people coming to Hanoi for the APEC conference. They could give us a room for the night, but it would have to be small interior rooms - not the larger ones at the front of the hotel like we had stayed in during past visits. We were worried that there might not be much available, so we took what they offered and after having a shower, took David and Jeong Ae out for a quick orientation tour of the Hoam Kiem Lake area and the beginning of the Old Quarter.
The next morning, we checked a few hotels in the vicinity of the Freedom Hotel and discovered a brand-new hotel even closer to the lake. It is called the Morning Star Hotel and we were amazed to find rooms available - lovely rooms with all of the modern conveniences that were missing from the much older Freedom Hotel. They admitted that the rates were much higher than usual because of the conference, but we didn't mind because the rooms were so nice and the view of the lake from the seventh floor was wonderful. I have included some pictures for you to see how nice it was for us. The top floor was a lounge area for hotel guests and also served as a breakfast room as breakfast was included with the room. We were also delighted to find that the hotel had two computers in the lobby that were free for hotel guests to check email and the internet. This seems to be something new since our last trip to Vietnam. There are tons of internet cafes around the city, but it is very convenient to have access right at the hotel. We went back to the Freedom Hotel and explained that we had found other rooms - they were so apologetic that they insisted that we accept a package of postcards for each of the four of us - as a gesture of their regret that we were forced to change hotels. In the end, we were happy to have to move, because we found a much nicer hotel, still in the central area where we wanted to be.
That evening we picked up some wine, beer, cheese and baguettes and had an impromptu party for four in the glass-enclosed seventh floor and watched the sun set over the city. The next day, we had arranged to take a tour to Tam Coc - known as the Halong Bay of the rice paddies. Instead of a vast ocean surrounding a landscape of huge limestone mountains, at Tam Coc there is a river that passes through the limestone outcroppings and on either side of the river there are fields of rice in every shade of green imaginable. David and Jeong Ae had encouraged us to be sure to see some new area of Vietnam instead of just taking them to all the places we had been to before. This was the area that I have been longing to visit and we had just enough time to add it to our schedule. Tam Coc is about two hours outside of the suburbs of Hanoi and we were taken there on a comfortable bus holding thirteen passengers. We stopped briefly at the ancient capital of Vietnam and then following a great lunch we boarded small boats for our journey on the river. The boats are rowed by women from the neighbouring village - two women per boat. One woman rows the boat with two fixed oars and the other sits in the middle of the boat and paddles on one side of the boat. Anil was wondering why there was a large tin box situated in the middle of the boat, next to the woman with the paddle, but I figured we were in for some intense sales pressure at some point in the boat ride. The earnings from the tourists for the boat ride is most likely augmented by the sale of handicrafts, after all we were a captive audience when they were ready to open the tin chest. I chose not to think about it for the time being, the scenery was so beautiful that I wanted to take it all in and try and get some good photographs to share with you.
During the course of the next couple of hours, we moved through the most amazing landscape and passed through three caves along the way. The river has worn a path through the limestone mountains in three separate places, and seeing that we were just at the end of the rainy season, the river was very high and the ceilings of the caves, very low. It was a thrilling ride through the caves, ducking our heads to avoid low-hanging pieces of the cave roofs. It was a relief coming out into the sunshine once again, although we all looked forward to the next cave as we approached the dark openings. Once we passed through the three caves, we found that we were cornered by many boats laden with cold drinks, snacks, fresh fruits and very insistent villagers. Our boats did not start the journey back to the dock until everyone had purchased something to eat and drink. We bought some fresh pineapple and bananas and I took a photo of a very shy little boy. His mother wanted me to buy a Coke, but I gave her some money for the boy instead of buying a sweet drink - she seemed rather disappointed with me.
That evening we went for dinner at the Dakshin - a South Indian Vegetarian restaurant that we had discovered on our first visit to Hanoi. Anil had noticed a sign board on the sidewalk that announced that the restaurant had a large screen on which they showed live cricket that was broadcast on television, and he jumped at the idea of watching cricket and eating Indian food. We passed through the narrow lane leading to a stairway and entered the restaurant on the third floor. The food was a refreshing change from the Vietnamese food we had been eating, and the owner welcomed us warmly. Two years later, when we returned to Hanoi with the Moreaus, the D'Ilios and Audrey Hawn, we ate there again. The owner remembered us from our first visit and once again, we ate to our hearts content. Anil taught Paul and Rocco the finer points of cricket and the camaraderie of the setting was infectious.
When we arrived at the Dakshin with David and Jeong Ae, the owner was not present, but the staff was as warm and friendly as before and Anil recognized a waitress from past visits. She did not say anything to us, but we were sure that she remembered us as well. We had been praising the food for some time now, and Jeong Ae was very pleasantly surprised that the food was as tasty as we had made it out to be. Her introduction to Indian food was through my cooking, and horror of horrors, she holds my cooking as the standard to which all Indian food is measured. I guess that is the case with my measure of Korean food - I have always liked her kimchi the best too!
On our last day in Hanoi, I wanted to take the Lalonde's to see the Temple of Literature. It's a lovely old complex of buildings in the heart of the city. It was established as a center of learning in the 11th century. In fact, we were told that Hanoi is going to be celebrating its 1000-year anniversary in 2010. Hard to imagine when we live in a city that just celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2005. When we arrived at the Temple of Literature we were in for a delightful surprise. Not only was there a large display of bonsai (it appeared to be a competition but we couldn't be sure), there was also a celebration going on - huge crowds of people were just leaving as we arrived, arms loaded with huge bouquets of tropical flowers (as beautiful as any arrangements you would find at Laurels in Edmonton). We finally asked someone what was happening and were told that sixty-four people were just made full professors at the University and that the ceremony was always held at this temple to learning. You could see the very proud families hovering around their newly honoured family member. I was struck by the lovely clothing of a woman professor and asked if she would mind me taking her photograph. She graciously agreed to pose for me and I have included her picture on this site. All this activity made the Temple of Learning even more meaningful, and we took our time enjoying the old buildings and the fabulous bonsai arranged throughout the grounds. As we were about to leave, I noticed two elderly Vietnamese gentlemen in traditional dress enjoying the bonsai. I asked if I could take their photograph also, and they seemed pleased. Jeong Ae was wearing Asian dress that day, so I asked her to stand with them too. It was a lovely way to end our visit there. When we exited the gate, we learned that the Temple would be closed that afternoon for a VIP visit, we were relieved that we had seen it when we did, or we would have missed it altogether.
We hailed a taxi to take us to another famous site in Hanoi, and once we were on our way, we noticed that the meter was leaping ahead by leaps and bounds. I had checked the meter when we entered the taxi and saw that it had started at the correct amount, 11,000 dong, but after traveling less that one kilometer, it was already over 80,000 dong. The trip we were taking was so short that the maximum we should be paying was about 14,000 dong. We told the driver to stop immediately, but he kept traveling a little farther down the street, running up the meter even farther. This was our first experience with a "tourist" taxi. He had reached into the glove compartment shortly after we entered the cab, and he must have tripped a switch that set the meter zooming. Now 80,000 dong is only about USD 5.00, so it was not unaffordable, but we were not prepared to be ripped off in this way. Most foreign tourists who stay in the big five-star hotels and probably travel on expense accounts would not even be aware of this scam, but we refused to pay the fare and gave him 40,000 and told him to buzz off. He was not too happy, but finally drove off as we walked away in the opposite direction. I mention this only to raise awareness for others should they travel to Vietnam. We had not realized that we had entered a private taxi instead of a public one - we would be more alert in the future.
David and Jeong Ae had heard about the famous Water Puppets of Hanoi and went to see the show in the afternoon of our last day in Hanoi. We had been to see the show twice before, so we took the time to work on the internet while they crossed to the other side of the lake to the theatre. The water puppets are quite unique - the puppeteers stand behind a curtain in waist deep water and hold long poles that pass under the curtain just below the surface of the water. The puppets are attached to the ends of the poles and stand upright above the surface so that they appear to be floating on the water. The puppeteers put on quite an amazing performance in this manner - telling many of the folkloric tales from throughout Vietnam. Apparently, this form of puppetry originated in the rice paddies to entertain the villagers. There is a live traditional orchestra playing music during the performance and several women sing traditional songs as well. I have included a photo of some of the water puppets that are on sale in the local market. They are beautiful, but really need to be seen in action to be fully appreciated.
Our last evening in Hanoi was spent at the street corner pub in the Old Quarter. Anil and I had discovered this place late one night on our first trip to the city. The place has really caught on with the foreign tourists since then, each corner of the intersection now boasts a small shop selling draft beer. The patrons sit on small plastic stools facing the street. This way they can watch the non-stop action on the narrow street and also catch the eye of all the hawkers selling snacks and other foods from shoulder poles. The shop owner serves the beer in glasses and keeps a tally of the number of beers served.
We sat at the shop next to the woman selling chicken kabobs and baguettes. This is the woman that sold us the kabobs on our first trip - we remembered her, but there was no way she could remember us. An ancient woman was sitting with her, probably her mother-in-law, keeping track of how many kabobs we had eaten and generally overseeing everything. We kept the kabob sticks on a stool in front of us as a way to keep track of the number we ate. It was a great evening and David and Jeong Ae had a terrific time. A woman passed by selling mangoes and pineapple, and after we had purchased some fruit from her, David made her a paper crane. She squatted on the street in front of us, and even though we could not speak each other's language, we shared a few laughs and she even allowed us to take a photograph of her with her crane. It was a great way to finish off our stay in Hanoi and as the streets began to empty, we headed off to our hotel for our last sleep in Vietnam.
That night I heard the sounds of babies crying in the hotel. It didn't really disturb my sleep, but I was concerned that the baby or babies seemed to be so inconsolable. The next morning as Anil and David were settling up the hotel bill, a couple passed through the lobby with a small baby. The father sat down next to me at the computers and logged on to check the internet. I mentioned to him that he was brave to travel with such a small baby and he told us that he and several other couples staying at the hotel had just arrived from Danang where they had been to pick up their adopted children. That explained why there were new baby cribs sitting on each landing of the hotel floors when we arrived. It is a very nice hotel and I can imagine that it would be a great place for people who are only coming to Vietnam for a short time, to pick up their baby. I asked the new dad if his child was a girl and he said "yes" all the adopted babies with his group are girls. The parents and the babies all seemed a little overwhelmed with the situation, I made a silent prayer that all would work out for both the babies and the parents.
Our taxi arrived and we said a hearty goodbye to the hotel staff and promised to return in the new year. Someday I hope to come to Hanoi and stay until I really feel it is time to move on - not just another flying visit to a city that has captured my heart.