After 10 days in Laos, we arrived in Hanoi at night - and it was much colder than what we had become accustomed to in Laos - at about 23 degrees celcius - chilly after 40 degrees! We had expected an onslaught of traffic but in reality it was quite calm...there were scooters and motorbikes everywhere but most people stayed in their lanes and cars were in short supply - nothing like India for sure!
Our first impressions on reaching the Old Quarter were that we could be in Paris. No, I am serious!! The architecture, the tree-lined streets, the hum of mopeds / motorbikes and the numerous Cafes, Bistros and Patisseries as well as the cool weather... it was like we had taken the wrong flight! The only thing that gave it away was all of the Vietnamese people all around.
Upon returning to our hotel we discovered that we may have been the cause of some excitement when leaving the airport at Vientiane. Our electric toothbrush (ok, so we like our little luxuries...AND good teeth are important - I am American afterall!!) which was lovingly placed in the outside pocket of my checked-in backpack must have accidentally turned on after we sent it through - when I opened the little plastic bag to take it out, I asked Jonathan why he took the batteries out of the toothbrush - he looked at me quizzically and that was when we realised Mr Laos-aviation must have discovered and "disarmed" the toothbrush! Good idea - maybe we will do that when we fly again next!
Our hotel was in a great location - in the French quarter - and the owners were friendly and helpful. It was a family-run affair, so everyone from the Grandfather, grandchild, down to the little fury dog helped us on our way. However, our first morning in Hanoi we were greeted at 6am by the man next door (a permanent resident) clearing his sinuses and then his guts for about 20 minutes - between the snorting and yacking, we both thought we would be sick - thank goodness for those earplugs which bought us a few more hours of sleep!!
After a brilliant breakfast and even better cafe au lait, we set out to explore the old town of Hanoi...still convinced that we were actually in Paris. All of the streets in Old Hanoi are named after what can be found on them - so there is a Silk Street, Poultry Street, etc - there are 36 of these streets named in this manner. Some of the more humourous include "Roasted Fish Street", "Pickled Fish Street", "Coffin Street", and "Clam Worms Street" to name a few!! Luckily for us, we missed out on the street, which is 10km north of Hanoi, that is famous for its dogs - that is for DINNER not for pets!!
After speaking to many travellers through Laos, we had expected the Vietnamese to be much pushier than some of the other Asians we have met so far - after only a day we can say that luckily this is not the case! Of course, commerce is the middle name of most Vietnamese, but after a "No thank-you" most of the people let us get on with our business!
Today has been a great exploratory day with lots of coffee stops in between! The weather is more like London in November than what we expected of Vietnam in February, but we are hopeful.
After a few days in Halong Bay, we returned to Hanoi so that we could see more of the sites before heading South. Where did we start other than a visit to Uncle Ho - that's Mr Ho Chi Minh to you out there! It was a slightly strange experience - well, had I never been to visit Lenin in Moscow! Definately much more structured than when I was visiting my last communist hero. We all lined up - and this was a very tight line, single file. After turning in our bag at one stop, our cameras at another and ensuring we didn't have hands in pockets (which is considered disrespectful) we marched into the mausoeleum. Well - we tried. This was before we were cut off by a group of apparently "VIP Guests" (Read: Members of the Communist Party) who promptly went to the front of the line (what happened to the equality with the common man that Communism brings??) Everyone just turned a blind-eye and waited their turn. Once inside, Uncle Ho glowed white under the light in all his embalmed glory. The poor guy asked to be cremated and this is what he gets. Well, at least it includes a yearly round-trip ticket to Moscow for three months a year to have his face lift & touch-up! Afterwards, we visited the grounds where he used to live and the Museum - all very interesting, particularly the Museum which talked about the North liberating the South. Interpretations of history are very interesting depending what lens you look through.
Upon returning to our same hotel, we were suprised to find that the cute little dog that I mentioned before was no longer there.... we assumed the worst, which was confirmed by the Grandfather / Owner - they ATE the dog.... ahhhh, aren't differing cultures great?? :-) Somehow, we were still hungry even after this revelation and we went to a great little place called "La Brique" for a Hanoi specialty called "Cha Ca" (no, just because it rhymes with Kah-Kah....) - it is grilled fish that they cook in front of you in a terracotta pot and then they mix it with rice noodles, fresh dill, peanuts and steamed green onions...absolutley delicious!
So far so good - there is a great vibe about this city... we have seen many "officers" dressed in the standard-issued green uniforms with their yellow stars on the red background (read: comrades - aka the Communists!!) but most of the people here don't even seem to take notice... it surely doesn't feel like any communist country I have ever been in!! The weather was pretty dire and London-like, but it was a good excuse to catch up on our reading. We just hope that the weather gets better as we head to Central Vietnam.