This is the first , and possibly last blog entry I (Malcolm) will do ,as I am basically a lazy so and so. I actually volunteered to do this first one. The choice this afternoon was to go on a walking tour of the "old quarter" of Hanoi where we are staying or to stay here in the hotel and do this (or at least something else useful) while Elinor went off to get a 1hr massage ($13.00 including taxi).
We have been around the old quarter several times now by various means, so here I am being virtuous and doing the log.
We got up at 3.00am Monday morning to start our trip here. We travelled for just about 30 hrs to get to our hotel here in Hanoi and got here at midnight on Tuesday (local time). we got maybe two hours sleep on the planes, so we were pretty tired by the time we got here. In one way it worked out well, as it was midnight local time when we got here we went straight to bed our body clocks have done quite well in getting onto the time change.
Our first full day here was free so we were able to just kind of wander about the area around the hotel and spend the day getting caught up on sleep and aclimatizing to the weather. Yesterday was really hectic, we had an all day city tour starting at 8.00am and finishing at about 7.00pm.
Today is free until 8.00pm when we go to the train station for an overnight sleeper train journey to Sapa in the Northwestern highlands.
So what's it been like so far? (I'll answer that because you probably don't know)
I have never been to Asia before and It came as a bit of a realization shock to me when we landed in Hanoi late at night and tired and it suddenly dawned on me that I knew absolutely not one word of Vietnamese.
I have never been to any country before where this was true, it makes you feel kind of isolated. The first people we met were at immigration where we had to get our visas. In the past in other countries broad smiles, chirade like gestures ,use of one or two of the primary level words I do know and eye contact have usually worked pretty well.
The immigration officers were all in their peaked hats with their military uniforms on and none of our efforts to be friendly and smiley met with any even slightly sympathetic response. I now believe that throughout the whole world there must be a standardized aptitude test for customs and immigration personnel and an absolute lack of even the slightest shred of a sense of humour must be one of the top qualifying qualities.
As I said above I can usually manage a couple of words of a language, so at least twice my groggy mind realizing A) A thank you would be good grovel word now and then and B) I was in a foreign country led me to throw out a couple of "gracias's" here and there. That did not impress the locals,but it sure broke up Elinor.
After we got through immigration and customs things started to look up....kind of.... Our guide and driver were ther to meet us and bring us to our hotel, an hours drive from the airport.Our guide for the next 13 days (while we are in the northern part of the country). He is a really nice young guy, speaks good english and is very knowledgeable abouth the places and things we have so far seen.......When we got to our hotel they did not have a room for us until the following day. Arghhhh. Not a big problem, they put us in an upgraded room at a nearby hotel, quite a nice place , but rock hard bed.
The next day we moved to the hotel we were supposed to be in, the "Blue Paradise". Can't argue with half the name, but what can you expect for $28.00 a night including breakfast?
We are on the 5th floor, there is no elevator and the staircase is narrow. there are 72 steps from the lobby floor up to our room, I know this very well now. I am looking forward to coming down again later this afternoon carrying our luggage. I am quickly developing the calf muscles of a Sherpa.
There is nothing basically wrong with the room, the air conditioning works,the room and bathroom is clean, the staff is friendly and the breakfast is good. On the downside the bed is rock hard (hope we are not developing a theme here) The view from our window is of the brick wall of the next building over, about 3 feet away, and the most curious thing, the bath tub is not anchored to the floor or wall in any way the drain from the bathtub must be some sort of flexible hose as the lightweight plasic bathtub moves about with very little encouragement or warning. There is no anti stick surface to the bath tub so having a shower a bit of a challenge. Try to imagine showering while riding a greased skate board.Maybe it could catch on in bars like those mechanical bronco bulls did a few years ago.
As I said the first day was free and we just hung around locally . We went to a local restaurant for dinner and ate typical Vietnamese food. The menu did have the dishes written out in english as well as Vietnamese, so we could at least make out the content of the dishes but not volume of likely flavour etc.
Our waitress spoke a little english......kind of .....but I had real trouble understanding what she was saying , and vice versa. I had ordered my main dish she said "vegetable?" while pointing at the veggie section of the menu. I looked at the veggie section and panicked seeing all kinds of veggies that I had never heard of , prepared in ways I had no clue about . I pointed at one "morning glory" in something.She said something, I thought I heard "Bok Choy" I said "aaaah Bok Choy!" She said "Bok Choy? Elinor said "Bok Choy?" I sat there grinning not knowing how to advance the conversation Elinor had not heard her say Bok Choy but rather "is that what you wan't" meaning the Morning Glory in something. I had the morning glory which was quite nice. Its easy to see how someone could confuse the phrases isn't it?
The utensils here are chopsticks, I am a beginner with them. I guess the waitress (same lady) could see as the meal progressed that I was struggling a little bit with some of the smaller or slimier bits of food. Attempting to help, she came over and said what I heard as "fook?" I did not realize the context of the comment was about utensils I recognized the questioning tone but I did not feel it was good to answer what I had heard the question to be. Elinor realized what had really been offered, and guessed what I thought I had heard. I got a fork,and red in the face from embarrasment. Elinor got red in the face from laughing for a couple of minutes.
By the next day ,we were a bit better prepared for our all day city tour, having learned Vietnamese for "hello" "goodbye" and "thankyou". I still mix them up sometimes which gets me a few strange looks, but bye and large they seem to be happy that we are at least making a basic attempt to communicate in their language.
With our guide and driver we went first to Ho Chi Min's mausoleum which is the most sacred national shrine.Going through, you must not have a camera with you, you cannot talk or have hands in pockets. You go on a raised walkway round his glass "coffin" there are four Vietnamese soldiers standing motionless at attention at each cornner of the coffin. there are discreet spotlights shining down on Ho's upper body and face. Apparently he wanted to be cremated after death, but the government created this shrine instead.Our guide told us that the body is sent off to Russia each year for about three months for the preservation of his body being refreshed.
We next saw the houses where he had lived. From there we visited, during the rest of the day, two pagodas (while at the one in the picture above we were interviewed for a Vietnamese TV news show).Two museums,TwoShrines, the prison where John McCain was kept during the Vietnam war (Hanoi Hilton), Went on a "cyclo" tour of the old quarter, and finished up seeing a water puppet show. All in all a quiet relaxing day.....
Today we wandered about the old quarter this morning and both Elinor and I bought new running shoes. There are 36 "commercial" streets in the old quarter, each was controlled by a craftsmens guild in the middle ages so there is a "shoe street" a "leather street" a "Masons street" a "Silk street" etc. So even now the streets stick to the various crafts. Shoe street has dozens of shoe stores and bargaining is expected so we had a good time purchasing inexpensive good running shoes.
I have just about run out of steam now, Elinor is back, all massaged and relaxed I think it's time to go and have a nice cold drink before finishing packing, going for dinner and then heading off to catch our "Orient Express"
Will send off our next episode in a few days Bye fromHanoi Malcolm and Elinor