Hanoi, Vietnam (1st Dec 2007)
Surprisingly, finding our hotel was relatively easy but upon speaking to the receptionist we soon realised all wasn't well as she had never heard of either of us and had no record of our reservation. So off we went backpacks and all to wonder the streets of Hanoi in the hope of finding another hotel room only to be turned away from place after place. There was a glimmer of hope when one hotel offered us a room for relatively cheap but then told us it had no electricity, hence why it was cheap! We were about to give up and Kara was close to tears when we stumbled upon a cafe called Koto's where we knew the Intrepid group were having breakfast so as a last resort we trudged up the four flights of stairs in the hope that Son, the leader would be able to help us.And that he did, taking Mark to find us a hotel that was only a few roads away. As we couldn't check in till 11 we decided to have breakfast at Koto's which turned out to be by far the best breakfast we have had so far on this trip thanks to a few western treats (variations on the classic baked beans and hash browns). After freshening up in the hotel, we met up with Catherine and decided we would just have a lazy afternoon wondering around not doing much at all. Due to our stressful morning we figured a beer wouldn't go a miss but we couldn't find a bar on our travels so we settled for a can each from the supermarket and sat down on the street and befriended two cyclo drivers who took our empty cans (after finishing the dregs!! )and proceeded to throw knives into the tree next to us, you know, as you do! As we wondered around we stumbled upon Hoa Lo Prison Museum and so went for a quick look around. The site itself is all that remains of the former Hao Lo Prison which was built in 1896 by the French and intended to house 450 inmates but records show there were more like 2000 prisoners there at any one time. It was awful seeing the conditions that the prisoners were subjected too but the museum didn't quite have the same effect on us that The Killing Fields in Cambodia or The War Remnants Museum in Saigon had. In the afternoon we went to see the Vietnamese Water Puppet Show which was an unusual experience to say the least. The ancient art of water puppetry was virtually unknown outside of Vietnam until the 1960s, despite having a history that spans back at least 1000 years. It originated with the rice farmers who worked the flooded fields of the Red River Delta and saw the potential of the water as a stage. The show we saw was a contemporary performance using a square tank of waist deep water for the 'stage' and numerous puppets operated from behind a bamboo screen by puppeteers who have trained for a minimum of three years. The performances depict scenes ranging from daily farming life to stories about more mythical creatures such as the dragon, phoenix and the unicorn. The music is provided by a band, and that along with narration and commentary play just as an important role in the show as the puppets do. The performance was quite fun and a variation on any kind of theatre we are used to and so despite it being a little bit strange it was worth seeing.
One of the nicest features about Hanoi was the lake situated in the Old Quarter. It was like a breath of fresh air to come out of the bustling streets to a moment of calm and stillness and after emerging from the Water Puppets we thought what better place to have a relaxing drink and snack at the lake side restaurant, looking out over the Ngoc Son temple which sits on an island in the middle of the lake. For tea we were taken back to the Old Quarter before heading out to one of the corner 'stalls' for a beer each. We were all precariously positioned, half on the road half off, stuck in chairs not meant for adult sized people. When we came to pay the bill it was more than we expected and it was then that we realised that the initial price of 2000 Dong per beer had been scribbled out and replaced by a new price of 2500 (it was still super cheap beer but what cheek!!) We departed early from the nights activities thanks to a knackering day and the prospect of another early morning beginning our adventures to Halong Bay.
After returning from Halong Bay later than expected (thanks to the bus driver deciding he didn't want to take us to our hotel and that we would be fine getting a taxi in Hanoi's version of school traffic!) we barely had time to shower and change before we were off out for our last night together with the group L We went to a Vietnamese restaurant which we found to be surprisingly nice after previous experiences with local food and after saying goodbye to the leaders and a few of the group we headed out to find a bar. We never did find the place we were looking for but instead stumbled into a small little bar and ended up with the top floor to ourselves which was nice considering it was our last night together. We drank a few beers and chatted and then all of a sudden the staff started making a commotion and all the light went out and we were told to 'shhhhhhh'. Apparently bars can get in trouble with the police if they are found to be serving alcohol late into the night and so when they are seen to be patrolling the streets the bars literally shut down but with all the patrons still inside.It definitely made for an eventful last evening and after sneaking under the metal shutters we all strolled home, said a few sad goodbyes on the street and headed to bed for our last night in Vietnam.