Flying in to Hanoi was a breeze, we even took off and arrived 10 minutes early. In the cab to the hotel it felt like we were back in Mumbai. The constant honking of horns, the weight of traffic on the roads and the chaotic driving style had us clinging to the door handles on more than one occasion. It was a cool and misty afternoon, a far cry from the hazy sunshine of Luang Prabang.
As we were dropped off and as my first foot hit the road to get out of the car, a man was in my face telling me that I wanted to rent his moped. I didn't. As my second foot hit the floor a woman also told me I wanted to rent her moped. I still didn't. Wandering around town jolted us back into urban mode, where there weren't people there was traffic. Motorbikes and cars came at us from all directions. Even on one way streets, cars and bikes go in both directions and on the wrong side of the road and traffic lights are there for decoration only. Every pavement is either filled with stalls or it's used as a parking area for mopeds, meaning that we had to walk in the road at all times. The people we encountered were friendlier than we'd been warned about, a held stare would often generate a smile, if we held our fixed grin long enough. However, there are of course exceptions to the rule. The old lady who refused to sell us pistachio nuts and shooed us away like we were flies, the young woman who recoiled as we went to enter her shop and quickly closed and locked the doors.
There are 33,000 Dong to £1 and again we became multi-millionaires at the ATM, the first thing we'll buy is a calculator.
Throughout the day and night the locals gather at pavement cafés to drink tea or beer and eat sunflower seeds, small mounds of the discarded shells build up quickly at the feet of the patrons and are swept into the gutter by the cafe owner to start the cycle off again.
The three and four storey buildings cast shade over the dirty narrow streets, but the shadows don't cool the vibrancy or mania in people's daily activities. Ladies in conical bamboo hats bounce along in time with their laden baskets. The woven baskets are positioned at either end of long bamboo poles placed across one shoulder. They sell anything from fruit and veg to scrap paper and go shop to shop, peddling their goods.
One of the main stipulations to be a cyclo driver is that you must be over 70 years old. The old boys cycle a kind of rickshaw (a bike with a basket big enough to fit two adults on the front) around the maze of Hanoi looking for fares. Another stipulation is that they must have fewer teeth than they have fingers, their gummy smiles are contagious and we thought about jumping in but were convinced that our combined weight might finish a few of them off.
The police are low key in presence and wear a wonderful shade of peach that would diffuse any heated situation, not that we've seen anything that requires their attention.
The food here is very good and reasonably priced, a 2 course meal and a beer in a decent restaurant comes to less than 8 pounds, a beef or chicken noodle soup (Pho Bo or Pho Ga) from a street cafe can cost as little as 60 pence. Another dish, supposedly invented in Hanoi is Bun Cha, it's another noodle soup often with pork but I also had it with fried fish and what the difference is between bun and pho is I'm not entirely sure. We shared a table for dinner with a guy who looked like he'd just finished a long day in the office, we were already eating by the time his meal arrived. A plate of rice with pork ribs, chickens heads and feet and several whole fish that had been deep fried. Jan was sat opposite the man, who devoured his meal like a medieval king. Bones, once crunched and slurped on, were thrown on to the table, the fish were torn into, the guts swinging from the decapitated head were placed into his mouth then slowly reproduced like a sword swallower removing a silver blade. Yum! It also seems that the louder one slurps, the posher you are, we were sat amidst the poshest people in Hanoi.
In the middle of the old quarter lies Hoan Kiem lake, around its treelined perimeter lays numerous sculptures and currently a number of huge floral displays in celebration of Tet, the Vietnamese new year. Locals of all ages did exercises the younger ones jogged or lifted weights, the older ones did stretches and Tai Chi. Located on the lake, on a small island is Ngoç Són temple. The Confucian temple is dedicated to General Tran Hung Dao who defeated the Mongol army in the 13th century. The temple itself is rather fancy looking and has internal tiers that lead to ever smaller but increasingly flower-filled rooms so that in the uppermost shrine, we had to squeeze past an abundance of chrysanthemums, lilies and roses to walk across the room. The flowers created the thick, sweet aroma of an old ladies handbag, a little cloying but not entirely unpleasant all that was missing was lavender.
The temple also houses a preserved turtle that was caught in the lake. When caught, it weighed a whopping 250 kilograms and was sadly killed by a man entrusted to release it back to the wild. What is perhaps even sadder is that it is suspected that at best there are only 4 of these creatures left on the planet and at the worst (if it is a different species to the Yangtze soft shell turtle) there is just a single turtle left.
We visited Hao Lo prison (dubbed the Hanoi Hilton by US military personnel captured during the Vietnam war). The building was built somewhere between 1886 and 1901 by the French to incarcerate, torture and execute political prisoners (or suspected revolutionaries or their families, friends, colleagues etc). The majority of the prison was knocked down in 1990 but a small portion was left and made into a museum. It's been very well done, the exhibits show and describe the appalling conditions the Vietnamese people were kept in. Seeing the death row cells, the scratch marks on the open hatches and door handles was awful. Knowing that these wretched people were not only locked in cells, they were put in stocks within the cell. Just standing in one of the small, dimly lit multi-person gaols sent icy shivers down our spines. There was a small exhibition about the Vietnam war, however it was clearly not entirely accurate as all photos and video footage showed the US inmates having a great time, playing various sports, celebrating Christmas etc. nonetheless, this version of events added an interesting dimension to the exhibit.
A visit to Hanoi would not be complete without a visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. The mausoleum is located at the site where he read the Declaration of Independence in 1945. The tomb and surrounding grounds are fastidiously guarded by the military and any encroachment off the designated pathway is met with a sharp blow of their whistle and a waggle of a finger. We suspected though if we had continued on the pathway across the grass we'd have been shot. The rules for behaviour are equally strictly enforced, visitors have to be respectfully dressed, must walk in a line of pairs to the resting place and there can be no talking, no chewing , no hands in pockets or on hips. As we entered the cool room where Ho Chi Minh lays, we wondered what we were doing here, neither of us wanted to see a dead person, regardless of his greatness and importance to the country. But it was too late, we were in and there was no turning back, we respectfully walked round their beloved leader. I found it rather surreal, Jan found it a little upsetting but we both agreed afterward that we were glad we paid our respects.
The Ho Chi Minh museum within the grounds took a modern approach to showcasing his actions, lots of imagery and 'arty' representations of aspects of his life and achievements rather than the hard, factually accurate but emotionless displays we'd seen elsewhere. Although we were hurried through by security guards wanting to go for lunch, we very much felt the person rather than just the deeds.
Wandering around Hanoi was so eye opening, it's rough round the edges and gritty, the people are immaculately turned out and wear Louis Vuitton, Gucci or Burberry. For the women, crash helmets with a notch removed for their perfectly preened ponytail, but generally they don't have the gentle disposition of the Thais or neighbouring Laotians (the monosyllabic language in contrast to the sing-song sounds of Thai and Laotian exacerbates this) but we loved it. It feels far flung, it looks like a place that time forgot for about 50 years, dentistry was carried out in full view of the passing public and areas were defined by the products the shops sold, entire shop-lined roads that sold only shoes, or fruit or tools. We also met some wonderful, warm-hearted people. Hanoi reminded us that our trip is not just about beaches and picturesque mountain vistas, its reinvigorated us and it will be a shame to leave.
We have a couple of days in Halong bay (a picturesque and mountainous bay, whoops) before heading south to Hué.