Andrea: We had mentally prepared ourselves for Hanoi. Meditations, chants and prayers to God, the Buddha, Vishnu and Tom Cruise were all meant to show us a good time in northern Vietnam. We'd heard some horror stories about Vietnam and we hadn't really had much trouble as of yet, but other traveler's stories would have us believe that Hanoi was the worst for scams and touts. In fact, almost everyone we had met who had already been to Vietnam had been happy to leave when the time came. For us, we'd already spent a nice 10 days in Vietnam when we reached Hanoi and had no complaints as of yet. In fact, we had extra reason to be excited about Hanoi because we were meeting my good friend, Ronan, there. Ronan booked a last minute flight(s) to see Tokyo, Hanoi and Bangkok and we were so happy to be a part of his whirlwind trip. Ronan would be the 3rd friend we've seen during the trip and I can say there is nothing better than seeing friends from home in a far away place.
We walked in to our hotel and as soon as the check-in process had ended we spied Ronan jumping off the back of a motorbike. Talk about timing! He almost walked in with the pink plaid fake Burburry helmut until the driver chased him down for it. That probably would have been the most authentic souvenir available! Nice try, Ro! After lots of catching up and a little freshening up, we were ready to hit the town. Over breakfast Ronan had told us how crazy it was in Tokyo and how he didn't understand the symbols and that no one spoke English and how he had a hard time getting around at first. He showed us the Metro map which was, by far, the most confusing tube map I've ever seen! However, within about five minutes of walking the streets of Hanoi he had determined it was the most chaotic place he's ever been. I would say that's accurate. I felt like there were more motorbikes in Saigon, but Hanoi was just so LOUD! Horns, bells, people screaming at you to buy books, it was neverending. Chaotic might be an understatement. Although, we have been in Asia for almost three months now so were more used to the chaos than poor, shellshocked Ronan.
We didn't even make it to our first stop before Vern and I insisted in stopping for a coffee. Hanoi is, by far, the coldest place we've been in Asia and we were kicking ourselves for leaving most of our warm clothes in Bangkok. When it was sweltering in Bangkok we felt silly carrying around our winter clothes so left them at a friend's house. It was a good call because we hadn't needed them until Hanoi, but it also meant we had just one long sleeve shirt each to get us through the chilly north if Vietnam. So, coffee time it was! We stopped at one of the many street side cafes looking for a bargain and was served a shot of coffee for about $1. Cheap, I know, but not quite satisfying. We saw some locals with bigger mugs and pointed to those hoping that the waiter would being us bigger cups if coffee. Instead he saw us pointing to the other things on the table and brought us three tap waters. We drank everything in less than two minutes and were back on our sightseeing journey.
We walked past the gray Hoan Kiem Lake first. It is the heart of the Old Quarter and the Tortoise Tower in the middle of it is often used as an emblem of Hanoi. Legend has it that in the 15th century, Heaven sent the emperor a magical sword which he used to drive out the Chinese from Vietnam. One day after the war he saw a giant golden tortoise swimming in the lake; the animal grabbed the sword and disappeared to the bottom of the water. There are still a few giant turtles living in the lake today. As if there weren't enough threats in Vietnam, now we have to worry about sword-wielding turtles?! I'm looking forward to going back to London and knowing the only people carrying knives are 13 year old kids!
Hoa Lo prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton, was next on the list. We heard a tour guide tell her group that it's called the Hanoi Hilton because the American POWs who stayed there were treated so well. In contrast to the heinous conditions the guide described under which the French kept the Vietnamese imprisoned here, her description of how the Vietnamese treated the American soldiers was suspiciously upbeat. She told the group stories of how the US soldiers were permitted to wear pyjamas, and to celebrate Christmas by putting up a tree, going to church and eating a turkey dinner. These sentiments were evidenced in a room full of pictures of American soldiers wearing pyjamas and smiling nervously while decorating a Christmas tree and playing cards. It must be true! The guide even said that John McCain was confused when he told of poor experiences here because he'd stayed in 5 prisons during his incarceration and he wouldn't have said that about the Hanoi Hilton. She sounded like a defense to a bad review on Trip Advisor! 'The guest must have confused us with another POW camp in Vietnam because he didn't even mention the decorative soaps we gave him!'
Next stop was the Temple of Literature, described as 'unmissable' by the Lonely Planet authors. It featured a lush garden and reflecting pond out front, complete with large books made of flowers, and some Chinese deities inside. I thought it was nice, but Ronan didn't agree with the book on the adjective 'unmissable'. The best part of that excursion was finally figuring out what the D1000 and D2000 dong notes were used for. $1=D21,000 dong so we were foxed by what do to with a 1000 dong note. The temple of literature taught us that one puts these notes in large, flat golden plates in front of each god. Not quite 10% of one's salary, but we assumed it was better than nothing. The gods might end up granting the worshipper a 1973 beat up two-toned Gremlin instead of the Ferrari he is asking for, but, again, better than nothing.
After a late lunch (a pho chain restaurant where we were charged for using the wet towels they brought us), we went to the night market near our hotel. Ronan was wowed by all the Angry Birds and Hello Kitty merchandise, staples at any Asian market, but managed to walk by without buying. He tried to perfect his bargaining skills at a stall selling fake Lacoste shirts, but got laughed at when he offered 70% less than the asking price. (To be fair, we probably told him this as we saw the same 'start 70% lower' tactic on The Apprentice once and have tried to employ it ever since.) We all survived the market without buying any fake merchandise, which is a very good thing in the long run. We went to the area that our hotelier described in answer to our very clear question: 'Where are the cheapest bars around here?' We found one small bar, ordered our beers and wines and stared at a Russian-looking woman dressed as Santa Claus wearing sunglasses and listening to her iPod. She didn't say a word to anyone. She just sat there in her Santa outfit (2 weeks after Christmas) drinking water and listening to music. You learn to expect weird stuff in Asia, but this was pretty odd and unexpected. Two drinks down and we went to one more bar for drinks and snacks and then home time for our Halong Bay adventure the next day.