I already mentioned that Hanoi was not a four-day city, but that’s probably really unfair. Hanoi was certainly a worthwhile stop, so maybe it was the constant drizzly rain and mucky streets that left me a bit cold. Or maybe it was that I arrived in the dark in the rain and was expecting to land in a hotel room that would be home for FIVE WHOLE NIGHTS, which I was genuinely excited about, and which did not work out at all. When I got to the Rising Dragon Hotel I was told, very apologetically, that I’d have to spend one night at a place down the street because a freak electrical failure had caused a small fire and there was no power in my particular room and no one could fix it until morning and on and on and on. I was really stricken by this, but it quickly became clear that no amount of whining or brandishing of credit cards would change the facts, and the people at the hotel were very very very very nice about everything, even about me being all cranky with them. So nice, in fact, that I smartened up and moved to the other hotel, and tried to get them to stop fawning over me. I also left them a decent tip when I checked out.
But back to Hanoi. I spent most of my first day just walking around the old quarter of the city. It’s a good place for walking, if you don’t count all the motorcycles that are either a) parked on the sidewalk, thus forcing you to walk in the road, or b) zooming down the road where you’re trying to walk because the sidewalk is full of motorcycles. It’s not a great system.
There were lots of shops and small cafés and a bit of a French feel to the place, though it’s certainly not the “little Paris” that the guidebooks hint at. There’s a hint of French in some of the architecture, which was more European than a lot of Asian cities, but not so pronounced as in, say, Macau. There were lots of small balconies and louvred shutters and things, so I was kind of reminded of what I imagine New Orleans to be like. I was kind of expecting bakeries and baguettes and stuff, but it’s still very much an Asian city. There were a lot more pho stands than baguettes.
My first official tourist sight in Hanoi was the Hoa Lo Prison museum, which might be better known to you by the colloquial name given to it by the American pilots imprisoned there during the Vietnam War – the Hanoi Hilton. It was a well done little museum with a good amount of information on the prison, originally built by the French to house Vietnamese revolutionaries and repurposed to house American soldiers in the 70s. Some of the commentary was quite jingoistic, but you really can’t blame them for that – it’s their country, so I guess they have a right to spin things how they want to. (Aside: There was a sign outside the prison outlining the rules, one of which was “No frolicking is allowed during the visit.” I did my best to keep my frolicking down to a minimum.)
My hotel in Hanoi was very close to Hoan Kiem Lake, what the LP calls “the liquid heart of the Old Quarter.” It’s a small, green lake with a pleasant walking path around it that’s a popular spot for locals and tourists alike. There’s a nice little temple on an island, and a monument on another tiny island, and it’s a somewhat calm spot in the midst of the turmoil that is central Hanoi. Of course I immediately recognized it for what it really is – a reasonable place for a run. It turns out that one circuit of Hoan Kiem Lake is almost exactly one mile, and over the course of my time in Hanoi I ended up making 13 complete rounds of it, on three separate days. This included two crappy short runs where my shins burned and it felt like I was running on dead stumps instead of legs, and one magical run where I got over the hump and did 11.2 km (7 laps) feeling happy and strong. I even struck up a nodding/waving acquaintance with a local runner – an older guy who ended up running clockwise while I was going counter clockwise, meaning we passed each other twice per lap. The second day I saw him he gave me a big smile and a wave just when I needed a pick-me-up, and I cruised through the end of my big 11 km run. Thanks Friendly Local Runner Guy!
Tortoise Tower on Hoan Kiem Lake. The name “Hoan Kiem” means “Lake of the Restored Sword” and has to do with a legend about Emperor Lai Thai To, who had a magical sword he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam, and about a giant golden tortoise that grabbed the sword from him and stole it away into the lake.
One of the great things about traveling in southeast Asia is the cost of living. For us westerners it’s just really really cheap. My hotel (The Rising Dragon – highly recommended) was a mere $20 USD per night and included air con, private bathroom, satellite tv, wifi and free breakfast. I’m living the high life these days. This was especially true the night I got back from Halong Bay when I decided to try the nice LP-recommended restaurant just across the street from the hotel. The Green Tangerine turned out to be a pretty posh place – right out of the Food Network. At first I was hesitant, but then I just decided to go for it and it was great. Here’s what I had:
- Starter: Beef carpaccio marinated in balsamic vinegar mixed with red wine and red fruits topped by toasted wedges of Camembert cheese and herbs.
- Main: French crusted galette in curry stuffed with seafood (shrimp, scallop and squid)
- Dessert: Chocolate cake "no flour" and frozen Green Tangerine yoghurt in Cointreau (though I almost went for the cheese course instead: Roquefort cheese mixed with red fruits and goat cheese presented as a cake with candied green and red pepper, coriander seeds)
Needless to say it was, err, not bad. Certainly I was able to choke it all down, especially the carpaccio, and the frozen yogurt, which I would happily walk over crushed glass in bare feet to have again. It was an extravagant night but all that food, with two large bottles of beer and a generous tip ended up costing me $45 USD. That’s astronomical for Vietnam (most other meals cost me less than $5.00, with drinks) but anywhere in the Western world I suspect it would have been triple that.
Wednesday morning I planned to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and the associated museum. It’s little ways out of the area where I was staying so I arranged with Erin, Wendy and Joan (my buddies from the boat) to share a cab that morning, leaving at 9:00 am. The tomb is only open from 8:00 am to 11:00 am, so we figured that would leave us lots of time. Well, as is often the case with groups of people larger than one, we got a late start. (I’m not blaming anyone like *cough* Erin *cough*, but let’s just say that it was not me we were waiting for). We ended up getting to the mausoleum at about 10:20, which should have left us lots of time to see plenty of corpses on a slab, except that it turned out the LP was wrong wrong wrong about the opening hours of the site. In the winter the hours are 8:00 am to 11:00 am. But starting on April 1st they switch to 7:30 am to 10:30 am. This did not leave us a lot of time, especially after we had to check our bags, and then go through a security check, and then make a wrong turn and end up at the museum instead of the mausoleum, and then be told we had to go through security again. You can guess what happened: we didn’t make it. So here’s a picture of me outside Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. You can’t take cameras in anyways, so it makes little difference to you guys.
I was pretty pissed off about the whole thing, but I got over it. After all,I’d seen Lenin’s Tomb in Russia, so it’s not like I haven’t had my share of dead communists. I fumed for a bit, but then I got distracted by the Ho Chi Minh Museum which certainly wins the prize for Most Bizarre Museum I have visited. In fairness, the LP did give a bit of a warning saying “Find an English-speaking guide, as some of the symbolism is hard to interpret on your own.” This is understatement of the highest form. The first floor of the museum was pretty standard – captioned photos of Ho Chi Minh at various stages, with bombastic statements and flag-waving sentiments to go along with. The second floor was… well, it was where you needed a guide, and perhaps a shot or two of something strong to help you out. For instance, what is one to make of a display with a sign that reads “Coc Bo Cave, presented here in the form of a human brain was President Ho Chi Minh’s headquarters from where he engineered the Vietnamese revolution in 1941-1945.” What the hell? I swear, it actually said “presented here in the form of a human brain”. The whole place was like that. Abstract displays of art or video or kinetic sculpture, coupled with actual historical artifacts annotated in Vietnamese, French and English, giving an overall impression of… I have no idea. Bafflement, certainly.
After we recovered from the museum, we got another cab to an area that EWJ (Erin, Joan, Wendy) wanted to go for some pho – the quintessential Vietnamese soup that’s eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack… basically all the time. I’m not a huge fan of pho (pronounced like “fuh” NOT “foe”) but it was fun having people to chum around with, so I went along for the ride. (Aside: I saw a great t-shirt on my last morning that showed very Apple/Mac-like icons for soup, cow, noodle etc… and the caption was “iPho” Heh.)
Hanging around in a group has its drawbacks (see above notes re: starting on time), but one advantage of the group is that it’s easier to be brave and dive into a side street and sit at a tiny low table like a local and have your pho. The girls were keen to have me try some bugs, because I’d explained to them about Steve’s Weird Food, and they swore they saw a plate of something appropriate at a table down the street, but luckily I was able to divert attention away from that plan, and just had a nice bowl of noodles and soup instead.
After I lunch I parted with JWE and stopped for a bit of coffee and ice cream before heading to the next event of the day – water puppets! Water puppetry is a distinctly Vietnamese art form that was developed in rice paddies. It’s performed in a pool of water about waist deep and the water serves to mask the mechanisms of the puppets, which are controlled by long rods by puppeteers who are hidden behind a screen. It’s mostly aimed at kids, and, not surprisingly, the subject matter runs heavily to aquatic themes – fishing, working in the rice paddies, catching frogs, hanging out on boats – that kind of thing.
The water puppets were quite cool, and the show was short enough that even if you got a bit tired of the splashing and cavorting there really wasn’t time to get restless about things. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
With the puppets done, the lake run around, and Ho Chi Minh ticked off the list there was really just one thing left do deal with in Vietnam. I’m going to admit right now that I kind of lost my patience for the Steve’s Weird Food project a bit while I was in Hanoi. Maybe because so many of my meals were provided – breakfast at the hotel, and all the food on the boat – or maybe because I’d just done dog, durian and sheet o’ meat in pretty quick succession. Whatever the cause, I was ready to just throw in the towel for Vietnam. After all, it wouldn’t be the first country I’d missed. (Big bonus points for anyone who can name the three countries that did not get a Weird Food. This is extra tough because the second one appeared only as a tweet and I think the first one never appeared at all…) However, Karen browbeat me long enough that I ventured out to the market street a few steps away from the hotel. It was actually several blocks long – small stalls one after another selling everything from bananas to pig trotters to coffee beans to brains to things that were still wriggling, swimming or flopping. At one point during the many times I walked those streets I watched a woman scaling a big fish with a cleaver. She’d already chopped off its tail, but it was still flailing around a bit, so she smacked it with the flat of her cleaver and then kept working. That’s life, baby.
Anyways, in deference to my so-so enthusiasm for the project hat day, I elected to take it easy on myself and got a weird candy (the first one since Denmark). Lotus Candy seemed like a good compromise between no Weird Food at all and… bugs. The candies were white and smallish – bigger than M&Ms but smaller than jawbreakers. And they were sort of crunchy on the outside and soft in the middle, in the way of things that have been soaked in sugar syrup, to which family they clearly belonged. The taste was mostly just sweet and plain, and reminded me of what it might taste like if you candied small bits of firmly boiled potato. Not bad at all, and handy to have in your day pack if you happen to mistakenly down a large chunk of chili at lunch and need something to douse the flames, say. Not that this happened to me.
I sense there is more to day about Vietnam, but those thoughts may have to wait for a general southeast Asia wrap-up of some kind. This post is already a bit long, so I’ll just get it uploaded now and start figuring out what to say about Laos, because all I can think about that right now is, “HOT!”