We took the night train to Hanoi from Dong Hoi, the train station nearest Phong Nha Farmstay.
After a surprisingly good night’s rest we had a chance to explore Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital. Out of all the cities I’ve been to in SE Asia Hanoi had the most “crowded” feel.
This is because every city block has motos parked out to the edge of the sidewalk which forces you to walk on the street to get around. This adds some stress while walking around the city because you must be hyper-vigilant to make sure you aren’t going to get run over by a moto, especially in intersections like this.
Hanoi is also chock full of markets. You can go into simple street-side stores like this one.
Or you can get yourself a little deeper into the fray.
But in Hanoi and other Vietnamese markets you always have more seafood for sale – seafood is more readily available because Hanoi is closer to the ocean than Phnom Penh.
You can get the live stuff.
Or the dried stuff.
Women all over the city have their wares displayed but are not particularly pushy with trying to get you to buy something.
You can stop to get a haircut at one of the busy intersections.
All over the streets you see men playing Xiangqi (Chinese chess), many times with a crowd of their buddies gathered around.
They sometimes slam the pieces with authority. The game looks like it involves some good logic just like European chess, which I last played in Kampot. I’ve been dying to learn how to play so I can take up a street game myself but so far I haven’t had the time.
After exploring some of the markets we went over to the Huc Bridge where a young Vietnamese couple was getting some wedding shots.
The Huc Bridge leads to the Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake. Hoan Kiem Lake is set right on the side of the French and Old Quarters of Hanoi. The lake has another aging temple set on an island in the south part of the lake but I think to worship at it you would need a boat or some good swimming arms.
Near the lake we watched a little game of football being played to an incredibly fast and dangerous intersection. I only watched for one minute but saw the ball squirt into moving traffic twice. No one seemed concerned so I didn’t either.
Wandering west led us to St. Joseph Cathedral.
For me seeing a church like this in SE Asia is just bizarre and especially bizarre in Hanoi. Churches like this are a dime a dozen in Europe but SE Asia isn’t as big on Catholicism as Europe – Buddhist temples are the norm over here. That is why seeing a church and a statute like this is almost shocking.
The inside of the church had the same feel that all the churches in Europe had. Silent and inspiring.
The courtyard outside the church is a happening place. Many local people in Hanoi will participate in mass from the seat of their moto in the courtyard – click here for a feel of the action, and take note of the street badminton games going on.
Just like on Bui Vien street in Saigon there are lots of young people on little chairs drinking. But the similarity stops there. Instead of beer they are generally drinking iced tea and eating bowls of sunflower seeds.
After St. Joseph Cathedral we headed back north towards the Old Quarter where we were staying. A massive roundabout borders Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter.
Later that night we headed to a bia hoi corner where they were drinking beer, not iced tea. We ended up running to a guy name Jack Rothschild, a retired man from the United States that we had met back at the Phong Nha Farmstay.
This happens way more than you’d think while traveling. Even if you’re not traveling with someone you can meet them in a certain place and if you are both heading in the same direction there is a decent chance you’ll run into them again in the future. I would estimate this has happened at least 7-8 times on this trip.
We shared some beers until about 11:45 p.m. I note the time because it marks a very big difference between (more western) Saigon and (more communist) Hanoi. The police presence.
There is a curfew in Hanoi and it is enforced. Strictly. I kid you not, the two nights we had beers at this Bia Hoi corner at midnight a jeep with at least eight uniformed police would roll up and all of them would jump off and efficiently and sternly hurry around to “shut down the fun”.
Two policemen go to each bar and make sure the beer stops flowing and people leave. None of the police in Hanoi ever have a smile on their face. And you see them all over the city – hassling a store owner, hassling a woman selling her fruit – these guys do their business, which is generally interfering with their citizens’ businesses, with icy cold stares.
And its not just at the bars – everything is shut down. On one of the nights when the beer corner had just been shut down I was walking back to the hotel and stopped to get a delicious Bánh mì sandwich at one of the stands you see all over Hanoi. You find these stands all over the city – the sandwiches go for 10,000 Dong (50 cents), are tasty, and fill you up – the bread is surprisingly good and the chili sauce gives it just the right taste.
I ordered a sandwich from the woman who had parked her stand in front of her house. While she was making my sandwich we saw a police van approaching from a distance down the street. Before I could even process the sight of the van she dropped my sandwich and essentially shoved me inside her home, switched the stand’s lights and her home’s lights off, and crouched next to me silently in her living room.
Apparently it is not ok to make someone a sandwich after curfew but this woman was willing to take the risk for 10,000 Dong. Once the police van rolled by she finished my sandwich in the dark and sent me on my way. In Hanoi, this is not your typical American late night taco bell run.
The next day I made it a priority to get us a trip booked to Halong Bay. There are more travel agencies in Hanoi than anywhere I’ve seen in SE Asia. They most popular trips they book are to Halong Bay and Sapa.
The hotels and guesthouses in the city almost treat their primary business, taking care of their guests, as secondary to making sure their guests book their Halong Bay tour with them. Our guesthouse was no different. We could not walk by the front desk without getting asked “Are you ready to book your Halong Bay trip with us”? In fact, even before we had checked in they had me set up with one of the guesthouse employees (read, family members) so she could read me my Halong Bay options.
But I’ve learned to be a more savvy customer in SE Asia than simply booking my tour with the first business that offered it. Especially when there are 400 more businesses within one block that can offer me the same or better.
So through a series of negotiations and quite a bit haggling, some of which I will admit involved playing two companies off against each other, I was able to negotiate a 3-day, 2-night Halong Bay trip that was originally offered at $155/person down to $110/person. For the four people I was negotiated for, it amounted to roughly $200 of total savings. It took some time but that’s the price you pay if you want to get a reasonable price.
In the end I had booked my tour with “Sinh Cafe” instead of our hotel. Once our hotel owner knew this the hotel staff was openly hostile to me the rest of our stay. It was palpably uncomfortable every time I had to interact with them and at checkout he overcharged me for laundry.
I’ve read this is a little bit too common. Guess its just something to keep in mind if you stay in Hanoi and want to book a trip to Halong Bay. If you’re not going to book with your hotel/guesthouse be prepared to leave a night early to avoid what will be a hostile staff.
Our other night in Hanoi we explored a night market in the north part of the Old Quarter.
It was crowded and immensely popular with the locals.
Our wanderings led us to a store titled “Videogames.” A trip inside confirmed that yes, indeed, kids still love to play videogames in Vietnam.
Ah, boys after my own heart. I could go for a little TF2 right now, come to think of it.
Our last day in Hanoi Ben decided to sample some alley food. I would call it street food but this food, this great food, is located in the alley.
There are tons of food stalls jammed in the alley and at each one, small tables and chairs for passerby to have a seat and eat. Ben and I tried some Bun Cha, an extremely popular morning-early-afternoon food in Hanoi. It was delicious. We were still a little hungry so we opted for some fried things filled with pork, which were also delicious.
That afternoon I went to the Vietnamese Women’s museum, my second favorite museum (first was in Son My) in Vietnam. The first temporary exhibit was a bit bizarre, Illustra Brazil.
But since I will be going to Brazil in Febraruy 2013 I decided it was worth checking out. There was lots of interesting abstract art but this was my favorite piece.
The Women’s Museums more permanent exhibits and halls were really good. They were divided into six sections: Women in the economy, women in the military, women in the family, women’s clothing and styles, Vietnamese marriage, and a section on the Vietnamese Mother Goddess worship, which I mentioned earlier in my Hue blog post.
Much like women all over the world Vietnamese women have strong role in the family. They are expected to farm, cook, clean, and raise the children. They can do it all. There was a video segment running that was focused on women in the rural villages outside Hanoi that make the long trip every day to Hanoi just to sell fruits and vegetables.
They will stay until everything has been sold which usually takes 12-14 hours. They make between $3-5 a day and do it so they can send their kids to school, which is expensive. Their most frequent complaint was that they are constantly harassed by the police, who I mentioned earlier in this blog post.
The section of women in the war was also interesting. At the beginning of the section there was a wall length photo array of women who had children or husband’s die in the U.S. war because without their sacrifices the country would not have been reunited.
In recognition of the sacrifices on September 24, 1994 the Permanent Committee of the National Assembly established the honorary title of “Heroic Mothers of Vietnam”, though I found the requirement to receive the title somewhat odd.
In order to receive the title a woman the plaque explained that the woman must have lost “more than two children, their only child, only one child, or their husband and children, or their own life.” Why not just say if they, their child, or their husband died they get the award? May have been a translational issue here…
In December 2008 roughly 50,000 women received the title, many posthumously. Two women who had lost 12 and 8 children were both awarded the additional honor of “Hero of the Popular Armed Forces.”
I found it interesting that Vietnam placed so much emphasis on mothers of the Viet Cong but given how they’ve spun everything else about the war I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.
It was not just mothers that were honored for the war though. Many Vietnamese women were guerillas.
Lots of women were recruited and trained to lead Viet Cong troupes in the jungle because women were less easy to identify as “Charlie” and just like Bich’s mother in Phong Nha, these women knew the jungle maybe even better than the men.
There was also lots of propaganda illustrating the dual role of the woman during the war.
Keeping the harvest up was critical as lots of rice was needed to feed the Viet Cong. But when you go out to the rice paddy for the harvest, don’t forget your bayonet….