15.01.2013 - 18.01.2013 22 °C
What a change in weather arriving on Hanoi. Felt like a typical SA winters day with temperature in late to mid teens. The traffic was a major adjustment. Hundreds of scooters everywhere. You just wouldn't believe how they drive in the traffic, but they seem to make it work. It became very clear quite earlier in our ride from the airport that this would be a different experience. It took two hours in bumper to bumper traffic and we were relieved when the driver eventually dropped us off at the end of our street. The walk to the hotel was like running the gauntlet. . . smelly street food sellers with broiled ducks heads, piles of whole cooked birds and 1 x dog on a spit! Thank goodness, Cath pulled one out the bag with our hotel booking. Great hotel, in perfect location and the breakfast menu looked pretty normal - no duck/dog/pigeon!
Stepping out of our hotel once more it became clear street food could become more of an issue here. Up until now, we have had good experiences, but hygiene over here wasn't the same and the Vietnamese have a more diverse cuisine including broiled dog and frog amongst others, both of which we saw, and almost hurled. Can't believe it until you see it. So obvious with the shape and paws, absolutely disgusting. Also you can imagine that they probably use the same oil to fry everything, so probably best to be a bit more selective in Hanoi especially. We later heard, after chatting to an expat at a restuarant, that dog is more of a high end item, and that you wouldn't ordinarily find it in a dish or stir fry unless you specifically requested it and then off course you would pay a little more for it.
Hanoi is a big industrious capital city of Vietnam with a population of over 4 million people. Its the heart of the communist regime. Hard to believe that the country was gripped by war 40 years ago. Again, similar to Laos, the French influence in the city layout and architecture is very clear.
The old city is very interesting. Loads of different small streets and market places, with every street a speciality area (eg. Food area, coffee area, Chinese merchandise area, electrical equipment, tape and string, tailors, carpets, clothing etc. you name it), good to walk around and price items and barter. On the clothing and equipment front there are obviously loads of knocks off, but looks like you can get a really good quality 85 litre north face backpack for around £10, and a ski jacket for around £20, probably knock offs but really good quality, good seams and zips etc, and I struggle to tell the difference. Electrical stuff no cheaper than back in the UK.
Hanoi merchants used to be taxed on the meterage of their shop frontage so the shops in the old quarter are typically very narrow (2m) and go back about 20m. It's so interesting peering inside, usually the shop is packed full of stock and has room for about 1 or maybe 2 people a a push. Beyond the shop floor you can see a series of rooms where the family live. It's fascinating to see the amount of people who live from the takings of one tiny little shop!
We visited the old Hanoi prison used by the French colonists and the NVM army to house some American airmen shot down over Hanoi during the war. They referred to it as Hanoi Hilton. As expected, quite intriguing to see the crafted angle and interpretation of the facts and annotations in the museum on the part of the government involvement and the treatment of the US prisoners. "Here is a picture of the American Imperialist prisoners playing their daily volleyball game in the prison square. Here is a picture of the American Imperialists receiving medical check ups from lead Vietnamese medical team etc. " and on the other side, here is the cruel treatment by the French during colonial times, civilians chained up, isolated, tortured etc." such a parody, so strange, got to see if for what it is. Similarly, the national war museum is littered with propaganda and relics from the war.
Food was a bit of a touchy point in Hanoi, and after a lot of research and walking around we found a brilliant little Italian restaurant near the Cathedral, which we used to settle our stomachs at the end of a few days galavanting around. I think we will probably be a little more adventurous when we get out of Hanoi, especially after all the sights in the market and on the street.
Finding a trip to Halong Bay was as we expected a huge feat! Every second building is a travel agent and they all try their smoke and mirror tactics to sell you the ideal package! We eventually settled on a smaller junk called Annam which promised to take us off the main tourist drag so after doing a bit of online research we decided to give it a go.