Monday, November 23, 2009

2 Hanoi, Vietnam

We quickly learned that in Vietnam there is never a need to worry about transportation. The streets are teeming with people making offers, from taxis and trishaws to motorbike drivers with room on the back of their rides. And with the exchange rate of 18,000 Dong to one US Dollar, nothing ever costs very much either (withdrawing four million of a currency from an ATM is pretty fun). Zooming through the lively streets of Hanoi on the back of a single motorbike to Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the "Hanoi Hilton", was totally exhilarating for us, but a common thrill in town. We often saw families of four packed snuggly together. The trishaw ride to the Temple of Literature was a little more our speed, and the serene Confucian complex that greeted us matched the sleepy pace.

For the most part, though, Hanoi's Old Quarter is fairly compact and easy to navigate by foot. Just watch out for those crazy motorbikes whizzing by! We walked from the beautifully preserved Memorial House where we took in a slice of life from days gone by to Ngoc Son Temple perched out on Hanoi's central lake. On the banks of Hoan Kiem is Thang Long Theatre where we enjoyed a traditional water puppet show. The set was constructed around a square pool at the center with musicians playing exotic, traditional instruments stage left to accompany the colorful puppets as they danced over and through the water. Some puppets even blew smoke or squirted water for old school special effects.
Aside from a drastic drop in temperature another welcome change in leaving Malaysia and Singapore behind was Vietnamese food. Sure there was more noodle soup, but we at least got some new spices and type of noodles with the ubiquitous pho. We also loved the addition of baguettes to the standard street food fare and bakeries on many corners; thank you, French colonialism! But the best meal we had was at Cha Ca La Vong. The menu at this establishment consists of only one dish: cha ca, a sizzling pan of fish with greens and peanuts served over noodles. We knew we'd found a good place when both floors were completely packed with Vietnamese chowing down, and we understood why as soon as we took a bite. Of course the best compliment to any of this food is the local brew. Bia hoi, or draught beer, was available for around 16 cents a glass at most street corners in Hanoi.

It was clear from the signs at all the travel agencies in town that like Phi Phi Island from Phuket, Ha Long Bay was the top excursion from Hanoi. We booked a two day, one night boat trip and were enchanted with the idea of sleeping on a junk. The boat that is, not a heaping pile of trash. The bay was lovely, dotted with limestone islets that faded into the horizon. It all made for the perfect setting for a setting sun. Somewhat disappointing, however, were the visits to a garishly lit up cave and an "authentic" fishing village of floating homes that now gets a few hundred camera-toting tourists per day. But the worst was the fact that a majority of the tour time we spent being herded as a flock of backpackers, changing boats and waiting for rides. Mix that with some short-fused tour guides and it was the recipe for an angry mob of travelers that almost staged an uprising on the drive back to Hanoi! We chose to just smile and take in the scenery out the cramped minibus window, knowing a cold glass of practically free beer was awaiting upon return.

View more pictures from Hanoi here.


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