After 16 hours on the bus, we arrived in Hanoi the day before yesterday, at 6.30am. The bus was quite comfortable, and the trip wouldn’t have bothered us, if it hadn’t been for this one young man in the bunk behind Annikken. As he entered the bus we felt an odd aroma in the air, and when he climbed to his bed, we got a foreshadowing of what was to come. This man probably works in a Nuoc mam factory, producing the world famous Vietnamese fish sauce that stinks like rotting fish… He looked clean, but either he hadn’t washed after work, or the smell is impossible to wash out, because the reek was so strong, Annikken at one point thought she’d be sick from it, and actually considered getting off the bus to catch the next one, 24 hours later!
On arrival we spoke to a tour operator, who sent us in a taxi to a hotel he recommended. The problem was just that the taxi driver was so eager to get us in his car, that he didn’t catch which hotel we were going to, and just dropped us off at a random one. We were told we could get a room for 8 dollars, but we’d have to wait a few hours, until 12, to get it. In the mean time we were placed in a bigger room. At 1.30 we still hadn’t been moved to a different room, and when we asked, we were told we couldn’t stay there after all, but they’d fixed us a room in a different hotel, smaller room, lower standard and higher price… We said “forget it”, and walked out on the angry hotel keeper who wanted to charge us for a half day of waiting! After having trotted around half of the Old Quarter, we finally settled for a hotel, after several attempts where the staff more or less plainly tried to scam us. At one backpackers’ hostel they tried to make us pay 20000 dong for a 6000 dong can of 7Up. The first face of Hanoi was one of unfriendly people, constantly trying to rip us off.
In the evening we headed out for Indian food, and a visit to a local pub. We met up with a group of English teachers on their weekly night out, and they took us to their favorite after-hour haunt, where the cocktails were 90% booze and 10% mixers. (Which was why they liked it, appart from the fact that it’s one of the few clubs that pay the police enough money to be able to stay open after midnight) Annikken was especially glad to meet someone with whom she could discuss good wines, a Frenchman of course. An early morning was thus followed by a late night, and sleep came quickly when we finally turned in.
Yesterday we had plans of catching the early morning easter mass in St.Joseph’s Cathedral, but we were unable to get up at 4.30 in the morning to get to the 5am mass. Instead we got up rather late, started the day with a magnificent Pho Bo and Pho Ga, (Rice noodle soup with beef, and with chicken) at a street kitchen in an alley by the cathedral. Annikken’s father had recommended the Museum of Ethnology, and we had a few hours before the next mass, so we took a taxi out there. The Museum of Ethnology gives an introduction to all the major ethnic groups in Vietnam, and show everything in their every day lives, from arts and crafts to rituals and rites. In the garden they have built copies of houses in the architectural archetypes of the various etnicities. Annikken adopted a communal house as her own, with the steepest, tallest thatched roof we’ve ever seen, 19 meters from the ground up! We also saw a Water Puppet show in the museum garden while we were there, and one of the puppets brought out a rose that was given to Annikken. On our way back, the taxi had to break suddenly because of a crossing moped, with the result that another moped crashed into us from the rear. Seeing as an accident like that takes a million people and hours of arguing to settle, we just got out, and hailed another cab. Even though it was a bit of a drive out of the city centre, the visit was definately time and money well spent.
We returned to the Cathedral just in time for mass. The building is reminiscent of Notre Dame from the front, with the two square towers, but the inside is rather different from Western Catholic churches, with banners and decorations in bright colours in evidence everywhere. We stayed for a while into the mass, but the atonal chanting in Vietnamese eventually drove us back out into the bustling city.
This morning we went out to get a sandwich breakfast, which turned out to be a bit more of a challenge than expected, but we found a good place after a long walk. The places serving noodles and other traditional Vietnamese food are numerous, but getting a decent sandwich in the Old Quarter is actually quite difficult! About five hundred years ago, that part of Hanoi was divided into 36 areas, belonging to the different Artisans’ Guilds. Still today many of the streets are devoted to a particular type of merchandise. On the street where we were first dropped off, for example, all the shops were making and selling bamboo ladders, another sells diapers and towels, yet another sells sweets and cakes, but one that caught our attention was the street devoted solely to traditional medicine. Annikken went into a store, pointed at things that looked interesting or curious, and bought a bit of it. The shopkeepers didn’t speak a word of English, but they phoned for help from a shopkeeper nearby, who unfortunately was fluent in French and Vietnamese only, but spoke enough English to explain what the different things were, what ailments they target, and how to use them. So in case any of you need a cure for cancer, just contact Annikken when she gets home in May!
Since we were in the vicinity, we visited the Dong Xuan market, a massive three storey structure that covers an entire city block. The whole thing looks more than anything like a normal mall, but occupied by hordes of hawkers with their piles of goods in a blessed chaos all over the place.
The second face of Hanoi, is one of a relaxed atmosphere, friendly people, beautiful scenery and old traditions. If you ever go to Hanoi, be ready to fend off the people who want to trick you out of your money, but keep an open mind. Everything is not as it might seem!
As we’re sitting here on a bench after a nice stroll around the Hoan Kiem Lake, (Breiavatnet i Hanoi, for dere Siddiser) we’re sending warm thoughts to all our readers living in colder climates, because today is the first day of summer in Hanoi, and the temperature just keeps rising. (Æda-bæda!)