Hanoi pt. 1: Good Morning Vietnam

 

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A whole new world, with extra motorbikes and scooters. Women’s museum, Temple of Literature, peaceful lakes and local delicacies.

This blog started out as a way to keep my friends and family in the loop as to my travels, whilst I documented my adventures and read my way round Asia. Instead, it became neglected, whilst I switched from staying-in-touch-mode to disconnect-from-reality-to-refocus mode. I started taking painstaking notes so that my travel writing would have appeal beyond those who knew me. I stopped reading on buses and coaches so I could stare out the window and appreciate the scenery. I finally confronted the doubts and thoughts that had been circling my head for months, which I had previously silenced with uni work, then work work.

I apologise for the preamble and the delay in posts, but here’s to taking off to new and unexpected destinations­.

Oh the flights you’ll have with Malaysian Airlines

They might have a bit of a reputation, but the vegetarian meal options on a Malaysian Airlines flight are second to none. After a short early morning transfer in Kuala Lumpur’s airport, featuring a rainforest and a surprise marriage, I was soon in Vietnam.

Despite the scaremongering of the Melbourne airport check-in staff, it couldn’t have been easier to get the visa waiver sorted and get into the country – save the extremely long queue. With a stop off at an ATM with the fantastic Revolut card (which I really cannot recommend enough), I was off. My time in Hanoi is hereby a-go.

05|08 – Arriving in the Old Quarter; it’s only Wrap & Roll but I like it

Despite planning on taking the local bus to the town, I met a girl also headed to the Old Quarter, whose friend had booked her a private taxi. The 150,000₫ price of this taxi had felt pretty steep, but in fact it’s actually only £5. Thus begins the part of my travels that were underpinned by excessive mental maths and currency conversions.

Dropped right into the centre of the Old Quarter, it’s hard not to be momentarily overwhelmed by the intensity of the surroundings. Buildings that were once built spaced apart have had buildings built in between them until there were no gaps left. Some families built their houses up, some built them out back. Coupled with a steady stream of motorbikes and scooters with up to five people crammed on, the whole effect is of a scrapbook with every space filled with something bustling.

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Through your overloaded senses, you need to navigate the traffic. The traffic is terrifying. The streets are for motorbikes and too-big cars (all cars are too big for the old quarter) and the pavements are for parking bikes. Pedestrians are expected to weave around and try not to get in the way – even at the crossings – so you have to navigate the inbetweens. Hanoi is very much a city of inbetweens, and squeezing in, and you’re soon to find the charming side of it.

Whilst still trying to get my street legs and bearings, Twice, Vietnamese pedestrians walked me across the road after watching me struggle. I was taught that the trick is to just walk – not too slow, not too speedy – confidently and steady, and the bikes will weave behind you. Raising a hand or arm also instils a slight confidence, despite not really offering any physical protection.

I stayed in a party hostel – again, trying to push myself out my comfort zone, and to have a cheap base whilst I explored – and after unpacking, I headed out to get a sense of the area immediately surrounding me. Every building a shop, and every street corner offering street food, I made a beeline for Hoan Kiem lake at the end of the road. A large and zen space in the middle of the activity, it was a pleasant place to visually explore from.

To the right of the hostel street, Hang Duong, were some shops selling more souvenir-ish items (unlike the innumerate clothes shops on Hang Duong itself), whilst to the left were some restaurants, and behind me the paths widened into what I could only presume to be the New-er Quarter. Once I worked up enough courage to cross the sort-of-roundabout-mega-junction, I took to exploring all the side streets I could.

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So overwhelmed by the smells and scared of being given meat, I foolishly returned to the roundabout at Hoan Kiem to dine. After browsing a few menus, mainly filled with over-priced burgers and tourist-staples, I found one place that seemed cheaper by comparison. Although still an expensive meal for Hanoi, I took it as a necessary loss during the currency conversion transition period.

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Called Wrap & Roll, there was an interactive meal option where one can wrap your own spring rolls, but as only Westerner in a restaurant filled with Asian locals and tourists I chickened out.

I opted for a local beer (40,000₫), fresh veggie rice rolls (45,000₫) and pho with mushrooms (78,000₫). Annoyingly, I was charged for the wet wipe provided; with VAT the meal came to 181.5k. Whilst only £6 pre-tip (which I hadn’t realised was unnecessary; at my next meal the tip was returned to me so I gave up tipping) this was the most expensive meal I had in Vietnam.

I went for another wander about the side streets as I headed back to the hostel for their second free beer hour, and re-remembered all the water warnings I had received. I paid 20k for a large water; again, I later found this was too much. Most street vendors charge 10k for a bottle of the same size. Is this ability to find the most expensive places a blessing or a curse?

06|08: Vietnamese Women’s Museum, egg coffee & the Temple of Literature

Although the hostel I was staying at was already brain-achingly cheap at just under £3 a night, breakfast was included. A mixed fare of Western foods, I had the same thing all 3 mornings I spent here:

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Pancakes, eggs and melon. Balanced, right?

The hostel was clean (attended to by a small army of cleaners who would enter a room en masse and have the place cleaned, tidied and refreshed within half an hour) and cool in the rooms, though the landing areas could be a bit muggy, with building works scattered through. There was a bit of a drama on a subsequent night, but I’ll leave that to part 2.

08171742-1013After a stint on TripAdvisor the night before, my first stop was the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. I took a leisurely walk past the lake and found myself in an area blessed with traffic lights, although some more Western-style malls and plazas seemed to have taken root there also.

The Women’s Museum was a really well put together affair full of interesting artefacts, weaving a really insightful narrative of women’s lives. It’s a truly forward-thinking initiative to have glorified the history of half of the population, and celebrate the diverse ways in which women have contributed to Vietnamese society. As well as learning about the Vietnamese cult of celestial mothers (of which there are 13; a supreme mother and 12 midwives) I was heartened to learn of Vietnamese matriarchal societies: Ede, Mnong, Jarai, Coho, Churu, Raglai and Cham.

I hadn’t been sure what exactly to expect, so the layout seemed logical. The first floor was dedicated to showcasing different Vietnamese and minority traditions surrounding marriage, birth and motherhood. The second floor was split between family life, women’s work and the worship of mother goddess. It was refreshing to see family life – the unpaid labour of which women tend to shoulder the most of – elevated alongside women’s work and a deity that celebrates the provisions of mothers and women. The third floor took an unexpected turn; focusing on the contribution to the women made throughout the American war. The room was filled with photographs and biographies of soldiers, spies, workers and mothers who all stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the men in fighting for reunification. After the intensity and excitement of the third floor, the fourth, with its showcase of fashion and textiles techniques, felt somewhat flatter, though nonetheless interesting.

I was seriously impressed at the sheer amount of information the curators had managed to distil throughout the exhibition, and the multiplicity of female roles and identities that had been present. I truly could not recommend this enough.

As I headed back to the Old Quarter for lunch, I came across some impressive statues and buildings, and an impressive disregard for health and safety:

After a photo-break, I found myself at Net Hue, on Nguyễn Hữu Huân. A bottle of beer was 20,000₫ and I was respectfully presented the bottle opener to open my beer myself, for reasons unknown.

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Not too hungry, I opted for some dumplings served on crackers. It was 58,000₫, and served on a tiny miniature table. It was delicious, but really worth it for the miniature table.

I then went to try another TripAdvisor recommended activity: an egg coffee. Further down the same road, down a semi-hidden alley I kept missing, I finally came to Café Giang. Sat on the traditional, low Vietnamese stools, my coffee was served in a bain marie. The foam looked slightly yellow-ish, but not too different to a normal cappuccino. I was tentative; but I can say it was hands down the best coffee I had in South East Asia. Mixed with condensed milk, the egg created a sort-of custard foam that had no taste of egg, whatsoever.

Having felt like I’d successfully seized the day, I felt anxious at the the prospect of not having planned the rest of my trip. Conversations with various people in my dorm had made me realise how much there was I wanted to do, and how I would not be able to fit it into the timescale I had given myself. I went to True Color Tours on someone’s recommendation, and within half an hour had an itinerary for the rest of my time in Vietnam. Feeling the buzz that organisation gives me (over which I have no qualms about) I decided to seize the final hours of the afternoon for more exploring.

As a literature graduate, it seemed right to visit the Temple of Literature, as a tourist I decided to try out a cyclo taxi. Quoted 100,000₫, which seemed reasonable for the distance, the cycloist proceeded to take me on a long-winded route to the wrong temple. After some intense negotiations, I was then charged only 50,000₫ for the next leg, across town. As vigilant as you can try to be, the language barrier will always win.

Despite being on a main road, in the city, there was a sanctuary feel to the Temple. Vietnam’s first University, each space in the temple represented a different philosophical idea as prescribed in Confucian wisdom. Every student that passed the annual exams had their names carved into a tablet atop a stone turtle, and the whole place had an air of deference to education. This was a place of peace.

Caught in the rain on my walk back to the hostel, and offered cover by some friendly Vietnamese men playing a draughts-like game, I decided to explore the side streets a bit. Fully intending to suck up my anxiety and try street food, my stomach soon made it clear that it wouldn’t be a good idea, and I retired to the hostel, ready to hit up Ha Long Bay the next day.

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