Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Seeing Vietnam by Train: Hanoi and Homecoming

The final destination of our vacation -- which we have dubbed "The H Tour" as all the cities we visited started with "H" -- was Hanoi. A fifth destination, Halong Bay, was scrapped at the last minute. We were supposed to spend one day and night in Halong Bay, visiting the islands and caves there, but because it's at least three hours away from Hanoi by car or bus, and we didn't arrive in Hanoi until almost noon on Sunday, we were exhausted and decided to stay in Hanoi for five nights and four full days.

The weather was gorgeous while we were there. Each day was sunny, with temperatures in the mid- to upper 60s. 
On top of the trains at the Hanoi train station.
A wall of murals that spanned almost the entire length of the highway on our way to our hotel.
The wall also had carvings.
More murals.
A cheerful mural scene.
We showed up at our hotel one day early because of our canceled plans in Halong Bay, and the hotel staff couldn't be more accommodating, getting us one extra night there with the same discount deal we had for the other four nights. Because we stayed for so many days, the manager and staff got to know us and our little boy, and the manager took it upon himself to make sure we were taken care of.

The staff and manager were very taken with our son, joking with him that they wanted him to stay at the hotel with them instead of coming home with us. I had mentioned in a previous post that we, as a family, and my son as an individual, received many more curious looks and much more attention in Vietnam than in Thailand. Well, in Hanoi, the attention directed to my son became more frequent and more obvious. People we passed on the streets, and shopkeepers sitting outside, would stop us to look at him, touch his cheeks, pat him on the head, shake his hand, or ask for a high five from him. One shopkeeper, whose store we were browsing in, kept saying things to us like "Lovely boy!" "He's so fun!" or "I love him!" It was awkward as I knew they were well-intentioned and harmless, but my sense of boundary was obviously much stronger than theirs.
Our hotel towering over adjacent buildings.
Front of the hotel, all decked out for the holidays.
Lobby. There were so many doormen that we didn't need to lift a finger going in and out of the building and the elevators. I joked that the only things they didn't do for us were feeding and toileting us.
View of Hanoi from our hotel room window.
View from the hotel's rooftop restaurant.
Another view from the rooftop restaurant.
A switch instead of a sign on the door knob to notify the maid to clean the room.
A view of a side street from our hotel room that I managed to capture by sticking my camera out of the small opening in the window.
Hanoi was not quite as interesting to me as the other cities. There was a mix of European-style and Asian-style architecture, which made the city appear quaint, but most of it were in various states of decay and filth. It reminded me somewhat of Bangkok. The traffic there also was crazier and more chaotic than in Ho Chi Minh City, with everyone driving between lanes (sounds familiar...) and honking even more than in other parts of Vietnam (at least there is hardly any honking in Bangkok). The incessant honking drove me crazy!

Nevertheless, I grew fond of this city. There was a number of cute cafes to hang out and watch people, lots of bakeries, so many different really good Vietnamese restaurants, and lots of restaurants serving cuisines from other countries. There were so many options, unlike where we live in Bangkok. We stuffed ourselves with all kinds of Vietnamese food and more western food in the two weeks of our trip than in five months of living in Thailand. Western food there, while more expensive than the local cuisine, was still cheaper than it is in Bangkok. Best of all, they had amazing coffee (which I don't drink, but my husband bought some weasel coffee to bring back here), teas, and pastries. Each morning, we had more than our fill of croissants, danishes, cheeses, and breakfast meats. The people were much more relaxed than in Ho Chi Minh City, and didn't bother us much. The driving also was slower and seemed safer than in Bangkok.

We walked throughout the city and explored it every day. It was fantastic how easily we could get around. We must've walked at least two miles each day. Needless to say, we all slept well! Our hotel was right on the border of the Old Quarter, so we had a chance to explore that part of Hanoi in detail. We also went to modern areas and visited various historic sites. We had a fabulous stay there.

Some random sights of the city:
A huge market, similar to the one we visited in Ho Chi Minh City.
Streets at night.
The streets and shops are always busy, no matter what time of the day it is, just like in Bangkok. I'm so curious about what people do for a living that they can just stroll and browse or hang out in cafes all day long!
A random temple we came upon during our stroll.
Apartment buildings in the center of Hanoi.
Masks for sale.
Funny t-shirt.
KFC in Vietnamese.
A wall of beautiful fans in a shop.
A random game of badminton at a sidewalk.
Hilarious cafe name.
National pride.
Cute buildings.
Another funnily named restaurant.
Scorpio whiskey. It's been decades since I've seen these.
Can you guess what the name of this cafe is?
I really wish we had room in our suitcases to bring home a poster from this place!
This street only had stores related to stereo equipment.
Chat & Date cafe!
I loved all the colors in some of the shops.
So that's how they install a new water tank in the upper story of a building!
K-Mart CVS...Doubt it's similar to either store in the U.S.
Lunch time! In Thailand, street food = food stalls along the streets, where as street food in Vietnam is more literal: people sit on the sidewalks with small pots/stoves/grills and cook the food right on the sidewalk. One night, we saw a woman grilling corn on a small grill on the sidewalk. One of the cobs rolled off the grill onto the pavement, and she just picked it up and kept right on grilling it! And the streets of Hanoi are covered in filth!
Notice the closing time of this place...Not helpful.
A few of our finest meals in Hanoi:
A friend recommended that we go to this place, so we did. The name of the restaurant is the name of the (one and only) dish it serves! Once we sat down, a man plunked down the "menu" on our table: a laminated index-card-sized paper that says, "We serve only one dish. Grilled fish....170000d/person." We had it with vermicelli noodle and an assortment of sides, much like with Korean food.
This is the grilled fish. The waitress added greens to the grilled fish (which was delicious, frying in oil as we ate) and let it cook for a few minutes.
Getting our Korean food fix in Hanoi.
An awesome restaurant that was so good we went for dinner there two nights in a row.
Simmered pork in a clay pot that we had at the restaurant above.
The dish that brought us back for two nights in a row: Braised eggplant in garlic sauce.
Some of the famous places in Hanoi that we visited....First, there was the center of Hanoi and Lake of the Returned Sword. Legend has it that this was where a turtle god approached the emperor Le Loi to reclaim a golden sword that he received previously from the turtle god's master. In the middle of the lake is a pagoda named Turtle Tower, in association with the folklore.

On Jade Island of the lake stood Temple of the Jade Mountain, which can be accessed via a red, wooden bridge called The Huc Bridge.

A monument to Le Loi by the lake that we happened upon.

We also got to see a water puppet show at the water puppet theater. There was a band of musicians that played and sang traditional Vietnamese music to accompany the show. On the stage, where the floor would've been, was the pool of water where the puppets were performed. At the end of the show, all the puppeteers came out in the water for applause. There also was an exhibit of old water puppets outside the auditorium. Audience members had to pay to take pictures or videos during the show, but no one paid and everyone's cameras were clicking away. It was probably another scam to get more money out of those who didn't know better.

The Temple of Literature, which is a temple of Confucius built in 1070 and was the site of Vietnam's first national university. The university was established in 1076 and remained open until 1779. The compound is comprised of five courtyards with temples, gates, gardens, ponds, and turtle steles with the names of students who were successful at the royal exams.
People were tracing their names on this board for good luck, so we did it too.

The Museum of Fine Arts is a beautiful building housing art, stone sculptures, furniture, costumes, paintings, and artifacts that go back as far as the Iron and Bronze ages.

We walked by the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, but didn't go in...Just had no desire to see the dead body of a dictator, for some reason. The grounds of the mausoleum was huge and beautiful. People were strolling about, enjoying the weather, as if it were just a regular, old park. There was a map of the grounds. We thought it was funny that there was a garage housing Ho Chi Minh's used cars. Also, I wonder what a gift shop of a dictator's mausoleum sells....

We also visited another Buddhist temple, called One Pillar Pagoda, near the mausoleum.

Our last stop in Hanoi was Hoa Lo Prison (a.k.a. "Hanoi Hilton"), where John McCain was held as prisoner during the Vietnam War. Built by the French in the 1800s, it was originally intended to hold Vietnamese political prisoners agitating for independence.

Now it's been transformed into a museum. There was very little about the Vietnam War in the museum, and what little there was consisted of anti-American propaganda. Even as a museum, it could be distressing to walk through. Before going there, my son was very anxious about the visit, worrying about "bad guys with guns" and being locked in the prison. We told him it was now a museum and was safe, and gave him a choice not to go, but he still chose to go. In the end, he was more fascinated than anything else.
Glass shards to prevent escape.
A model of the original compound.
The bottom picture is a picture of the prison bathroom.
Stones used to build the prison.
The doors to the prison.
Bricks used by the French to build the prison.
Description of food for the prisoners.
Bowls used by prisoners.
Female political prisoners.
This was what a prison cell looked like. The dummies as prisoners were jarring and creepy.
All the prisoners were shackled by the ankles.
The creepiest stairwell I've ever seen by far.
Solitary confinement.
A tale of escape by Vietnamese political prisoners and the piece of sewer through which they escaped.
Toilet for the prisoners.
Lists of the names of the political prisoners held at the prison.
A memorial commemorating Vietnamese political prisoners.
One last look at Hanoi at the Hanoi airport. We were ready to come back and have some time to decompress before heading back to school. Once we got home, though, everything felt so strange and unfamiliar. It felt like a million years ago that we were in Thailand. It seemed like it was another family, and not us, that lived in this house. Hopefully, this feeling will fade as the days go by.

No comments:

Post a Comment