The short flight from Vientiane to Hanoi crosses over the mountainous border that separates the two fraternal nations that are politically similar with intertwining histories. But the outlooks of the two peoples are quite different, echoing the pan-Asian jocular phrase "same same…but different'. While Laos is laid back (as is reflected in their capital), Vietnam does appear to have a caffeinated disposition. Things started quietly enough with our hotel pickup carrying a card with our name on it outside Hanoi airport. The long 36km ride into town was mostly uneventful but things heated up as soon as the car pulled into Hanoi's Old Quarter.
This was our first visit to the city, but we were well prepared with the layout of our hotel and its location and knew that the sidewalk we had stopped outside could not have been our destination, since it was on the banks of Lake Hong Kiem. We gestured to our driver that he had the wrong place. We had read about Hanoi taxi scams where taxi drivers are notorious for taking you to their choice of hotels with crazy pretexts ("this is better hotel!", "your hotel burnt down!" etc.) but we did not expect this from a driver who had been sent to pick us up by the hotel where we had reservations. Our driver, who spoke no English, tried to get us to get off but we refused to budge. He got on the phone and muttered in a bad temper. We quickly realized that this was not a scam operation but an honest mistake when we saw the sign outside the door bearing the hotel name which was identical to ours but with the suffix 2 appended. But this was difficult to explain to the driver since we did not speak Vietnamese. V tried to get out of the car hoping to get this clarified with the owner of the second hotel (no doubt with the same management), but this elicited a rude shout from our driver gesturing at V to stay put. After another minute of this standoff, V impatiently opened the door (yelling back at the driver in English - I want to get out and you can't stop me, you were keen to get rid of us just a few minutes ago anyway) and rang the bell and spoke to the man who emerged and eventually clarified to the driver the correct address. 10 minutes of weaving through the Old Quarter settled the issue and we were at the hotel we had chosen. We had landed in Vietnam and in its capital's Old Quarter with a little hiccup. It was a 100 degrees and humid and smoky.
As the name evokes, the Old Quarter is a maze of narrow streets brimming with shops spilling over into the streets, food being cooked and eaten in the street. And the dishes washed in large buckets on the sidewalk. We had heard of the motorcycles and scooters in Hanoi but it was something else to experience them in person. Like insects in a swarm, these two wheelers come at you from all directions, whizzing and sometimes rubbing past you as if you were an inanimate obstacle. They assume all liberties accorded to pedestrians and pay no attention to traffic signals or directions on one-way streets. Their riders include people from all demographics, most of them wearing face masks to keep out the dust. It was nice to see mothers riding with a couple of youngsters hanging on cheerfully. But Hanoi (or Vietnam) is not a smiling city. It seems too preoccupied to be genuinely happy.
Darkness had set in by the time we stepped out to get our first look at the Old Quarter but the heat of the day remained. We spent the evening in a daze trying to deal with the heat and the traffic while also plotting our schedule for the next couple of days. We managed to get a hang of the street names in the Old Quarter, most of which seemed to begin with the word Hang followed by a short word. Our hotel was in Hang Ga which was not to be confused with Hang Gai. The night market was in Hang Dau which was not to be confused with Hang Dao. The names were based on the dominant business of the merchants on the street. So, Hang Ga is for Chicken merchants. One could make the predictable jokes about Hang Manh, Hang Bac, Hang Mam etc., all real street names. Feel free to make your own. The streets do seem to have been organized along businesses, there were streets with mostly shoe stores, baskets, fake currency bills for buddhist ceremonies etc.
A calculator and the ability to count zeroes are vital for the casual visitor to Vietnam. V once handed a couple of 100,000 VND notes to the yogurt smoothie vendor who was good enough to let him know he was giving her too much money. Not every merchant in Hanoi is as honest. Despite all our precautions, we paid three times the regular price for a bottle of water at a store. We were expecting to be scammed by taxi drivers but never expected a store owner to do this. When we realized this the next day, we paid the merchant a visit and attempted to embarrass him. The neighboring hotel waiter told us that this man overcharged everybody everyday.
Our attempts to pay our respects to the preserved body of Vietnam's nationalist/communist father figure, Ho Chi Minh were thwarted by the capricious officials who controlled the entrance to his mausoleum at the city centre. We were sent on an wild goose chase round the square before eventually arriving at a gate where a guard with an inscrutable expression refused to let us in, even though we had carefully selected the day of the week and the time of the day. We did visit the museum next door and learnt a little bit about Vietnam's history as seen through their own eyes. There was plenty of symbolism that escapes the casual eye (modern paintings by Europeans). It was interesting to learn about Ho Chi Minh's earnest appeals to President Truman for assistance in dealing with a rejuvenated France who wanted to reimpose themselves in Indo China after the Japanese surrender in WWII. Having been liberated from their tormentors, they came back to bully former victims. These appeals were ignored, apparently. Ironically, a couple of decades later, the US did intervene but not in his favor but with a new and different enemy.
We could not find time to visit the museum in Shanghai where old communist propaganda posters were on display (wondering how the current regime even allowed such a thing), but we stumbled upon a pair of stores in Hanoi that displayed similar posters with a Vietnamese tilt. The big difference is that such posters are still on display throughout Vietnam. China seems to have done away with that sort of thing (presumably with the 1978 reforms). The nationalist (yellow star) and communist (sickle) symbols, benevolent Uncle Ho watering plants or patting a child's head etc. are everywhere.
Going back a little further in time is the Temple of Literature, a unique institution dating back to medieval times when aspirants for high court positions in the imperial hierarchy would need to go through a series of examinations. The brightest ones were personally interviewed by the emperor for favored positions. The temple was in homage to the institution of studying and featured all the cliched Chinese motifs. Plenty of stone steles with Chinese writing resting on the backs of tortoises.
The Thanh Long Water Puppet Theatre runs several daily shows which do get sold out quickly. We could only get tickets for the first show of the day (3:30 pm). A small old fashioned theatre with level seats (be prepared for tall heads to completely obscure your view) and a water stage where the puppets make their appearance. Traditional Vietnamese (Chinese variant) music is played on traditional instruments by an ensemble that sits stage left. Dragons, buffaloes, peasant folk and their aspirations, romantic stories, fishing stories etc. are depicted using the ancient art with no modern improvisations. A unique way to spend an hour in a new city/country.
Over the next few days, we managed to get a hang of the Hangs and could navigate by landmarks (the lake is over there, the city square is over there etc.). We even discovered that you could escape the suffocating heat and humidity of the Old Quarter by just walking a few minutes to Lake Hong Kiam. The sudden appearance of sky and open space and water and breeze has a cooling effect. It is also good to get out of the Old Quarter and see modern Hanoi with trendy shops. But Hanoi does keep its attractive side well under wraps. It will probably take a few more weeks (or months) to get comfortable with its character. Maybe some other time. We could not help but wonder how the reverse route would have worked - from Hanoi to Vientiane. The two cities are far from same same. Very different.
When it was time to make our plan to escape, er exit the capital and head south for our next stop, Hue, we learnt that we were too late in the game for the overnight train where the desirable options had been long sold out. We resigned ourselves to the dreaded sleeper bus as it seemed to be a superior alternative to the hard seat on the train and booked ourselves on the 16 hour overnight journey. We then read horror stories on the internet about the bus company we had chosen and spent a restless night in our hotel in dread of the night to come. Our hotel staff advised us to cancel so he could arrange for tickets with a superior company. We were surprised as our travel agent had informed us that tickets with that company had also sold out. But our hotel staff assured us of availability. Unfortunately, it was not possible to reserve lower berths with any bus company. You just showed up early and hope for the best. We also learnt that there seemed to be no proper bus terminal for these companies. They all had agents who picked up travelers from their hotel (some using motorbikes!) to some mysterious location where they will board the bus. We longed for our days in China where we mostly bought our own bus tickets by going to legitimate ticket windows in legitimate bus stations, where time tables existed and were respected. For the most part, anyway.
We were spared the motorbike option and were put on a minivan with several others. We had no paperwork ("don't worry, everything is taken care of" was the assurance given by our hotel staff). We were dropped off just outside the Old Quarter in front of a small office where a young man sat with a ledger. He asked us if we had a receipt and when he heard our negative reply, he just nodded and gave us a printed form with something scribbled on it saying "this will be your ticket(s)". When the bus arrived, we scrambled and got lower berths. Unlike our Chinese sleeper bus experience, these were at the floor level. The upper levels were not as cramped as the Chinese buses, but still looked uncomfortable. The lower level had a recliner that allowed for 2 positions which was comfortable enough. We just hoped that the staff would not overload the bus with locals sleeping in the two aisle ways. Fortunately this did not happen despite numerous unscheduled stops along the way as the bus crawled its way through the 650 km stretch to Hue. But the driver of the bus relinquished his post to his backup at 3 am and proceeded to lie down in the aisle. And stick his feet into the personal space of a couple of travelers. But the others were undisturbed.
Your love affair with the sleeper bus continues. may you have long and intimate sessions with the object of your love right through your travels :)
That's a very naughty comment. Reading your posts in sequence - sure Saigon is different from Hanoi. From , on Jul 24, 2012 at 06:26AM