Big Question Marks

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Back to the big city: Hanoi

Happy Easter to you all-- we hope you're eating lots of Easter chocolates to make up for the ones we're not. (We bought a KitKat yesterday to celebrate at least...)

Since early last week--yes, we are the slowest travellers ever-- we've been kicking back in the lovely old city of Hanoi, walking endless laps around Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of the Old Quarter (quite scenic!), avoiding cyclo drivers and pineapple ladies who persistently continue to try to sell us rides & fruit, and just generally trying to get a feel for the place.

We were going to take the overnight sleeper train up here from Hue but it was sold out for days, so we jumped aboard one of the supercheap ($18 AUD for a 12-hour ride) backpacker sleeper buses that we've managed to avoid all trip so far. They're hard to describe-- sort of a busfull of four-foot long bunk beds-- and they're really cheap because they depend on kickbacks from the hotels and restaurants they drop you in front of and strongly "suggest" you stay/eat there. We've read some bad stories but lucked out, at least this time. (But we're still greatly in favour of public transit with the locals instead!) After desperately trying to stretch our cramped-up legs, collect our backpacks, and dodge our way through the huge scrum of hotel touts that mobbed our bus as soon as it stopped (and this is at 5:30am), we checked out a few really scummy hotels, a few too-fancy ones, and finally found a cheapish, slightly shabby one with a giant room and a beautiful French-style balcony. Never mind the huge dead spider in the corner above the bathroom, or the disintegrating wood door stored under the bed, this place was pretty luxurious compared to some!

Though every city in Vietnam feels big and busy, Hanoi is definitely back to the big city. It's constant beeping, street markets every few blocks, and historical sights galore. Next year the city turns 1000 years old, and plenty of old quaint buildings dot the streets, though there's also many that have been ripped down (I just listened to an American realtor rant about this last night). What's really cool about the Old Quarter are the things you find hidden deep inside narrow laneways-- we've stumbled across a few tiny Buddhist temples, ornate as ever, down alleys barely two people wide and usually past a grandmother hanging up laundry. Bizarre! Apparently Hanoi is known for its "tunnel houses", characterized by long rooms and narrow entries (designed long ago to avoid taxes, which were based on the width of a building's frontage). Our Dutch friend Pim (who we met back in Nha Trang but is now staying in Hanoi for a while) led us to a little hidden cafe down one of these alleys-- no signage and up three flights of stairs, and there's a garden patio with a great view of the lake! But with all of this old charm, there's a definite flashiness to the city too-- though somehow the swanky bars, restaurants, and designer shops seem perfectly at home, even next to the street food stalls on every corner and chickens wandering between motorbikes.

But it gets weirder. Hanoi also plays home to the embalmed body of national hero Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho. We joined the long procession of mostly locals and uniformed army vets on Saturday morning to visit Uncle Ho in the flesh. No cameras allowed (except for the thousand or so we spotted in Uncle Ho's mausoleum) but you'll just have to trust us: seeing a pale old man with wispy white hair "sleeping" like Snow White in a glass box inside a dimly-lit and freezing marble building (guarded by armed guards still as statues) is pretty surreal. Cementing in the weirdness of it all was following it up with a visit to the nearby Uncle Ho Museum, chock full of photos of the Hoach posing with kids, composing poetry, and then lots of American War photos and destroyed remnants of U.S. bombers with captions explaining the embarrassing losses of "the puppet army", etc. And after this little bit of 'education' everyone heads back outside to eat ice cream with their kids... kind of like a really bizarro Disneyland.

Top that off with a night out drinking passionfruit and green tea martinis with the glittered-up Paris Hiltons of Hanoi at a fashion show/publicity event (yes, seriously, this was all the same day!) thanks to invites from Pim and his friend My, who owns a fashionable clothing store nearby, and you've got just about the strangest day ever! Or at least, the strangest one so far on our trip...

No comments: