Sunday 19 April 2015
A safe touchdown as my flight from Da Nang was on schedule. I’d arranged a transfer pick up to take me to the gorgeous Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel. What a place this was! For about $100 per night, I managed to bag an Executive room which included a complimentary bottle of red white, fresh fruit and a massive floor plan.
Without wasting any further time, I was up on the 12th floor looking at the view over Hanoi and one of it’s wonderful lakes, sipping a few Hanoi beers during happy hour and watching the gradual sunset through the haze. Three beers completed, the next stop was out of the hotel, turned right, a couple of doors down and another Hanoi beer whilst seated about 8 inches from the ground watching the traffic whiz by. The “cafe and beer lounge server was busy on her phone so she simply pointed to the fridge for me to grab my own brew and handed me a bottle opener. The beer was slightly more expensive here at 30,000 VND a bottle (£1.08).
Whilst finishing my beer, which quickly turned warm in the humidity, the plan of action was to head over to Bia Hoi Junction where I could get a glass for as little as 5,000 VND (£18p). I’d chosen the hotel for its look and location and within 5 – 10 minutes, I was in “beer alley” mingling with the locals having a fresh beer. It was so fresh that they don’t even bother storing the keg down in the cellar as it ran out so quickly.
The only problem with having a drink at a Bia Hoi was the lack of toilet facilities or hygienic ones anyway. I did use one which was down a dark alley, behind the bar and basically a hole in the ground. Faced with the continuing need for the loo, I opted to visit a “proper” bar as the next stop. Still with a good seat to people watch, this was more relaxing even if I had to pay 36p more for a beer than the last place.
Adequately inebriated, I decided to go for supper at a sticky rice place. Squatting on 8 inch plastic patio furniture, I tried my hardest not to touch too much of the furniture as it didn’t look like it had had a good jet wash in a while. I chose to order the char siu and some sort of beef cutlet on top of sticky rice. The whole bill, including a can of beer, came to 67,000 VND (£2.41).
Monday 20 April 2015
Couldn’t wait to get up and see what the Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel had to offer for breakfast. Started the day at the Gourmet Corner restaurant which was located on the 12th floor. Dim sums occupied my plate as I assessed what the temperature was outside. It was difficult to judge since I was dining in an air conditioned room.
The first sight to see today was the Heritage House. As I stepped out of the lobby of the hotel onto the street, it was like an oven as the humidity was already about 80%. Instant sweat on, I walked over to the Heritage House located on Ma May street. This was a typical Vietnamese house which was used and built in the 19th century and housed shopkeeper’s families until 1945. Restored to what it would have looked like back then, this house located in the Old Quarter of Hanoi cost 10,000 VND (36p) to get in. I managed to clear upstairs and downstairs in about 5 minutes as there wasn’t much else to look at.
The heat was already reaching 35C at around 10am. Combined with the humidity, it was very difficult to walk anywhere fast as I made my way toward the Pagoda located on Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Connected by a red bridge from the edge of the lake the entrance fee was 30,000 VND (£1.08). Inside, there was an altar with many colourful idols and of course, the obligatory gift shop for those happy spenders. With not much else to see, I moved on after 20 minutes.
Walking around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, I eventually found my next sightseeing venue which was the “Hanoi Hilton”, or to give it it’s official name, Hỏa Lò Prison. Yes, the entrance fee here was 30,000 VND (£1.08) too! Built in 1896, it was the largest fortified prison in Indochina at the time, housing revolutionary patriotic soldiers and many government and Vietnamese communist leaders. The treatment given to these people reminded me of the prisoners in Tuol Sleng in Phnom Penh. The difference here was there was a death row. The French colonialists even brought their own quality locks, metal work and guillotine, when they constructed the prison.
From August 1964 to March 1973, Americans involved in the bombing in North of the country were remanded here as POW. The treatment they received was far more luxurious than the Vietnamese. John McCain was one of these people when his plane was shot down. I spent around a couple of hours walking around the prison and it’s various exhibits. Feeling slightly cooler but in need of rehydration due to the sheer amount of perspiration, a cafe or pub was the next point of call.
Walking back toward Ma May Street from earlier, I stopped in what appeared to be a local chain called Gecko. Diet coke was in order. I felt that a beer at 2:30pm and already in need of fluids, was probably not the best idea despite being on “holiday”.
I wanted to have a browse at some of the shops and buy a few more cotton T-shirts, as the polo shirts I brought travelling with me are a little thick for the weather I was experiencing. I managed to find a nice Yoda one for 360,000 VND (£12.96). I’d seen the same T-shirt in Hoi An for the same price so I thought “why not?!”.
After dipping in and out of air conditioned shops, I made my way back to the hotel for happy hour on the 12th floor to watch the sunset again through the haze. As it turned a deep red colour, it soon disappear behind the clouds. I’d been given a complimentary bottle of red wine in my room on check in, so I took the opportunity to take a shower, relax a little and have a glass. It did make a nice change having drank mostly beer for the last 24 days since leaving the UK. There was a knock on the door from housekeeping at that point. Handed to me on a plate with a couple of shortbread biscuits were 2 individually wrapped Earl Grey tea bags. This made my day and reaffirmed I had picked the right hotel. At breakfast, when I was offered a choice of coffee or tea (Lipton), I asked if they had any Earl Grey. They told me that it wasn’t included in the buffet breakfast menu, so I simply went for coffee. It was no big deal at that point. The waitress must have made a note and arrange for the tea bags to be brought to my room later that day. Now that’s service and attention to detail. Once I had settled down again from the surprise, I decided to arrange some activities though the hotel travel desk for later on in the week.
Feeling slightly peckish by 8pm, I made my way literally over the road to a little place selling Banh Xeo. These were the rice milled pancakes I learnt to make whilst on my cooking course on Thuan Tinh Island. After a beer and a couple of these whilst watching the world go by, I called it a night…
Tuesday 21 April 2015
My alarm went off at 6am today as I had a trip booked for 2 days/1 night to Ha Long Bay. I did this through Vega Travel whilst I was en-route up North using the hotels and bars free Wi-Fi connection. It perplexes me as to why and how some hotels in the UK still charge for internet when it doesn’t really “cost” them anything. I was informed that a guide would come pick me up at the hotel at 7:30am but I was eventually picked up by Vega Travel at 8am. Traffic must have been heavy as I would find out later. This was fine since it gave me time to check out of the hotel and settle the bill for my excursion for later on in the week.
As we stopped to pick up other guests at other hotels for the Ha Long Bay trip, we were then dropped off by the minibus at the Vega Travel office in the Old Quarter for anyone who had luggage to store and settle the outstanding balance for the tour. My hotel was happy to store my rucksack so I just had the remaining $160 to pay, which I’d forgotten about. I’d already paid the deposit of $80, so in total, it was $120 each (£82.80). Over here though, if you pay by MasterCard, they’ll charge an extra 3% on top, which was fine.
As I settled back into my seat at the back of the bus, it suddenly left the office without half the group. This worried a few of those on the bus but assessing the situation quickly, it transpired the minibus was blocking the street which already looked like it was peak hour! After circling the block a couple of times, we were finally on our way to Ha Long Bay…..
Wednesday 22 April 2015
Four hours of being thrown around the back seat of the minibus and suffering no concussion, I was dropped off at the Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel again after spending overnight in Ha Long Bay. Like a well worn pair of slippers, it was nice to check back into the hotel where I’d left yesterday. I decided to get my first haircut since leaving Blighty and was feeling apprehensive as I always find it difficult to seek out a decent barber. I opted to try the “salon” a couple of doors down and ended up spending little over an hour there! With a very limited vocabulary of Vietnamese, I walked out of there with a slightly shorter cut than I originally wanted, but it was a good job nonetheless. However, the reason it took an hour was I had a hair wash first which was about 10 minutes. Then the haircut itself which was another 20 minutes. Then back upstairs for a 10 minute hair wash which morphed into a facial massage for 20 minutes (I didn’t ask for all this!). Finally, it was back downstairs where I was offered a cotton wool bud for my ears and a quick blow dry with hairspray to finish. I declined the hairspray and chose hair wax! All in all, it set me back 200,000 VND (£7.20) which is still cheaper than what I normally pay for back home.
After polishing off the complimentary bottle of red wine in my room again, I was roaming the streets at 8pm looking for dinner. An hour later, I gave up and dropped into the Hanoi Rock Hostel for a beer instead.
I ended up spending the evening here where they had 2 night clubs. On the 1st floor was what appeared to be fully of locals. The 5th floor was where all the backpackers congregated. It was slowly filling up when I met my Doppelganger.
A couple of hours of good music slowly transcended into lunacy as the DJ started to play Britney Spears and “Hit me baby one more time!”. Suddenly, midnight struck and Cinderella’s carriage turned back into a pumpkin as the lights came up and the music abruptly stopped. “Chucking out” time as Hanoi had reached its curfew. What a weird experience as I walked back to the hotel. Not a single restaurant, food vendor or KFC was opened with all the shops having their shutters down and traffic was to a minimum. The rules of a communist state I suppose. Eerie is one word for it and a complete contrast to the chaos during the daytime…
Thursday 23 April 2015
Another jam packed itinerary planned today. First stop was a hike over to the Temple of Literature. Built in 1070, it was dedicated to Confucius. At 30,000 VND (£1.08), it was a myriad of temples, pagodas and greenery.
Next was an even further hike over to see the one column pagoda. It was free to look at and not much else to say about it other than it was built to resemble a lotus blossom.
Right next door was the Ho Chi Minh Museum. Another 30,000 VND (£1.08) for an adult ticket or half that for students, it was filled with everything that was glorious about Ho Chi Minh himself. Charting his early life from when he was in France to setting up the Communist party in Vietnam, you could definitely see a lot of money was spent doing up this exhibit. Very much worshiped in Vietnam, it was an interesting place to go.
I had a wander past his Mausoleum too which was closed unfortunately. I planned to see that tomorrow as opening times to see him is so small and in the mornings. The Mausoleum building itself is a sight to see. A huge Colosseum type building flanked by guards dressed in white military uniform deterring anyone who should feel brave enough to venture within 50 feet of the entrance. I decided not to be too cheeky and keep my distance. I don’t fancy being arrested.
Another 15 or so minutes of walking north where I visited the Trấn Quốc Pagoda. Free to get in, it was simply a quiet place to admire and another thing ticked of the “things to see” list.
By then it was about 3pm and my stomach was starting to rumble so I stopped off at a seafood restaurant called Banh Tom Ho Tay, over the road from the Pagoda. It was a dangerous combination as I was hungry and sitting in a seafood restaurant. I was very guilty of having eyes bigger than belly syndrome at that point. The table was full of food for two people as half of it was left in the end. At a cost of 350,000 (£12.60), it was definitely a feast and one that would ensure I didn’t need another meal in the day.
Feeling very content and needing to walk off lunch/dinner, I popped over to have a peek at the Quan Thanh Temple. A small temple housing a few statues, I completed it in less than 10 minutes, but since it only cost me 10,000 VND (36p) to get in I couldn’t complain.
I had definitely walked miles and so I decided to walk back to the hotel which was going to take another 30 – 45 minutes from the temple. En-route, I had a brief pause to look at the Flag Tower, tanks at the Army Museum and the cramped building in the Old Citadel.
Friday 24 April 2015
I had a few places in mind to go today with the first stop being Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, followed by seeing the downed B-52 bomber plane left in the lake where it had landed in the war. I was up at 6am for breakfast as the opening times slots to gain entry into the Mausoleum ended at 10:30am. As I settled down with my congee, I read that the Mausoleum is closed on a Mondays and Fridays, so I got up way too early when I could have had a lie in. I could have sworn it was closed Mondays and Wednesdays.
Not wanting to waste the day since I was up already, I made my way to the Revolution Museum. 40,000 VND (£1.44) for an adult, it paid for entry into both the Revolution Museum and Vietnam National Museum of History, spread over two sites. The revolution museum charted the period from when Vietnam was colonised by the French all the way up to the invasion of the “US puppets” or “US imperialists” as they were being constantly referred to throughout the exhibit. I started off quite interested, taking my time to read each piece on display. After about 30 minutes, it was beginning to feel very similar to Ho Chi Minh’s Museum which I saw yesterday. Ho Chi Minh was praised and displayed in a glowing light here. Suddenly, there was music blaring out from the side of the building as I peered out of the window. I was witnessing the opening and ribbon cutting of a new Trung Bay Exhibition titled “International Support for Vietnam’s Struggle for Reunification 1954 – 1975”, which turned out to be much the same as the display on the ground floor of the War Remnants Museum I went to in Saigon.
When I started to get a little revolution fatigue, I nipped over the road to the National Museum of History. This showed Vietnam from the caveman era all the way through the ages. Displaying bones and relics found in caves around the country, this was a little different and a nice change from talking about the Communist Party and Uncle Ho!
By about 11:30am, I decided to really test my stamina and head over to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, passing the opera house on the way.
I eventually arrive at the Women’s Museum at about noon. The museum was telling people about the rituals involved in marriage, procedures in childbirth throughout history, the worship of The Mother Goddess, how women played a big part in the various wars and the resistance, working and looking after the family. For 30,000 VND (£1.08), this was worth it. Again, it made a welcome change to talking about Ho Chi Minh all the time.
Next place I wanted to visit was St Joseph’s Catherdral. When I turned up it was all fenced off and didn’t really look open for me to have a wander inside, so I had to make do with a photo outside instead.
By that point in the day I was in need of a refreshment, so I made my over to Pho Co Cafe situated down a dark alley. It soon opened up into a courtyard where I order my first Egg Coffee. Costing 40,000 VND (£1.44), I was handed a cup and saucer with 3/4 of eggy froth on top of a very sweet coffee. As I balanced the coffee up two flights of stairs and a narrow spiral staircase, I sat and watched the world go by with a view over Hoan Kiem Lake. The egg topping was much like a fluffy marshmallow and very sweet.
After about 5 hours of walking around, I went back to my hotel and dropped off my bag before deciding to have a massage over the road. For 300,000 VND (£10.80), I received a 90 minute full body massage. This definitely worked off some of the muscle fatigue from all the sightseeing I was doing around the capital. I tipped the masseuse 100,000 VND (£3.60) for her efforts.
Feeling relaxed, I later popped back out to Bia Hoi Junction and into Fat Cat’s for a few bottles of Tiger beer and some spring rolls for dinner whilst indulging in some people watching. It was fascinating to watch a French guy, who spoke very little English and zero Vietnamese, trying to converse with a Vietnamese girl, who spoke no French and a lot of English. It descended into a conversation where both were using google translate to make small talk. Eventually, I was dragged into this meeting of cultures and ended up being an amateur interpreter.
Suddenly, the police came and flexed their muscles ordering pub owners to move their tiny plastic patio furniture that had spilled onto the alley way road. Within 5 minutes of the police leaving, everyone had moved back onto the street to resume their conversation. I couldn’t understand the purpose of clearing the streets when no-one was making any trouble or complaining that the road was too narrow. There was no traffic as the police had also stationed themselves at the top of the street and barricade the road.
Saturday 25 April 2015
Check out time today as I had a 3 day tour organised to Sapa which is North West of Hanoi. This was the alternative trip as I had originally planned to travel back down South to Nha Trang to complete an Advanced Open Water diving course. However, the cost of the flight alone for a return trip from Hanoi was going to set me back £200, and that’s before paying for the 2-3 course, accommodation and beer.
With a few hours to kill, I decided to catch the 3pm performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre for 100,000 VND (£3.60). I picked up a leaflet here which explained the different acts of the show. This certainly helped explain the story line to the show I saw in Ho Chi Minh City. As I waited for the show to start, about 40 cute Vietnamese kids filed in and occupied the two rows of seats behind me.
Midway through the performance the little kid behind me started to bawl his eyes out. A cry for help to his teacher as he couldn’t see a thing over the back of my chair. Comparing this theatre and show with the one I went to in Ho Chi Minh City, this was much more slicker in terms of the music and state of the puppets. It was also 80,000 VND cheaper in Hanoi.
I then spent the next 4 hours loitering in the hotel. Firstly on the terrace bar for some Nem Hue (fresh spring rolls) and then Bun Cha (BBQ pork with vermicelli in a fish broth) washed down with a few bottles of Tiger Beer. Well it was happy hour!
Once the sun had set at 6pm, I had the chance to use a functional room to freshen up before catching the overnight train to Sapa. I took a taxi to the train station to ensure I got the train at 8pm.
Coach 8, Berth 28 stated my boarding card. I was sharing with 3 South African women who were all too busy catching up on their love lives and how stressful it all was.
There wasn’t much to look at out of the window since it was dark and the conversation was inclusive, so I laid in my bed, noise cancelling headphones in and relaxed. The train journey itself was slow, noisy and warm. The driver had a tendency to slam on his brakes now and again which must have had something to do with the “not so straight” train track ahead of him. Anyway, rather than moan about the journey, I was actually excited and saw this as part of the adventure. Hopefully there is more of this to come when I carry on my travels later next month. For now, I was very much looking forward to a little sleep and my next location for my adventure….
Tuesday 28 April 2015
9 hours after leaving Sapa and Lao Cai, I arrived at Hanoi train station at 4:30am to be greeted by a hotel staff member. I’d arranged to stay at the Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel (hotel of choice in the capital) for my remaining duration in Hanoi, as it was nice and convenient to leave my luggage with them whilst I was trekking. The night train was a little more uncomfortable coming back to Hanoi than when I left a few days ago. My flu like symptoms may have contributed to this.
My hotel allowed me to use one of their spa rooms to freshen up and relax for a couple of hours which gave me a chance to cash in on a power nap. At 7am, I had some breakfast on the 12th floor and already, I could feel the intensity of the heat beaming through the windows. This was my welcome back to the capital. Being in Sapa, the temperature was slightly cooler but the humidity must have been around 90%. However, being up 1,400 m, the air was a lot fresher so I didn’t feel it as much.
My room was ready by 8:30am. I notice that there was no welcome fruit basket in my room but still feeling less than par, I wasn’t going to make a fuss. After unpacking a little, I had a further 3 hours sleep. I figured that if I am slightly ill, sleep would help. I certainly wasn’t going to go trekking around Hanoi too much today! At around 2pm, I stepped out of the hotel feeling much better after some quality rest. Just before I did however, I noticed that a fruit basket had made its way into my room whilst I was having a sleep. Good job I was under the covers is all I can say, or at least I think I was!
Without realising or noticing, I had “wandered around” Hanoi for about 4 hours passing through the O Quan Chu’ong gate. This was a city gate built in 1749.
Along my jaunt I looked at shops, came across a kids performance outside of St Josephs Cathedral and simply took in the scenery, chaotic traffic and sounds again. Spending 3 days away in a much more peaceful environment, I did miss the urban life slightly.
I found myself on a balcony at the Gecko traffic and people watching whilst enjoying a cold bottle of Tiger beer. This was a very nice treat after not really drinking for a few days (if you discount the “happy water” in Sapa). To accompany my beer, I had a Chicken in Curry taking my total spend for dining out for the evening at 123,000 VND (£4.43).
Contemplating and deciding on what I was going to do tomorrow, I headed back to the hotel for an early night. I realised that whilst travelling, it’s important to stay healthy and relatively fit which no website, guide book or travel journal that I have read has even touched upon. There is so much to see, taste and experience in so many different places around the world, I don’t want to be spending too many of my days having late lie ins and not making the most of my time. Life is too short! Equally, I don’t want to be constantly surviving on 4 hours sleep a day, having a jammed packed itinerary and running myself to the ground, which obviously has consequences and a knock on effect later on creating a vicious circle for myself. A fair balance is needed I think. Having the time to sit on the balcony at the Gecko made me realise this. With all this, indulge in moderation i.e. not every day of every week, find time to fit in relaxation days, eat relatively healthy and fuel your body correctly for the day ahead (breakfast is the most important meal of the day), eat food that makes you happy too and have a positive outlook on all your experiences. I love to discover new wisdom brought on by experiences I’ve encountered…
Wednesday 29 April 2015
After my oversight last Friday, I woke up at 6:15am today with the determination and drive to see Ho Chi Minh in the Mausoleum. I can’t explain why I needed to see him but it was on my list of things I must see. During my last delicious breakfast in the hotel, I asked for validation from the hostess that the Mausoleum was definitely open today and that wearing shorts past the knees was fine. She gave me the thumbs up along with some bad news. My heart sank a little. Could it be that for some unknown reason, I would be denied entry again? Had I made an error picking my day to visit again? Apparently, today was a national holiday. So is tomorrow as it’s Reunification day and 1st May is Labour Day. Being a national holiday, I was warned that it would be extremely business with coach loads making the pilgrimage to see Uncle Ho! I nonchalantly shrugged this off.
Stepping out of the hotel lobby onto the street, I was hit by a huge wall of heat and humidity. Someone has suddenly turned up the gas mark on the oven in Hanoi. I was certainly glad I didn’t make the choice to wear long trousers today. Within minutes, I was sweating again as I set off on my walk to the Mausoleum. Rejecting numerous motorbikers en-route offering to taxi me to my destination, it took me half an hour to reach the site where I could see large queues forming already. Where the entrance was the other day, a sign directed me 300m around the corner. That wasn’t too bad. As I rounded the corner, there was another sign pointing me a little further. What I hadn’t realise until later on, was, that I was already in a rolling queue which must have snaked over 3 km through the botanical gardens, along the outside perimeter of the Mausoleum site, then into the site, eventually leading up to the entrance.
Whilst indulging in one of England’s favourite past times of queuing, I settled into a start/stop rhythm along with a conservatively underestimated 250,000 eager Vietnamese patriots. I was told at breakfast that it would cost 50,000 VND (£1.80) to get into the Mausoleum, so they were going to have a very profitable day.
Using small children as human shields to push their way further through the queue, the Vietnamese parents were certainly desperate to see Ho Chi Minh! I had my headphones in which helped keep my composure and positive outlook during this whole experience. The officers were doing a tremendous job of keeping people in some kind of compact line, as I just kept thinking that those that managed to get around me (obviously being taller and broader than your average Vietnamese citizen, no-one was going to push me out of the way), fair play but there really was no need as we would all get to see him eventually.
After an hour of queuing, I was losing endurance to stick with the itinerary as it was getting close to 10:30am and the whole thing closes at that time. It was getting hotter and hotter and I had just finished off my first bottle of water. I caught the attention of a woman selling fans, so I bit her hand off at 10,000 VND (36p) for one. Within a couple of minutes, I was buying a couple bottles of water from another lady for 10,000 VND each too. Feeling more upbeat, I managed to complete the 2.5 hour queue.
A fellow queue member told me that the Mausoleum would close at 1pm today and there was no entrance fee. Double good news. As I approached the entrance, the air con hit me. Let me in quicker!! As I climbed 2 flights of stairs, there he was resting peacefully in a glass box in the centre of the room flanked by 2 officers in white on either side. Looking like an elderly gentlemen who was sleeping, I felt slightly saddened as I was previously told that Ho Chi Minh’s wish was to be cremated. However, since passing away in September 1969, being such an influential and revered leader, he is kept here instead.
Gently poked and guided to keep moving by officers all around, I must have been in the room for one minute at most before I exited the building.
I then wandered another kilometre to Huu Tiep Lake and the resting place of the Downed B-52 bomber. Navigating through narrow streets, not a single tourist in site, I found this to be rather amazing and wondered why no-one else was as keen as I was to see the B52 Lake.
Sticking out of the green, still lake was part of the B52 that was shot out of the sky in December 1972 where 2 out of 6 US “Imperialists” lost their lives. I tried but could see how much more of the plane laid beneath the water.
After taking in my calm, peaceful surroundings, I made my way back to my hotel 4 miles away to shower and pack my ruck sack ready for my next adventure. I was saddened to think I would be leaving Hanoi and this beautiful country which has so much experience and history to share with the world……