Hanoi Travel Blog

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I arrived in Hanoi the night of Tuesday, July 27.   My plan was to take the night train that night to Danang in central Vietnam, and then to catch a bus the next afternoon to Hoi An, which I had heard was a charming little town with a nice beach and great tailor shops. In Vietnam, however, you can’t buy a train ticket from anywhere other than the station you’re leaving from, so by the time I got to the train station all the sleeper cars were sold out.  They were sold out for the next night, too, so I made a quick decision to buy a “soft seat” ticket. If I can sleep sitting up in an airplane, I thought, I can sleep on a train, right?

After buying my ticket I went in search of dinner.  With the amount of baggage I was lugging, my range was limited.  I found a “Pho” (noodle soup) place nearby and sat down.  I asked the woman running the place for some noodle soup, which she brought, but she also brought dirty-looking rice, nasty chicken, oily greens, and a plate of unidentified meat.  I tried to explain that I hadn’t ordered any of that, but she pretended not to understand.  I didn’t eat any of it, and when she brought out a bill for 90,000 dong (about 6 dollars) I protested.  Six dollars is more than paid for any meal the entire trip, and even if I had ordered all the stuff she brought, it would have been way overpriced.  I eventually had to give in, because I don’t speak Vietnamese.  I wonder how many times a day she gets away with that.

I left the restaurant hungry and in a foul mood, and dragged my stuff back to the train station.  I spent my time until the train came fighting off men trying to “help” me.   When the train arrived, I climbed aboard with my bags, banging my shin hard against one of the metal steps in the process.  When I entered the car, everyone stared at me as I walked down the aisle, and not in a particularly friendly way.  Foreigners I guess don’t travel in that section.  I found my seat, which was terribly uncomfortable, and dirty.  I stood up, picked up my bags, and got off the train.  There was no way to get my money back, but I didn’t care.  If Hoi An were heaven on earth it wouldn’t have been worth sixteen hours on that train.

I took a cab to the Old Quarter and found a decent place to stay.  Immediately I felt much better about everything.  I was disappointed about Hoi An, but at least I got a good dose of small town charm in Luang Prabang.  And this way, I’d get to see Olive sooner.

The next morning I went to the mini-hotel Olive had picked out.  I knew she was looking forward to this place, because she’d been talking a lot about the room with the river view she’d reserved. When I got to the room I saw it did not have a river view after all.  None of the rooms at this hotel had a river view; in fact, there was no river nearby to have a view of.  Hoping Olive would be okay with it, I moved my stuff in anyway.  Despite missing the river view, it was a very nice place, with great mattresses, clean sheets, a fridge, a TV, a bathtub (!), and beautiful hardwood floors.  It’s a good thing I didn’t stay there at the beginning of my trip, or I would have been ruined for the $2 places.

Olive wasn’t getting in until later that day, so I went out to explore.  The Old Quarter is home to most of Hanoi’s guesthouses and mini-hotels, but it seems to be a center for locals as well.  I walked to the nearby lake (one of many in Hanoi) and sat down at a bench.  A Vietnamese girl, about my age, came over and asked if she could ask me some questions because she was studying English.  She sat down and we talked--well, mostly she talked--for about 45 minutes.  She was very chatty and her English was good.  She wrote out several words and asked me to pronounce them, and then she practices saying them.  She was especially curious about the habits of American college students.  Maybe that was her essay topic in English class this week.

When she left, I went back to the hotel and found Olive sitting in the lobby.  We hadn’t gotten to see much of each other in Singapore because of a big conference she had going at work, so we went to dinner to catch up.  Olive and I are well-matched as traveling companions.  Neither of us is a compulsive sight-seer, we’re both moderately adventurous when it comes to local food, and while we’re flexible, we have our limits, and those limits are about the same.

I thought I was pretty tough for surviving traffic in Bangkok, but Bangkok was just a warm up for Hanoi.  The first thing everyone notices about Hanoi is the constant honking.  There is never a moment of quiet on the streets.  The rule seems to be that you honk whenever something is in your way, which is all the time.  Since all the individual honks get lost in the crowd, they are ineffective for warning other vehicles or expressing anger at them.  I haven’t figured out what the point is.  Sometimes all the different horns create nice harmonies--maybe that’s it.

Most of the traffic in Hanoi is motorbikes, bicycles, and cyclos (bicycle carriages).  There are some larger vehicles such as buses and vans, but there are very few cars except taxis.  There are no traffic lights except on the biggest streets, so at intersections you have traffic moving in all directions at one.  Unlike in Bangkok, where pedestrians can at least seek refuge on the sidewalks, the sidewalks in Hanoi are not for walking on.  They are crowded with parked motorbikes, vendors, chicken cages, and plastic tables with tiny little stools where people sit and play cards or eat pho.  So you have to walk in the street.  The traffic will move around you, provided you move slowly and predictably.  The key is not to make any sudden changes of direction, a lesson I learned when I darted to the side to keep an old woman from spitting on my foot and a motorbike hit my arm.  No real harm done.

Crossing the street is the worst, because you have to step directly into oncoming traffic.  This requires a lot of trust in other people.  “I have no idea how this works!” Olive shouted the first time she saw traffic weaving around her.  Once or twice we lost our courage in the middle of crossing, and just stood there with our hands in the air.  The Vietnamese would honk at us in exasperation but avoided hitting us.

A couple of times when we were tired of walking we took rides in cyclos, which are small chairs on wheels pushed by men on bicycles.  We preferred cyclos to motorbikes, because they went slower.  Still, we still had our share of white-knuckle moments.  We did our best not to scream when our drivers would pull directly into oncoming traffic.  Keep your hands and feet inside the vehicle at all times, I thought to myself.  “So Hanoi has a certain charm,” said Olive during one of our first rides, trying to distract us from a bus heading straight at us.  “Yeah, the you’re about to die kind of charm,” I said.  From then on during tense moments we’d mutter, “Charming, charming.”

On Thursday we went to the Temple of Literature, a Confucian university in Hanoi that operated for something like 900 years.  It was a nice, peaceful place, and it didn’t take long to see it all.  When we left, we looked around outside for a cyclo to take us back to the Old Quarter.  While negotiating our fare, we encountered our first professional guilt-tripper, a guy who is basically paid by the drivers to stand there and say to foreigners, “You are very rich and he is very poor.  You should not argue about the money.”  You know, I’d prefer not to argue about the money too, but when your opening bid is twelve times what we paid on the way here, you’ve got a ways to go.

We also saw the Women’s Museum, which included a good bit of propaganda about how equal women are in Vietnam and also some good exhibits about the role women played in the Vietnam War, which they of course call the American War.  The best parts of the museum were the English signs, which appeared to have been translated to English using an internet translator.  My favorite line was about an ambush of American soldiers: “The women lured them into bags to sleep to wipe them out.”  There was also an exhibit about women imprisoned during the war, in which somebody had obviously thought the word for “jail” was “fail,” so throughout the entire display there were sentences about the women “failed” in such-and-such prison.

That night we went to see the water puppets theater.  I wish I understood the mechanism used to operate the puppets, but if there was any explanation given it was in Vietnamese.   The show was pretty funny--we couldn’t tell if that was intentional--and we giggled a lot at the dancing shoots of rice. Because we bought “first class” tickets we got tapes of the music, which I’m sure we’ll listen to…um, never.

And that was about it for us for important cultural sights and activities.  I had every intention of also going to the Revolutionary War Museum and maybe Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.  Olive said Ho was last on her priority list.  “He’s dead,” she said.  “He’s probably not much of a conversationalist and I don’t think we’re going to miss any action.”  She said she’d just tell everybody in Singapore that she saw him anyway.  But I’m not going to lie in my own travel journal: we did not see Ho.  We had more important things to do.  Like shop.

I had been intending to get a bunch of clothes tailor-made when I got to Hoi An, so I went to see what they could do in Hanoi instead.  The morning before Olive arrived I had found a tailor shop and ordered a couple of suits and a blouse.  I had picked out the suits from a catalogue, and the girl at the shop suggested making the suits out of a material called “taffeta.”  “Taffeta?” I asked.  “Are you sure that’s a good material for suits?”  She assured me that it was.  To be fair, though they called it taffeta it’s not at all what you or I imagine when we think of taffeta.  But I was still skeptical.

I went back the next day with Olive to see how the suits were coming along.  They had finished the skirts and the pants, and they were awful.  The skirts were much too short, wide and poofy, and nothing at all like the picture I had shown them.  “The concept is all wrong,” said Olive.  The pants were sort of low-riders, not at all the right style for a suit.  They said they could fix them.

We were not so confident in their abilities anymore, so to get some alterations done for Olive on some shirts she had brought to Hanoi with her, we went to a different tailor across the street.  We were going to get just those alterations, but I ended up ordering a long woolen coat and four blouses and Olive ordered two suits.  With Olive’s encouragement, I choose red for the coat.  “Are you really going to go to Macy’s and pay $300 for a red coat?” she asked.  “No, you’re going to pick something sensible like black or grey.  This is your chance.”  I used similar logic to convince her to get a pink linen suit.

When we went back to my tailor the next afternoon, things had not improved.  The skirts were still nothing like what I ordered and were beyond repair.  The salesgirl made only a weak attempt to convince me otherwise.  “It is not possible to make the style you want out of this material!” she said.  I reminded her that she had chosen the material over my concerns.  The pants had been given a higher waist, but this made them too short. They told me there was not enough material left to make them longer, and that this was my fault because I had wanted the waist changed.   As if it was better that they had made two mistakes instead of one.  I said I couldn’t take them like that, but that if they could fix them somehow I would still buy them.  Then they started to tell me that many people would think these pants were just fine, and that maybe I could just wear flat shoes with them (or hey, go barefoot).  When this didn’t convince me, they brought out the big guns: the suits didn’t look like the ones I had ordered because the model was thin and I was not!

At this Olive’s jaw dropped halfway to the floor, and I probably should have walked out, but I still felt some sort of obligation to the tailors since they had done so much work, even if it was very poor work.  I offered to buy the pants and jacket for $45 per suit (a reasonable price, since I later got much better suits made elsewhere with skirt, pants, and jacket for $55).  At this, the owner told me to get out.  I stuffed the blouse I had ordered into my bag (I was going to get something for my deposit) and left.  On my way out I said to the salesgirl, “Sorry for the trouble.”  She said, “No problem.”  But then she said, “Two years, no customer difficult as you.”

We went across the street to pick up Olive’s suits and my coat.  The coat was absolutely perfect.  Olive’s suits came out beautifully, too.  I liked them so much that I ordered four of my own: one light grey linen with skirt and pants, one light pink linen (like Olive’s) with skirt and pants, one black cotton with pants, and one charcoal wool with pants.  I also ordered four more shirts of various fabrics and colors.  I am going to have to get involved in mock trial competitions or something so that I’ll have an excuse to wear them.  Olive was so pleased with her suits that she ordered several more items, and we picked up all of our new clothes on our last day in Hanoi after returning from our Halong Bay and Sapa trips.  They needed a few alternations, but that’s to be expected, and in the end everything came out well.

When I tried on my pink linen suit, Olive said, “Babe, you look like Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde!”   Which gave me the idea of dressing up for the first day of class (or maybe for Halloween?) as Elle Woods.  I could get one of those fluffy pens and a stuffed dog.  So what do you think--lame or funny?  My main fear is that some people, namely professors, might not get it.  But everybody at HLS has to have seen Legally Blonde, right?

In total, the winter coat, the four suits, and the five shirts cost me under $350.  That’s like buying a coat and getting a business wardrobe for free.  Besides, when you spend money in another currency, it doesn’t really feel real.  The Vietnamese currency, by the way, is called the dong, which was the source of endless jokes for me and Olive.   I will spare you by not repeating them here.

On Friday morning, Olive and I woke up early to watch John Kerry’s speech.  We woke up a lot earlier than we had to, actually, because I calculated the time difference wrong (not between here and the East Coast, which might have been excusable, but between the East and West Coasts; I figured he’d speak at 7 on one coast and 10 on the other, but mixed up which coast was earlier).  Anyway, we thought he nailed it.  Of course the veteran stuff was laid on pretty thick, but that was to be expected.  Maybe Olive and I were more susceptible to it all, because you tend to be more patriotic when away from home.  “I’m about to cry,” Olive said, “and I’m not even American.”

When we went back to our hotel room on Friday for an afternoon rest, I opened up my bag to check my money and found $50 missing.  I knew exactly much was supposed to be there, because I had just cashed a travelers’ check at the airport and received exactly $98 from it.  As in Vientiane, the money was taken from my locked bag inside of my locked hotel room, and as in Vientiane, whoever took it tried to make it so that it wouldn’t be noticed by replacing the lock on the bag and by not taking all the money.  The five 10s from the middle of the fold were gone, but the $48 of fives and ones around the outside were still there.  Olive’s money was untouched, but she had only a few $100 bills whose absence would have been soon noticed.  It strikes me that it is not coincidence that in both cases, the money was taken on my last day at the hotels.  Most people probably wouldn’t notice the money gone until they were gone too.

Again I reported the theft to the front desk.  The receptionist first suggested that I’d spent the money, then that I’d lost it, and then that maybe I hadn’t really locked my bag after all.  As if it’s okay for them to steal my money as long as I forgot to lock the bag.  And of course, they’ve never had anything like this happen before.  I told them I’d be back in Hanoi at the end of the week and would report it to the police then.  This seemed to make them nervous, but in the end I decided it wasn’t worth my time.  I will write a note though to Lonely Planet and Let’s Go, which is probably more damaging than a police report.

I know what some of you are thinking -- doesn’t she ever learn?  Don’t these hotels have safes?  The “safe” at this hotel is a stack of envelopes in a drawer at the front desk, which is often left unattended.  It didn’t seem like a better system.  It also makes me nervous to carry it all with me, though I suppose I couldn’t really be doing worse.  It was pretty discouraging.  Not only is $50 a lot of money to a backpacker, but I hate having to feel suspicious of everybody.  My guidebook says that you’ll have a better time on your trip if you don’t go with the attitude that people are always trying to take advantage of you, and I agree with that advice, but sometimes it feels that way.

As I mentioned before, from Hanoi we took two excursions to Halong Bay and Sapa (to be covered in the next email), and so after we returned from them, we had one full day left in Hanoi.  The train let us off in Hanoi at 5 am, and since we were already up, we had the taxi take us to the lake near the Old Quarter, so that we could watch people doing their morning exercises around the lake and parks.  We saw several aerobics circles, consisting mostly of young women performing bouncy, jerky movements in unison to music.  Around the lake, an older crowd engaged in lower impact exercises--walking, stretching, tai chi, some kind of dance with fans--some in groups, but many people on their own.

At 6 we went to a café by the lake and ordered “Vietnamese coffee with a large amount of condensed milk,” as opposed to another item on the menu, “Vietnamese coffee with a small amount of condensed milk.”  Olive said if there had been a “medium amount” option it would have been like the Goldilocks story.  Vietnamese coffee is strong and thick, and we both liked it very much.  We were hoping they’d serve it in the traditional drippers, but although we ordered coffee in Vietnam many times, we never got drippers.  We sat with our bahn socola (sounds a lot like pain au chocolat, doesn’t it?) and our coffee, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere, until the café started blaring Barbie World, followed by the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys.  I guess that’s how the employees wake up so early.

We spent much of the rest of the day wrapping up business with our tailors, and we also fit in a massage.  The massage I thought was pretty good, but after I left I developed a sharp pain in my neck. Come on, you go to a massage to get the crick out of your neck, not to get it put in!  That night, Olive was pretty wiped out, so I went to dinner alone.  I splurged a little on some amazing gourmet spring rolls and Vietnamese beer.  You may be thinking, “But Paige doesn’t drink beer.”  I do now.  What can I say, Beer Lao was a gateway beer.  I may give up the habit when I come home; it's something about being really hot and thirsty, my near-constant state in Southeast Asia, that makes cold beer so great.
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photo by: mario26