Sunday, March 24th, 2013 – Hanoi

We do not know, precisely, where we were when the day began. It was somewhere south of Hanoi, that much is certain, but the inky black countryside through which we were passing at what seemed like a snail’s pace, gave no clues. We slumbered fitfully in our cupboard.

The real action for the day began in earnest just after four in the morning when the total lack of movement, (over some of the (presumably) rickety bridges we had been moving, but it had been all but imperceptible) and a cacophony of banging and shouting indicated we had arrived. According to the clock on David’s telephone, it appeared that, despite our really low rate of speed, we had actually got there early ! We stumbled out of our cupboard into a poorly lit railway yard and eventually, by following other passengers, we found the street.

There was a string of vocal taxi drivers and we succumbed to pleas of the fifth one in the line. After a night in the cupboard, walking through a big and very dark city with all of our luggage was the last thing we wanted to do. I had pre-booked a hotel and, when the taxi finally stopped, it was in a dark street where every doorway was covered by a closed, steel shutter. David said it looked like an alleyway where bad stuff happened in a “Spider Man” movie. To me it looked like Prague’s Holešovice market when everything is closed. We almost did not believe that there really was a hotel there, but it turned out there was. We woke up the night service and we were immediately let into our room. After a shower, we went to bed and slept.

A few hours later, our street was unrecognisable. It had become a seething mass of people. It was impossible to walk along the sidewalk, there was food for sale everywhere on the street, there were motorcycle repair shops, hotels, travel agencies, everything imaginable. Even our hotel looked better in daylight. Crazy, but just classic Vietnam.

David put on his “Good Morning Vietnam” T-shirt and we ate a quick breakfast in the tiny dining room. A tourist agent appeared at our table. She had obviously been informed by the receptionist that we wanted to go to Halong Bay and showered us with information. I suppose one of us must have let it slip that it was our plan when we were checking in. It must have been David, I cannot speak at five in the morning ! We finally got rid of her by saying that we must first find out what our friends wanted to do.

We set of through the hordes to find the Silk Path Hotel where our friends were staying. David, the motorcyclist, was amazed at the weight that some of the tiny mopeds could carry. We saw one, delivering beer, which had five kegs attached to it. A keg holds fifty litres of beer which weighs around fifty kilograms (excluding the weight of the keg). How the engine could even move it, never mind how the driver could balance it, was mystery. Just to think that, on our ride north, we had thought WE were overloaded !

To say that the Silk Path was a hotel of a higher category would be an unnecessary understatement. A location on a major street, marble everywhere, huge windows and a uniformed doorman tend to give these things away. We went through to the restaurant and did not find our friends. Then the receptionist told us that there was another restaurant, for breakfast, upstairs. We found them there, at a table that was about the size of the entire dining room in our hotel. It was strange to meet good friends, who only live a few kilometres from us in Prague, so very far from home.

Our friends had already been in Hanoi for a couple of days and were scheduled to leave again the next morning. We decided to spend the day together so, after breakfast, we all set off for a walk around the Hoàn Kiếm lake to the “Old Town”. On an island in the lake was a nice pagoda with a picturesque bridge leading to it and, on the bank, a prominent statue of a man who once lived in it.

With only a very vague trip plan, we wandered between the shops and chatted, ate a pho, stopped twice for coffee and and cooling drinks and took a lot of photos. Our friends had a far better camera than us, not the least because it did not have fo fit in a pocket !

We were in the old Town, but it was a bit confusing, because it did not really look any different from all the other parts of the city. It was a riot of scents (and smells !) and colour. The apparent chaos, all around, was staggering. Everything happens right there in the street, cooking, eating, buying, selling. At ground level, everything was a blur of movement but, higher up, the buildings were old and dilapidated. The whole place looked as if it had been bombed, which we supposed it had. It is easier to show with photos than it is to describe.

Some of the photos above were taken by our friends, as I mentioned, they had a much superior camera !

The revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh, is much revered and there were pictures of him, prominently displayed, everywhere.

The Vietnamese way with electrical distribution, in particular, is hair raising. I wondered how anyone ever knew where the wires came from and where they disappeared to. It was like a plate of electrical spaghetti.

Some of the old trees had drooping branches that seemed intent upon emulating the wiring !

After lunch, we returned to our hotels to gather our strength for the evening meal. On the way we spotted a large cathedral, which seemed a little strange in such a hard-line communist enclave.

David also spotted “naked” beer delivery moped. At least we could see how the suspension coped ! How it was balanced, however, remained a mystery !

Once back at our hotel, we took the opportunity to book a trip to Ha Long bay for the following two days, before taking a siesta.

In the evening we dined, it was far too upmarket to say “ate”, at a restaurant where our friends had already been before. They were on a different sort of trip to us, that was for sure ! It was a very high-quality experience, with culinary “tricks” like setting the food on fire. All the dishes were tasty, varied and excellent.

Then, with promises to see each other back in Prague, our friends returned to their marble palace and we returned to our alleyway. It had been a long day.