Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Vietnam - Hanoi for Christmas

Our introduction to Vietnam was at the border when our train pulled in at around midnight and where we were herded off the train with our luggage into the border control room which doubles up as the ticket office, waiting room, staff canteen and duty free (closed).  There were around 60 of us on the train, mostly Chinese and Vietnamese with a sprinkling of westerners.

The ticket hall wasn't very big and there was no noticeable organisation to speak of.  There were lots of uniformed border guards, but none seemed to be assigned to any task in particular;  they were mostly sitting around chatting and smoking.  However, they seemed friendly enough, and helpful in a “one word and point” kind of way but the procedure was all a bit vague.  We definitely knew that we were no longer in China where although the masses of people give the impression of chaos, everything seems operates with military precision!

The procedure seemed to be that you first huddle in a group around the x-ray machine (situated rather inconveniently in one corner of the room), wrestle with your luggage to place it through said machine and squeeze past everyone else to get to the other end and retrieve your bags.  There was no queue and no-one seemed to be supervising the security side of things, and there didn't seem to be any way of knowing whether everyone had in fact put their stuff through.  People were turning up in dribs and drabs from the train and I’m sure you could have quite easily just plotted up without having your bags checked through security.

Passport control was slightly more organised because it was apparent they knew how many people were actually on the train and, therefore, how many passports they were supposed to be checking.  Everyone handed their passport at a counter and then just hung around waiting for the visas to be checked and stamped, logged onto the computer, and then dished out again.  At some point one of the uniformed guards wandered around the ticket hall shouting “passport” randomly as it turned out they were two short (so they were at least counting the passports and passengers).  Clearly you could not get around passport control as easily as you could security although you really need your arrival stamp otherwise you are in heaps of trouble when you try to leave the country.

Fighting our way through the streets of the Old Quarter
After about 45 minutes one of the Vietnamese border guards started to dish out the passports by calling each person’s name out individually.   The Vietnamese travellers received their passports first and this was done quickly and efficiently.  Chinese passports were handed out next but posed a bit of a problem as the border guard couldn’t read Chinese so he enlisted the help of one of the Chinese passengers. 

Finally, when it came to the westerners, there was a German bloke who provided assistance.  Following this rather haphazard  process we soon we all had our passports safely returned, and were back on the train, ready to settle down to sleep the rest of the way to Hanoi.   

Unfortunately we only had 5 hours left to travel/sleep and shortly before we pitched up at Gai Lam station at 5.30am (the station 5km east of Hanoi Old Quarter) the poor conductor had his work cut out for him waking all the sleepy passengers.  We could all have slept for a lot longer.  
Our second hotel room in Hanoi was huge
So we stepped off the train onto the dark streets rather bleary eyed.  We had arrived in Hanoi for Christmas.

We caught another overpriced cab (too tired to argue) to Hang Non Street where our hotel was located and, despite advertising a 24 hour reception no-one was up.  We suspected this would happen and we just hung around for 10 minutes until someone opened the door at just after 6.00am.  The streets were deserted and it was the first and only time we would experience this relative quiet in Hanoi.  Looking back, we think that Hanoi sleeps between 5am and 6am but otherwise the streets are always bustling for the other 23 hours of the day - pretty much the opposite of a cat.

We only stayed at the Liberty Hotel for one night as there was a mix up with our room.  I say a mix up, but what I really mean is that they double booked their balcony rooms and hoped we wouldn’t care too much and would settle for a rubbish room with a tiny window with charming view of a brick wall.  We obviously would only have been charged $13 instead of the higher rate but that was not the point – it was Christmas, we were staying in Hanoi for 5 days and we were happy to fork out a bit more for somewhere comfortable where we spend a bit of time.  We didn't really want to be cooped up in a small dark box.   This overbooking lark is a common ploy in Vietnam as we were to find out later on.
The view through our window
across the street
We are crap at causing a fuss and although they tried hard to persuade us to say promising another room would be available we decided to check out and find another hotel.  We could see each day being promised a better room and none materialising.

In fairness they were extremely apologetic and helpful to the end.  We found another hotel just around the corner on Bat Dan Street, and splashed out on an enormous room with a balcony.  Honestly the room was massive with a balcony from which we could view the carnage on the streets below, and the best bed ever.  After 3 months sleeping on Chinese beds (where you might as well be sleeping on the floor) this bed was sheer luxury and it was worth every single dong.  The balcony was great too and we spent a many a happy hour watching hundreds of near misses in the traffic on the streets below.

Which brings me to my next point that the driving in Hanoi, particularly the Old Quarter, is just complete chaos.  There are literally hundreds of scooters, motorbikes, bicycles, cars and taxis, along with the odd bus, squeezing through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter, but mainly it’s scooters and motorbikes.  There are just so many of them and they zoom around carrying up to 4 people,
Paul enjoying the view from the balcony and the
mayhem below
We came to the conclusion that anything with two wheels clearly wasn't bound by the usual rules of the road (however vague).  They fly through red lights with complete disregard for their own safety, the safety of their passenger(s) (often toddlers and babes in arms who bizarrely seem to be exempt from wearing a helmet), never mind the safety of anyone unfortunate to be in their path.  They zoom up the wrong side of the road (and on occasion, where available, the pavement), through the busy narrow streets which make up the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem District.  

As a pedestrian the constant sound of horns coming from all directions makes you almost spin out of control wondering where the next threat is coming from.  This all means you find yourself in a constant state of anxiety trying to wind through the traffic, parked scooters, street sellers and pavement cafés.  Despite all this, we loved Hanoi.
Scooters double parked on the
It wasn’t so bad watching this mayhem from the safety of our balcony two floors up but once you are at street level and you actually have to deal with it first hand (along with the constant noise of the engines and the horns), then it all becomes a tad stressful.  It is certainly not helped by the fact that there are no pavements.  Actually, that isn’t true because there are pavements but they are largely used as parking for the hundreds of scooters and motorbikes, and if there is any space between the parked bikes, this is usually taken up by a café or restaurant who set out the smallest tables and chairs you have ever laid eyes on in front of their various establishments and they are usually full of people having breakfast, lunch, dinner or just a snack between meals. 

If a pavement is free of parked vehicles or street cafés, then the chances are a scooter will treat it as part of the road.  You generally have no choice but to walk in the road and hope (pray) that all the vehicles will avoid you.  We like to think it is frowned up to mow down inexperienced westerners as it might be deemed bad for business but we’re really not so sure.

There is a constant stream of traffic, which weaves about miraculously avoiding all other traffic, and pedestrians who obviously have to risk their lives to just walk along the street, never mind cross over the other side, which obviously you do from time to time.  The constant beeping is enough to drive you insane.  

We watched with wonder when we saw local people crossing the road, particularly the fruit sellers with two baskets on each end of a pole balanced over their shoulders making them even more of a target;  they appear to move like ghosts gracefully through the mayhem, to arrive safely on the other side completely unscathed. It is a amazing to witness such skill and grace when you yourself are wandering around like a rabbit in the headlights.
Joining in the party at the hotel
And Hanoi is such an easy place to get lost.  The Old Quarter is lovely with its 36 streets which are all famous for particular merchandise.  For example, Hang Gai translates literally to Silk Street and all along Hang Gai are shops selling beautiful silk clothing.

Some shops are particularly (ridiculously) specialised and we spotted one selling only buttons and another only zips.  Thousands and thousands of buttons and zips and absolutely nothing else.

We expected to be constantly harassed in Hanoi.  Our research had warned us to watch out for scams, short changing and tour hard sells .  Indeed if you believe some accounts, the Vietnamese are only interested in money, ripping you off left right and centre, and scowling at you if you don’t fall for it.  As usual we kept an open mind and our experiences so far have not borne out this rather unfair description.  In Hanoi at least.

So far, we have not been overcharged and all the prices has been more than reasonable – Vietnamese coffee is sublime and averages out at 50p a cup, the beer is cheap (60-90p in restaurants and 40p from the shop).  We always check our change and so far we have been short changed once (surprisingly in a large store where we bought a memory card) but when challenged the shop assistance produced the 100,000 dong note without argument (we suspect from her handbag where she had hopefully stashed it - we certainly didn't hear the til open!). 

Apart from that one occasion we have been treated more than fairly, and with kindness.  Our experiences so far have found the Vietnamese to be lovely, laid back, and smiling comes easy to them.  The problem with our first hotel was notched up to experience as just one of those things you have to deal with, and not just in Vietnam.  And while you are constantly approached by various sellers but in Hanoi, a smile accompanied by a "No, thank you" usually elicits a smile in return and they move on to the next prospective customer.  We did not feel hassled in Hanoi although we were expecting to be. 

We spent lots of time just wandering around the streets of the Old Quarter and the area around Hoan Kiem Lake.  Although the weather was not brilliant, it felt much warmer than it had done in China and we enjoyed the fact we were not freezing the whole time.
Hanoi Cathedral all decked out
for Christmas
On our first morning, we found a local café which sold great coffee for about 50p.  Although finding a café in Hanoi is hardly a problem as it seems that every other shop is a café but finding a seat is more problematic as most are packed with locals.  We liked the first café we found, we were always able to get a seat (which were larger than the norm and therefore able to accommodate our western bottoms), and we were not ripped off.  We went back almost every day.

We also found a restaurant we liked and returned each night.  The food was delicious, the beer was cheap and the service was great.  The first night we bumped into Irene, one of our Chinese students from Yangshuo and she joined us for a while.  

We also met an Indian couple who live in Bangkok, taking a break in Vietnam and we got chatting to them.  They were lovely and great company.  They were in their 30s and had been married for 9 years but, as she was quick to point out with a wry smile that theirs was not a “love marriage”.  Although they met independently they were both quite traditional and were keen that their union be approved by their respective families.  He was from Mumbai and she was from Delhi and to begin with it was not deemed a good match but the once the parents met and got on, all the potential problems were overlooked and they went ahead and had a traditional Indian wedding. 

Nine years down the line, they still don’t have children (much to the chagrin of both sets of parents) and speaking to them it seems they don’t actually want children because they enjoy their lives too much.  She said they tell their respective parents “It’s all in God’s hands.  If we are meant to have children, God will bless us with children”.  She said this with a knowing grin and the implication was that God can’t do much if they religiously take precautions. 

They had previously in the UK, Europe and America, and now had good jobs in Bangkok.  They were clearly enjoying their lives as they were, and they really loved travelling.  They both felt that if they had children it would put a stop to all that, or at least curb it somewhat, and now in their mid to late 30s they seemed to have no intention of wanting to change their lifestyle.  I admired them for that.

Hoan Kiem Lake on a very misty day
She also smoked and drank beer, which they both agreed was quite unusual for an Indian women.  In particular, when she returned to Delhi to visit her family she said she had to be very careful about what was witnessed in public and she was reduced to buying her fags and booze from under the counter,  Her husband, hailing from a more liberal Mumbai, was clearly appalled that this was necessary in this day and age in modern India.  They were clearly a modern couple with traditional values and despite what she said in jest, obviously very much in love.  We never did get their names though.

They had  just returned from  Sapa, the mountainous region in the north west of Vietnam, and at this point we were still considering venturing out that way.  However, they warned us that it was beautiful but very cold.  We really didn’t want to head back into the cold and damp and although their photographs of rice terraces and amazing mountain scenery were stunning, their description of rain, mists and freezing temperatures persuaded us that it would be far too chilly and too much like hard work.  

He told us about one of the local vendors in Sapa who followed them around for a whole day trying to sell them souvenirs.  The Indian said the local people were very friendly and informative and this man had happily given them a lot of useful advice about the area.  Paul asked him whether they ended up buying anything from him and after a pause the Indian replied in his strongest comedy Indian accent “Of course not, we’re Indian” with a mischievous smile and a twinkle in his eye.  Comments like that were priceless.

As I said, we never did get each other's names but it was a great evening.

Life size figures depicting the treatment of
Vietnamese political prisoners by the French
As far as sightseeing went, there was not much we wanted to see in Hanoi but we decided to visit Hoa Lo Prison Museum, better known as the Hanoi Hilton. It was during our visit there that we realised that all the banners and posters everywhere around the city were to commemorate the American bombing offensive 40 years ago when the US spent about 12 days over Christmas bombing the north, mainly the capital, destroying whole streets and killing about 2000 citizens.  This is a war that it is still clearly in the memory of so many people still alive today.

The prison itself was built in about 1886 by the French and only a fraction of it remains.  Most of the information and exhibits are dedicated to the revolutionaries incarcerated, tortured or executed during the period of French rule, with just a passing mention of the fact that it was used in the Vietnam War (or the American War as it is referred to here).  Much is made of the appalling treatment of Vietnamese prisoners by the French and most of the museum space is dedicated to the use of the prison during this era.  This was interesting in itself because it gave us an idea of the country's troubled history before the Vietnam War.

There are only 2 or 3 rooms of exhibits devoted to the period the prison was used to detain American prisoners of war, and a couple of information videos which regurgitate propaganda films which were released during wartime featuring American prisoners providing interviews describing their good treatment by the Vietnamese, something which has of course since been vehemently denied.  

Exhibits on display included items of clothing (neatly ironed), utensils, card and board games, which were provided to the American prisoners once they were captured.  The accompanying literature explains how well the American soldiers were treated, citing the quality of the accommodation, clothing and food, along with various activities, games and hobbies which were available.  In fact, on the information film the narrator cites the nickname “Hanoi Hilton” as proof that the American prisoners were accommodated so well, that they likened their treatment to that they would receive in a hotel.  And I couldn't detect any trace of irony.

Mistreatment of US troops captured by the Vietnamese is still widely disputed by the authorities but it is an undeniable fact that this was a horrific war for all those involved and atrocities were committed by both sides.  Jim, the friend we met in China, is a Vietnam vet.  All he really had to say on the subject was that he was strong enough to deal with his time spent there and there were others weren’t.  He didn't say much else about his experience, just that he had returned to Vietnam since, but the unspoken implications hung heavily in the air.

During our time in Vietnam we will learn a lot about a war, the intricacies of which, previously neither of us knew that much about, particularly from the Vietnamese point of view.  As Paul has pointed out, the powerful Hollywood machine has ensured the American perspective has been widely covered.  This is a war still very much alive in the memory of all the people who were involved on both sides.  Vietnam has certainly come a long way since then and it seems that the majority of the people are looking forwards rather than back.

We weren't tempted to visit Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum although it is striking how many opportunities we have had to view pickled communist leaders (we resisted visiting Lenin and Mao as well). 

The rest of the time we were in Hanoi we just spent wandering about the streets.  We walked around Hoan Kiem Lake a couple of times and particularly enjoyed watching the bats flitting around at twilight but we like bat spotting wherever we are.  There never seems to a shortage.

On Christmas Eve we wandered down to the cathedral but the service was in French so we didn’t hang around.

When we returned to the hotel on Christmas Eve, there was a little party going on in the lobby, with techno music blaring and free beer being handed out.  At all other times, this little hotel was a respectable quiet place, with lovely polite staff and a relaxed atmosphere so it seemed a little out of character.  The party goers were Vietnamese from neighbouring shops (and a fellow guest who was French).  We joined in the festivities for an hour or so before making our excuses before things got out of hand! 

Christmas Day in Hanoi was low key, lazy and uneventful.  We didn’t venture out until late afternoon when we rather unimaginatively went to our usual restaurant (usual table, first floor balcony, watching the mayhem in the streets below) where we wished our fellow diners a Merry Christmas, but otherwise it was all a little subdued and by the following day, there wasn’t a Santa in sight.  This was as opposed to Christmas Eve where Santas abounded for a day!  Honestly you couldn't move for Santas in all shapes and sizes, in bars and restaurants, and tearing around on scooters.  They all disappeared as quickly as they had materialised, and all was back to normal by Boxing Day.

Hanoi was an ideal place to chill out over Christmas.  It is lovely city with a real buzz to it.  The weather could have been a little better but it was the rainy season so we just counted ourselves lucky we didn’t get drenched the whole time we were there.  The weather wasn’t predicted to improve very much in the coming days either and we were heading out to Halong Bay next to spend five days over New Year in a beach hut on Monkey Island, just off Cat Ba Island.  The most difficult task facing us would be how to stay awake long enough to see in the New Year.  I fear age is creeping up on us.  Either that, or we tend to hit the bar too early.

Hanoi was marred only by my experience when we returned from Halong Bay and I was forced to avail myself of the ladies toilets at Hanoi Bus Station.  I am not known to complain about toilet facilities and consider myself quite battle hardened in this regard;  my various trips to Goa stood me in good stead for the variable Asian bathroom amenities available, along with the horrendous state of festival toilets by the end of the weekend.  

Throughout our trip, facilities have ranged from excellent to suspect.  Beijing in particular springs to mind but more for its comedy value (if you were Paul anyway).  I had joined a queue for a public toilet near our hutong, only to find when I reached the head of the queue that there was just a row of eastern toilets with partitions of about 18 inches high between each, presumably so us girls could chat over the top while we were squatting.  I am pleased to report that I didn't turn tail and run out, mainly because I really needed to go. 

Paul was waiting for me outside and witnessed this.  He had guessed the nature of the facilities because once I had entered apparently everyone in the queue behind me was clamouring around the entrance, peering in, watching me have a pee.  He thought it was hilarious.  

I am proud to report that I steadfastly ignored all those around me, concentrated on the floor tiles, did what I had to do, then pulled up my jeans and gathered my self respect (what was left of it) and got out as quickly as I could.  It wasn't the worst place I had been by a long shot, I just wasn't expecting an audience. 

Hanoi Bus Station however was beyond words.  Before could got through the door marked with a ladies sign I was accosted by an elderly lavatory attendant who clearly wasn't allowing me access without payment of 2,000 dong (6p).  So I hobbled back upstairs (I was desperate), collected the requisite fee from Paul's wallet, and returned with the cash which I duly handed over.  I then stepped across the threshold, stopped in my tracks and just gawped.  It was a small rectangle room with a raised platform about 18 inches wide and about 12 inches off the ground around 3 sides.  On top of this were bricks arranged in pairs (which you presumablyplaced your feet on while you squatted and did your business).  However, there were no holes between the bricks, not even a gutter running anywhere, no visible drainage anywhere within the room, and absolutely no privacy.  On the floor there was a thin layer of what I naively assumed was water, and just inside to the right of the door was an old oil drum being fed by a hosepipe full to the brim of water which presumably was to wash your hands afterwards.

I tried not to look any closer or take in any more details.  I had no choice as I really needed to go (it was a 45 minute walk to the train station) and I told myself I had been in worst places hadn't I?  

The door was jammed open and although I was alone I felt quite exposed.  I didn't know where eaxactly I was supposed to squat, so I ended balancing somewhere on the ledge, and hurriedly did what I had to do (which thankfully was only a pee - this room really couldn't cater for anything else). I then pulled up my jeans but only a split second before a man popped his head round the door to use the "sink".  It was truly the worst toilet facilities I have ever had to avail myself of (and I have seen some ghastly places on my various trips to Goa, and Mongolia could do with brushing up on its facilities in some places).  

And to add insult to injury I had to pay for the privilege!  I couldn't quite believe it.  I was in shock for a while (and it takes quite a lot) and I really couldn't wait to find a tap and some soap to wash my hands properly, get out of my clothes and have a hot steaming shower.  Nowhere has made me feel like that before and I never want to feel like that again.  When I went back outside the bus station where Paul was waiting for me, I let out a breathe and realised I had been holding it all the time I was there.

Other than that, we loved Hanoi.


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