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I Heart Hanoi

semi-overcast 24 °C

Getting There
The evening of April 6 we departed our cheery "Little Cat Ba" boutique hotel and caught a bus to the ferry port. On the winding cross-island highway, a blanket of ominous, sooty cloud rolled in. Ours was to be the second-last ferry of the evening, and we had a connecting bus to Hanoi to catch, so this was not ideal timing for inclement weather. We climbed off the bus and walked up to the ferry port as the wind started to pick up. We expected to have about 45 minutes to wait for the ferry to return to the port from its previous trip. It was delayed though, and the weather was not showing signs of improvement. Murmurs went through the crowd that our ferry would be cancelled once it arrived. Adam and I (or at least I) grew nervous that we would be stranded on Cat Ba for another night, and miss our connecting bus to Hanoi. Travellers continued to arrive at the port. By now, maybe 100 people were waiting. What was the capacity of the ferry again?

We had arrived early and so we held a spot relatively forward on the port building under the covered dock. It was very cold and windy, and the wind was blowing the rain in at us. We didn't dare to move back though. If the ferry was going, we were going to make sure to be on it. It was miserable to wait in the wet cold without knowing for sure if a ferry was coming or if it would be leaving again once it arrived.
After over an hour of waiting, our ferry boat finally appeared in the distance. The group cheered. It pulled in and unloaded its human cargo, and since no one had yet delivered us news of cancellation, we boarded and tried to find a relatively dry spot to make the journey across. By now there were far more people than room on the ferry, but that was not our problem. We departed. The ferry trip was 90 minutes instead of 70 due to the rough water, but we made it! Disembarking however, we discovered a new problem: no bus was waiting for us.

Weary, cold, and stressed, we and the other ferrygoers waited for some time for the past-due bus to show. It was now pitch dark and getting colder. Some of our fellow travellers had opened a bottle of something in an attempt to either warm up or make the wait more enjoyable. Time dragged on and most of us improvised bathrooms in bushes or behind nearby buildings (I was very happy to have had a headlamp handy)! Presumably all of us were travelling onward to Hanoi, so we started strategizing about finding our own way to Hanoi. A few girls were chatting to a man who had a small van and was willing to take 5 or 6 people for a fee. This was briefly enticing, although we realized at least half the space in the car would be taken up by baggage. Plus, we had already paid for a seat on the absent bus. The enterprising amateur taxi drivers were in for a disappointment as finally, a wide-set pair of headlights sparkled from down the road. It was our bus! Cue another, slightly intoxicated, cheer from the group! One girl in particular was so overjoyed, she turned on a speaker blasting "Africa" by Toto (always a crowd-pleaser) and danced her way onto the bus. She even hugged the driver. He was a good sport and seemed to enjoy our celebratory spirit.

I will always remember the relief at climbing onto the warm, comfortable bus and the happiness of leaving the storm behind as we headed into Hanoi. We pulled into town around midnight. It had been seven hours of travel from Cat Ba. It was supposed to take three.

Our Hanoi hotel was nothing to write home about (wait, is this a contradiction then?) and I had only booked it that afternoon from our patio on Cat Ba. With two nights in Hanoi, a comfy bed was the only hotel must-have. Our building was one of the many starkly modern, narrow, high-rise style hotels that seem so common in Vietnam.
Our room was a postage stamp without windows. A fire would have been...problematic.

The itinerary was fairly open for Hanoi as we had originally planned to travel north to Sapa during this time, but changed our minds. We started out with a nice breakfast on a balcony overlooking a busy residential street. While sipping a fabulous coffee, a child drove by (like down the actual street) in one of those powered miniature kids cars. I think it was a mini Escalade. The motorbikes stayed out of his way. Later we figured out there was a place nearby that was renting rides out. At the time though, it was very funny.

We dropped off our laundry with a laundry service and wandered through the Old Quarter. This neighborhood is sometimes referred to as the "Old 36 Streets" although there are more than 36 of them. The name refers to the original 36 guilds or villages that produced, sold, and traded goods there in the late 13th century. Each street housed inhabitants from different villages. The streets were named for what they sold: bamboo street, silk street, tinsmith street. The Old Quarter has so many shops, restaurants, and markets to explore. This area also really took the prize for "most overloaded motorbikes" in my opinion ... and that is really saying something.

Hanoi was pleasant to stroll through with its large parks and historic sites. We visited St. Joseph's Cathedral and spent time walking alongside Hoan Kiem lake in the afternoon and again in the evening. It was Saturday night, and luckily for us, traffic is banned along the lake from Friday to Sunday. There's a fun, fair-grounds feel to the park in the evening. Hanoi's young people seemed to flock to the park with hacky sack games, breakdancing, couples taking romantic walks or using selfie sticks, and adorably, bringing their small pet cats and dogs and carrying them around in their arms (for some reason).

Hoan Kiem means "Lake of the Returned Sword". Legend has it that in the mid-15th century, heaven sent Emperor Le Loi a magical sword, which he used to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After the war, a giant golden turtle grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of this lake to restore the sword to its divine owners, inspiring its name. (taken in part from Lonely Planet)

Hanoi definitely has a more cosmopolitan vibe than Ho Chi Minh City. It was a nice place to spend a couple days. We didn't see all of the popular attractions in Hanoi, like the water puppet theatre, as we just wanted to experience what we could on foot and leave our days here relatively unstructured (I know, how unlike me!)


Posted by Casualodyssey 12:39 Archived in Vietnam Tagged people night market shopping cuisine old tourist hanoi quarter Comments (0)

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