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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)

Charming Central Vietnam

sunny 25 °C

March 25-26, 2018
Hoi An, Vietnam

After our VietJet flight out of Ho Chi Minh city was delayed by several hours, we finally arrived in Da Nang at around 10:30 pm on March 24th. From there, a driver hired by our hotel in Hoi An was waiting to transport us the additional 45 minutes (south) to the hotel.
Hoi An is a former port city on the central coast of Vietnam, with several canals running through it. It is famous for its charming mix of architecture and for an ornate Japanese covered bridge over the river leading into the tourist district. Hoi An's Ancient Town area is accessible via numerous small bridges and is within easy walking distance (10 minutes) of our hotel.
The first morning in Hoi An we had a slow start at around 10am and did some self-directed wandering in search of breakfast. The weather was tolerably warm, but not stifling, which came as a welcome relief! The forecast for our two days in Hoi An predicted 25-27 degree Celsius temperatures and possibly a morning of rain. We have yet to see any rainfall since our arrival in Southeast Asia.
The area around our hotel was fairly quiet, but we somehow stumbled upon a cooking school that offered classes and food to order. Both of us chose a traditional Vietnamese meal: Cao Lau for me and Pho Bo (beef noodle soup) for Adam.
According to Wikipedia, with correct accents included, "Cao lầu is a regional Vietnamese dish made with noodles, pork, and local greens, that is found only in the town of Hội An, in the Quảng Nam Province of central Vietnam." The presentation was amazing and the food was filling and delicious.
Next, Adam rented a motorbike from Mike's Bikes over Whatsapp and they delivered it to our guesthouse in less than twenty minutes. It was nearly new and outfitted with a phone holder in front so we could use our phones for navigation.
I think I forgot to mention that in Saigon, we each picked up a Vietnamese sim card complete with unlimited data for only $8 USD each. Since then we've been able to use our Google maps, TripAdvisor, and other necessary travel apps without requiring WiFi everywhere we go. Just goes to show how overpriced our telecommunications are in Canada... but then again the population here is 3x that of our own, low population-density nation.
We headed out to An Bang Beach, the other major draw in Hoi An, aside from the Ancient Town district. It was lovely, with palm-fronded huts and beach loungers and seafood restaurants stretching out along the shoreline.
But it was so busy! People everywhere you looked and vendors weaving in and around to offer their various wares to the sun worshippers. We grabbed a spot a ways down and up from the busiest section of the beach, and ordered some of the cheapest things we could find on the overpriced beachfront restaurant menus, and a couple beers.
It was late in the day and people were slowly leaving the beach, making for a more relaxed atmosphere. A few dogs scampered in to investigate any snacks left behind by the vacating tourists.
Next up, a motorbike ride back to our end of town to wander the shops, historical buildings, and waterways of Hoi An ancient town.
90_IMG_8085.jpg There were numerous shops offering custom-made suits and clothes, leather shops with bags, shoes, belts and wallets, and all the art and souvenir shops you could ever want or need.
Lanterns hang from every tree, doorway, and bridges and give the ancient town a beautiful ambiance.
The storefronts here are nicely decorated and less congested than Ho Chi Minh or the market streets in Cambodia, for a slightly elevated shopping experience. A square leather laptop-style shoulder bag called my name and I bartered with the girl in the store, who originally wanted $110 USD, settling at $62. More than the cost of two nights' accommodation, but still worth it in my opinion! A few scarves and t-shirts for those waiting at home also found their way into my possession.
The streets and stores of the Ancient Town were simply packed with people after dark and so we opted to return to the guesthouse for a quick swim, beers, and an early night.
The next day we headed out of town to see the Mỹ Sơn Sanctuary. My Son is a cluster of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples constructed between the 4th and the 14th century AD by the kings of Champa. Like Angkor Wat in Cambodia, the temples are dedicated to the worship of the god Shiva.
Since we were travelling a fair distance on the bike, Adam looked for an alternate route that would save us from driving on busy commercial and industrial roads where the traffic is heavy (and dangerous). We pursued that for longer than we would care to admit before realizing that Google was trying to get us to drive through a river. Eventually, a nice local woman, Hang, stopped and offered us help. Apparently she had seen us looking lost, dropped her kid off at school, then came back to find us - still lost. Ha ha ha. She told us she used to work as a tour guide and now was a teacher. Her English was very good! She led us back through the town and out and up to the main route we'd originally hoped to avoid. Turns out there used to be a small path across the river but it had been washed out. So Google wasn't just trying to drown us/waste our afternoon after all.
We finally got to My Son in the later afternoon and spent about two hours walking through the expansive site. The temples were incredibly old, and many were still being restored. It was interesting to see the excavation and reconstruction process.

March 27-29, 2018
Hue, Vietnam

On the 27th, our next hotel in Hue sent a car to pick us up at 10am from Hoi An. The taxi would also serve as tour for the day and bring us back through Da Nang to see the Marble Mountains, across the Hai Van Pass to see some stunning mountain + ocean views, a quick stop at a former war bunker site, and lunch on the beach at Lang Co, finally arriving at our hotel in Hue around 4pm.

Our hotel in Hue was right on the river, and Adam hoped it might provide an opportunity for some fishing. IMG_8201.jpg
We walked around the tourist area after the sun set and had a light dinner, including a glass or two of white wine, selecting a Vietnamese wine made in Dalat. It wasn't very good as far as wine goes but it also didn't cost very much. No regrets.
Hue seemed very similar to Hoi An, though bigger, or Ho Chi Minh, though smaller, and by this point in the trip we both felt pretty comfortable in Vietnam's cities.
Enjoyed a few drinks back at the hotel on a bamboo platform overlooking the river, with bats flitting by, catching insects, and an occasional rat walking along the riverbank below us.
The temperature was lovely at around 25 degrees in the late evening. I'd had enough of plus-35 degree weather at that point so the change was more than welcome.
The next day we went for a walk through the town in search of a fishing supply store Adam had seen on Google. He did find it, and it was a bit like watching a kid in a candy store.
Adam tells me the rod and reel came in at less than half of our Canadian prices, and tools and lures maybe 10-20% of the prices back home. There was a small puppy at the fishing shop which kept me occupied while he picked out all his products.
Food options were great in Hue, a nice balance of Vietnamese and Western in case your palate craves some comfort food (like mine does at breakfast time).
Adam spent the balance of the day and night fishing and while it would be a better story if he caught anything, he didn't. At one point a young local teenager in a carved out boat came sliding along in the dark, using a flashlight to spotlight and scoop up numerous fish as we watched. In about 45 seconds he'd collected four or five fish and was out of sight, moving along the riverbank in the dark.
The next day we took the afternoon to visit the Hue Citadel and Imperial City. Hue was at one time the imperial capital of Vietnam, from approximately 1804-1853. The Citadel is a large square walled area on the Northern bank of the Perfume River, has a moat around it, and ten gates.
Inside the Citadel are numerous tombs and the Imperial City itself, where the King would have lived during this period.
It was a huge site to explore on foot, but we did our best. The walk to and from the Citadel to our hotel added another 4km of ground covered.
In the next post, we'll take our first train in Vietnam - an overnight to Ninh Binh, we'll stay in a bamboo hut, and see some magnificent inland limestone karsts and landscapes.

Posted by Casualodyssey 05:31 Archived in Vietnam Tagged coast shopping vietnam tourist central lantern scooter hue hoi an danang da nang Comments (0)

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