25.09.2013 - 29.09.2013 31 °C
Finally (three days later than planned) we landed in Ha Noi around 21:00. We had paid for our hotel to pick us up as we knew at the time of night we would struggle to figure it out ($18 but saved us the hassle) and about an hour later we arrived at Apple Hotel http://hanoiapplehotel.com/Room-Type.aspx?typeID=3. The hotel was fairly basic (looks a lot fancy on it's website then it is) but at £10 a night it did the job and had a great location in the heart of the Old Town.
We were up early for breakfast before setting off to explore the sights and smells of the Old Town. To say it's hectic is an understatement! It is a maze of narrow streets which are made narrower by the shops spilling out onto the pavement and then mopeds parking in front of that so you have no choice but to walk in the road and dodge the mopeds whizzing past you. The shops seemed to be grouped together depending on what they were selling, so you would have a clothes street, a toy street, a stationary street and even one that was an "industrial street" selling all sorts of mechanical parts - very strange! Everytime you walk past a shop they try and get you to buy something, picking a random item and saying "you buy? Make me happy"
We weaved our way through for a while before walking to Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake which sits in the centre of Ha Noi. It's not the most picturesque lake we have seen on our trip but there is a temple on a small island called Temple of the Jade Mountain which we visited for 15,000 VND (43p) each. The name of the lake means Lake of the Returned Sword, as legend has it a turtle stole the magic sword of the king while he was boating on the lake to return it to the Golden Turtle God from once it came. For this reason there is an embalmed Giant Turtle which is huge, easily 4 feet long and 2 feet wide inside the temple. Also on the lake is the small Turtle Tower which isn't visitable but pretty to see. From here we continued walking to the end of the lake and realised we were in the French Quarter. You could tell the difference, the streets were wider, the buildings bigger, more ornate and the shops more expensive (Louis Veitton being one of them). After stopping for coffee due to the rain, we continued exploring finding the Opera House and a street with lots of English book shops. That evening we ate at a great little restaurant called New Day just round the corner of the hotel, the food was fantastic and you could go into the kitchen to chose the dishes you wanted to eat if you liked. We hand spring rolls, a rice dish, noodle dish and two local beers (which are actually really good all around Viet Nam) and it came to 200,000 VND (£5.80) bargain and it was soooo nice. Bellies full it was time for bed.
We missed breakfast the next morning due to a lay-in whoops. We thought it was time for a bit of culture so I dragged Nick to the Women's Museum (again a bargain at 30,000 VND 80p each). The Museum was really good and interesting to compare the lives of Vietnamese women to our own. While we were starting to wear trousers more frequently in the 50's and 60's, Vietnamese laddies could only wear trousers by law until the 70's. Reading and seeing pictures of the daily routines for women through out the years was great too. Home life being the most important thing while still maintaining a job farming. The next floor down was about the Vietnam war (or American war as it's know here). Just lest then a decade after the second world war when our ladies had to really prove them selfs worthy of working in the factories. Vietnamese women were on the front line commanding troops and taking down US planes. Girls as young as 12 were joining the Guerilla's using large weapons and getting in the thick of it. Many of these ladies lost their lives but some went on to be high ranking military or political officers. While in the museum engrossed in reading an article I was suddenly the interest of a local tour group who were laughing at me. One of the ladies even came up to me and grabbed to pose for a photo with her! We decided it was either that I'm short or western but still aren't sure. After the Museum and another coffee break (coffee is really good here too) we went in search of a tour to Ha Long Bay. We knew that we wanted to do a trip during our time here but didn't know what kind of trip we wanted and it wasn't help by the fact there are hundreds of trips advertised everywhere in hotels, cafe shop and of course travel agents. We asked around getting some names and prices but when we researched further found really poor reviews. We called it quits for now hoping the hotel may be able to assist, but sadly they weren't much help either not seeming to care what you booked, as long as you booked something. As with Hong Kong the evenings came a life here. Once the shops were closed the food stalls took over, setting up in front of them shuttered shops, with tiny stools (not made for westerners) and amazing smelling food. You can't really go wrong with the street food here it all tastes great.
Our last full day we decided to visit another temple, The Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius and Vietnam's first national university (only 20,000 VND 58p each). This temple was a lot larger then the one on the lake and more impressive then anything we had seen so far. Again it centred largely around turtles but was mostly about teaching. With five temples, a beautiful garden, a fish pond and five courtyards it took quiet a while to go round everything.
The temple wasn't to far from Ho Chi Min's Mausoleum although we didn't really want to see his embalmed body we went to see the sight (as it turned out he was in russia having his annual maintenance anyway) and the One Pillar Pagoda. Emperor Lý Thái Tông was struggling to create a heir, in a dream he was handed a baby by the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara who was siting on a lotus, soon after the dream had a baby son and built the Pagoda as gratitude. Today couples come and visit the Pagoda if they want to have a baby, hence Nick and I stayed out.
It was now time to make a decision on a tour, so we used the trusty Lonely Planet and went to all the tour companies they suggested, luckily they were fairly close by. It wasn't until we cam to the last one that they had something a little different and less touristy. umming and ahhing yet again (as we seem to be rubbish at making a decisions) we went for it, not doing any of the usual Trip Advisor research and keeping our fingers crossed it would be good as it was the next. Happy we had something booked we went for food and then back to pack for our two night trip to Ha Long Bay.