Vietnam 1

Our flight took off a little late as there appeared to be so many BA flights stacked up before us, and surprisingly as UKIP had failed to deliver in the election, the nationalistic fervour of Air traffic control ensured that British planes pounded down the runway first before the foreigners.
The flight was a good one.  It was less than half full, so there were plenty of spare seats. The food was plentiful and of a reasonable quality that it all got scoffed. The inflight entertainment was mediocre to bad, the aircraft was so old (their new ones arrive the middle of 2015) that it must have been a decade ago that we have had to wait for a film to cycle through before you could watch it and sadly we had seen most of them. Sue watched Paddington, I watched 3/4 of The Hobbit before my system died.  On the good side, the 12 hrs seemed to whizz by with just annoying interludes to wake me up to eat or drink.
We appeared to be the only plane docked in at Hanoi Airport, yet the baggage seemed to take ages to appear and then ours, of course, was one of the last. Our journey through immigration with our passports already stamped with expensive visas, as supplied by the Vietnamese Embassy in London, went smoothly. As planned, we were met by our driver who I luckily spotted holding my nameplate in the air and we were soon heading off to our hotel. It had been a little worry as the hotel originally booked had been full and I had to accept another smaller Boutique hotel at a late stage. However, at least the transfer worked. The journey took quite a while and we were surprised to find that our hotel was situated in the old town and down such a narrow street that the car couldn’t get to it. I was impressed when we stopped,  the hotel porters were there to take our luggage from us and they wheeled it down the street. The La Beaute Hanoi Hotel is small and in a spot-on location for the sights and markets. Our room is at the top of the hotel and is so pretty that it makes up for the disappointing view of the ‘not so nice’ rooftops of Hanoi. The staff fell over to be friendly and helpful and made us feel at ease straight away (sound like a trip advisor review). We have air-con!

After a quick unpack and change into shorts etc. we had a quick look at the supplied map and decided to have a look at Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Hanoi and just a short stroll away. Experienced on the streets of Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur we were not surprised by the 10 million mopeds, a complete of road sense by all and choking road pollution. We gingerly made our way to the shores of the lake without too much mishap. The trick is when you decide to cross, do it, don’t stop, do it slowly and eye the opposition. Dare them to run you over and risk a multi-million western lawsuit and you will get there most times.

The lake is pretty and has a temple in the middle reached by a wooden bridge. You pay 30 000 Dong to cross it, and that equates to 90p in proper money. The views of the city from the temple are quite nice, though one couldn’t argue that Hanoi is a stunner. With the pace of development it will get there, but I guess being Napalmed by the Americans back to the stone-age was going to affect its looks. The Temple is a tribute to a 15C King by the name of Le he threw a golden sword into the lake and large turtles carry it around on their back from time to time. People have been looking for it for centuries, but only turtles appear to know where it is. Hence the turtle worshipping.

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We carried on around the lake and came across a modern statue of this past ruler. We sat in the heat and pondered for a while before moving onto the southern end of the lake and stopping for a couple of coconut drinks. They came supplied with straws and a long-handled spoon (not seen that before) and we gouged out some of the coconut flesh and ate it after sipping the cool milk, very sweet. We consulted our map while we drank and decided to find the local gaol.
Hoalo Prison wasn’t too far away and after another 30 000 Dongs, we entered. The French had built it, and during their control of it, were not very nice to the Vietnamese. The use of the guillotine was very popular. They must have been rubbish guards as, it seems plenty of inmates managed to escape, but in balance, they also stacked it as full as it could be. Ironically when the French were kicked out, afterwards the Vietnamese found it very handy in housing the downed American pilots during their little psat in the ’70s. They called it the Hanoi Hilton, a sign of the different treatment meted out to its inmates (so the locals say). It is a fascinating place to visit packed full of history and propaganda. I bought a hat in the souvenir shop.

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Eager for more history we next found St. Joseph’s Cathedral. A large impressive building that has not been used in many a decade and I guess will be left to fall to the ground sometime in the future, that’s what you get when political dogma rules the roost and a lack of Christians. Again, ironically outside the railings of the building was a wedding couple having their photo taken with the Cathedral as a backdrop.  I can’t work that one out.

We wandered our way back to the shores of the lake. Visited another temple with a 600-year-old poem carved into a large stone tablet that seemed to be solely about insurrection and politics, it looks like they have been practising for quite some time. The French and Americans should have boned up on their Vietnamese history before upsetting them. Making our way back through the traffic, we decided to have drinks on the balcony of a 6th story restaurant and watch the traffic mayhem below. We fund this so absorbing that we ordered more drinks and was promptly rewarded with a coming together of two heavy-laden mopeds and a scattering of goods over the carriageway below. Exciting stuff. Luckily no one was injured and the two combatants seemed to be stoical about it and helped each other right their vehicles and carefully place all the items back on their precarious perches. Oblivious of the continuing mayhem around.

We returned to the hotel and air-con. I had a shower and Sue had a nap, then she washed her hair. As we waited for it to dry I also had a little nap. I was woken from my slumber by a Skype call from David in Bulgaria, he and Genya had just returned from shopping at the market in Dryanova. We chatted for a while on an excellent connection (he sounded as I f he could have been in the next room) and then completed the call as the last strand of Sue’s hair crisped up.
All spruced up we braved the crowds and mopeds of Hanoi once again. It was now dark and there was no let-up in the hooting, peeping and put-put-put-belch of moped exhausts, though the riders did seem to be more confident in the dark as I am sure they were all travelling faster.
We found a restaurant on Hang Dao Road, which also happened to house the city’s night market at the weekends. We were the only diners in the restaurant, but it was early for the Asians to eat. Sue had chicken and I had Catfish and both went down well. Afterwards, we headed off down one side of the street market, determined to reach the end and return via the opposite side.  We did it, but we hadn’t considered how long the road was going to be. It was long, very long. Junction after junction was crossed with more twinkling bright lights and colourful stalls full of all sorts of necessary and unnecessary items. Some of which we looked at and thought about, and then left. We had a breath of hope that the market was coming to an end when we came across a folk group singing under a very large statue watched by an equally large crowd. We listened for a while, to Sue it sounded nice, to me it was as if a cat was being dragged across a metal dustbin, frantically trying to get some purchase with its claws, and that was just the musicians. The singer, pretty though she was, swayed rhythmically with a beat I couldn’t fathom and smiling, screeched her way through some folk tale or other. I guess the Americans heard a lot of this when they napalmed them in the ’70s.

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Several junctions further on we indeed find the last stall. It was selling remnants from the Battle of the Big Horn and Custer’s last stand (I think). Returning the way we came, avoiding the alley cat singing band we eventually returned to our starting point. The return was made easy as by now most of Hanoi had turned up and one just had to lift one’s feet off the ground to be swept along in a tide of humanity. Back at the hotel we packed our small bags for tomorrows overnight foray to Halong Bay before pressing the pillows.

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