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Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Conical hats and stampeding motorbikes.

After a week or so in the quiet and more tranquil northern part of Vietnam, we found ourselves suddenly being thrust into the buzzing and very loud capital of Hanoi. What a contrast! We arrived at the train station rather early, 5.30am to be exact. We hung around the station for a while trying to get our bearings, as well as deciding what to do. We knew that looking for a place to stay this early would be a waste of time, so we decided to get ourselves to the Old Quarter, and hang around in a cafe over a slow breakfast. At least that way, by the time we started looking for a place to stay, some others might be checking out, thus giving us the opportunity to check in.

It's in your face and it's very full on! This is how I would describe Hanoi! It's loud, it's buzzing, there are motorbikes and bicycles everywhere, and to a lesser degree cars, and the incessant honking (emanating from anything that moves) is simply part of the backdrop. Get used to it or get out! No sooner had we stepped out of the train station than we were being asked "Where you from? Where you go", by a multitude of xe om and cyclo drivers; the former is a motorbike that carries one passenger (xe means motorbike, and om means hug) and the latter a bicycle and carriage type number. We hurled a few "no thanks", and tried to scuttle away, but it was obviously falling on deaf ears as they were sticking around like the proverbial flies on faeces! Glare at them? Smile? Run? At this point, we had not quite mastered what we believed to be the best option, but "no" (said firmly, and said about five times seemed to help loosen their grip).

We tried to navigate our the Hanoi map in our Lonely Planet guide (sorry guys, I don't know what your cartographers are on sometimes!), which in combination with asking questions that we didn't understand the answers to, made it a rather difficult task to get into the centre of town. Having heard that Hanoi was Vietnam's "scam capital" however, ripped-off Rita was not about to become my middle name! A few eyeball rolls, a few more sighs, and we were off! What an experience! Yes, there were more motorbikes and cycles than cars, and they were everywhere! Crossing the road! Ah yes - don't look doubtful...just walk across. Believe me, somehow they get around you without creaming you! I was a bit skeptical of this at first, but we put it to the test, and it actually worked. Traffic lights. What are they? Oh, they are those three toned things that give the streets a bit of colour, right?

We actually ended up staying in Hanoi for almost two weeks. There were a few reasons. Primarily we had to organise an extension for our visa (which would expire on the 16th of October), secondly we also wanted to visit Halong Bay (a Vietnamese must-do), and finally and most importantly because we ended up at a brilliant hostel, which was run by some of the most delightful people we have met on our entire journey, where we also met some fantastic new friends. We did make it into the centre on the morning we arrived without being scammed, but we realised some after having breakfast in some random cafe (which proved to be excellent!), that the hunt for a place to sleep was not going to come easy!

Lots of people were offering rooms and prices, which didn't match; ie. that $6.00 room you were told about suddenly became $12.00 when you were shown. I was tired (literally) and my tongue definitely got the better of me as I gave a few people a verbal serve! When I went back to one of the places and told the woman that she needed to be honest with people, she told me that I was crazy! Geez, sticks and stones may break my bones! My humble reply was that I would rather be nuts than a liar! She wanted me out, but to be honest, I was quite happy with my captive audience of several tourists! My point had been made, and so yes, I was ready to exit! I can see that confrontation isn't their strong point here!

We ended up at Thu Giang Guesthouse, which was an absolute breath of fresh air. Very simple, very basic and very clean it was equipped with the most formidable hosts and workers we had come across in our entire trip, categorically! I must have been walking past, fuming, when the gorgeous Ly, asked us to step inside and gave us a cup of tea, on the house, and no strings attached. She told us that there were no rooms ready at that minute (it was now around 10.30am), and that we could either hang around and wait and take a look, or we could go and look at some other places she could recommend. As we wished, she politely said. What, no push or hard sell? In a nutshell, we ended up sitting down, and chatting to Hien and Ly for hours....and yes, we did stay in the hostel for our entire duration in Hanoi!

Thu Giang Guesthouse is owned by the affable Co (mum), Tao (dad), and their daughter Giang (after which the guesthouse is named). Ly and Hien work there, but they are so much more than workers. These people work as a family! These people care! These people look after you! These people are sincere, and above all these people are honest! Ca would even go and do our shopping for us as she could get cheaper prices, and sometimes she would not even accept payment! It is no secret that Vietnam's "tourist" prices are decidedly higher than the Vietnamese ones, and that you must bargain for absolutely everything. In no time at all, I was hugging and kissing these people like they were my own! Nothing was too big, too small or too difficult, and Alex and I will remember their love and sincerity for as long as we live. Oh, and they even organised a new visa for us. What more can one ask for?

The visa was obviously the first thing we had to organise, as we needed that in order to do the boat trip to Halong Bay. So our first few days in Hanoi were spent just taking it easy, catching up on e-mails, sleeping in, eating, walking around the famous old quarter (where we were also staying), and doing some touristy things too. Welcome to the place where the exotic chic of old Asia shakes hands with the modern and dynamic new one! A pumping place that is constantly swarming with motorbikes; in big streets, tiny streets, there is no escaping them! A cauldron of commerce that has your eyes gaping at every turn! Like it or lump it? This is Hanoi!

The old quarter is Hanoi's historic heart, and where much of the action takes place. It's the central nervous system of this pulsating city! You can get yourself some fine coffee, "bia hoi" (fresh beer, which at 2000 Dong a glass, or approximately 15 cents Australian, would leave a large chunk of men in "beer utopia" or "piss pots paradise") and walk around the various markets whilst people watching, which is in this area is amazing. Lots of conical hats (for which the Vietnamese are famous), people squatting and smells that form part of the "TMI" (too much information) category. Lots of shops selling everything from the lacquered plates and bowls for which the country is famous for, chopsticks and silk! Yes, it is information and product overload. Again, I say, welcome to Hanoi! For a bit of inner-city respite, there's the graceful Hoan Kiem Lake, which is only a stone throws away from the madness. A place to sit, relax, walk around or watch the locals doing a bit of exercise or tai chi around its shores. Also a great place to go running, which I did on a few occasions.

Hanoi has several museums and temples, and whilst we saw many of these temples, we picked only one museum, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, which gave a fascinating insight into the lives of the Vietnamese and its diverse tribal people. There are 54 officially recognised ethnic groups in Vietnam. It included an out door museum with some hill tribe houses constructed to scale. Another day was spent wandering around, but not going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. Views on this man vary greatly, but this place is the holiest of holies for many Vietnamese, and also an important place of pilgrimage, combining the secular and the spiritual. It's a huge area of greenery, containing parks, pagodas memorials and monuments. Unfortunately, we were unable to see His Highness, as he was in Russia having a face lift! On a serious note, the mausoleum is closed for about three months of every year, as Ho Chi Minh's embalmed corpse goes to Russia for maintenance!

A group of us also had a fun night out watching a water puppet show at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. As the name suggests, it's a puppet show in a pool. The origins of the ancient art of water puppetry (roi nuoc) have been widely debated, but it is thought to have originated in the Red River Delta, and when the rice paddies would flood, the villagers would entertain themselves with puppets. Our entertainment consisted of brightly painted wooden puppets gliding along the water (the puppeteers are hidden behind a screen and murky water). Some of the puppets are quite large and heavy, so there is considerable skill involved. The music and singing is provided by an on site band and singers, using traditional Vietnamese instruments. The snippets presented include pastoral scenes and Vietnamese legends. We met some people who were a little ho-hum about it, but hey, it's not meant to be a master performance of Aida! It's a cultural window into Vietnam's past! Taken from that angle, it could be one of the most fun "asides" you do in Vietnam.

We did a lot of hanging out with Andres from Spain, and Rama and Joyjoy from the USA. Fun and easy-going people they too were staying at Thu Giang Guesthouse. We also met, Corey from Australia here, as well as Wally from Ireland, David from the USA, Thierry from France and Celeste from Brazil! Truly an international contingent! Many a morning was spent lazing about, having one of Thu Giang's famous coffees, whilst munching on fresh bread rolls and cheese. That got us to at least midday! Then at nighttime, there were our trips off to the beer shacks, serving beer hoi , literally on plastic chairs (that by Aussie standards wouldn't seat anyone much older than a two year old!) on the curb outside, that would spill out onto the road. This is where Andres and I celebrated our "7oth" birthday! Sharing the same birthday, October 14th, I turned 3o and Andres 40. Oops, sorry, the other way around! Although not a beer drinker, these places are fun to hang out at and people watch. Amongst others we met in Hanoi, I also want to mention Jordan from Canada. Jordan, what a breath of fresh air to hear you voicing your sentiments with such voracity! Keep up that pace and don't let people cut you down! The world needs people with an opinion, because it's the voices that are heard that help shape the new world order!

No trip to Hanoi would be complete, without a trip to Halong Bay, a few hours north of Hanoi. The natural wonder that is Halong Bay is actually a bay of some 3000 or more islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin. With karst and limestone peaks jutting out from every which angle, it looks like the unfinished sculpture of some mythical giant. We had been told that although extremely touristy, it was well worth doing, and furthermore trying to organise a private trip would cost much more than the hundreds that were already on offer. We indeed found this to be the case. There were cheap tours, middle of the range tours, and expensive tours; the options were limitless. The competition is quite fierce actually, and sometimes unscrupulous. You need to look around, read the fine print and make sure you are going to get what they say you are going to get! We decided to go with a middle of the range tour through our guesthouse. They say that you get what you pay for, and I would have to agree. We had a lovely two night three day trip, although the food on the boat was sometimes on the "not enough" side.

It would be an early-ish start. We would be picked up from the guesthouse at 8.00am. The idea was to leave the big backpack in the guesthouse, and bring only a smaller one with us with the essentials. It's a good three hours or so to Halong City on the coast and north of Hanoi, which is where you actually pick up the tour from. When I saw the port, I almost passed out! It was full of boats of all different colours, styles and sizes and an international army of people. I wondered where we were all going to go? In no time at all, however, our group had made it onto a boat, and we were sailing out between the rock formations. There were a lot of boats out there, and we were so not alone! What can I say, the boat crew lacked personality and our tour guide was less than engaging, but it would take a lot to distract from the visual spectacular we were feasting our eyes on. Sitting on the top of the deck, I watched the formations roll by, and again, I felt so thankful to be alive and to be able to experience this. If "too many boats" was my biggest problem, what was actually my problem?

That afternoon we stopped to have a look inside a cave called Sung Sot Cave. It was also known as The Amazing Cave, our guide kept telling us repeatedly. Why was it called amazing? We would soon find out! It was quite a "domesticated" cave (as Andres described it) , with walkways and all, and both the stalactites as well as stalagmites were impressive. It was a huge cave actually, and quite well illuminated, although we could possibly have done without the Las Vegas style lighting, in hues of greens, reds and pinks. As we walked around and admired, we were finally steered towards the "amazing" part of the cave, a phalic looking rock lit up in shades of red and pink. Now, THAT is amazing!

We continued to enjoy the scenery as the boat made its way through all of the spectacular formations, and that night a calm spread over us as we slept on the boat. There is something about being out on the open water that is so beautiful. The second day of our three day trip was our favourite, as we had the opportunity to go kayaking amongst the rock formations. It was eerie, but in an astonishing kind of way. You have to love the fact that nobody had life jackets (nor were they offered) and that our guide could not swim. Seriously! They do not seem to have a problem with occupational health and safety here....it's simply non-existent! They have not made it a priority at all! Although I am a strong swimmer and a life guard, I just hoped that I would not have to use my skills.

Later that afternoon, we went to Cat Ba Island, the largest island in Halong Bay, where we would be spending the night in a hotel. Once we had left our stuff at the appropriate hotel, and had some lunch, those of us who wanted to were taken on a two hour trek with a local guide. Although not a long walk, the incline was rather steep and the views of the island and the surrounding sea were spectacular. The views, including the craggy and asperous peaks jutting out from the jungle-clad island were intoxicating! The next day mainly constituted getting back to Hanoi. I know that we had been part of it, but I could not help but be flabbergasted by the constant stream of people waiting to get onto their boat, and thus their tour.

The idea was to leave Hanoi the day after we arrived back from Halong Bay, but needless to say, that didn't happen. Andres was staying "another" night and Joyjoy and Rama were going to hang around. So, we took it easy, ate some more good food (thanks to Ly we found a place that made great "com chay", or vegetarian food), and psyched ourselves up to leave. Surely, we could not spend our entire time in Hanoi, although it was starting to look like we would. Finally, after almost two weeks (including Halong Bay) we decided to move on. Our last night was spent with the Thu Giang gang, including those who worked there, as well as those who were staying there. And could there possibly be a better finale than a night of karaoke? We all had a blast, and most of us had a go in both or either language. My Vietnamese, needless to say, leaves a lot to be desired! At one point Ly, Mai (another Thu Giang worker) and myself put on a bit of a floor show, moving and gyrating to some seriously corny songs. But that's half the fun! Always the show pony, I am ! Cannot help myself! Life is for living!

It was eventually time to move on, and I truly felt sad. These people had become my family, and this guesthouse my home. I had tears in my eyes as I hugged Tao and Ca, who even kissed me goodbye. Again tears welled up in my eyes as well as Giang's when we hugged goodbye. And finally it was time to hug Ly goodbye; Ly my Vietnamese little sister. We hugged tightly as we said goodbye, and by this point we both had tears rolling down our cheeks. I promised her that we would meet again! This is real travel! Not temples, not ruins, not mountains, but people! When I close my eyes and think about all the brilliant places I have visited in my life, it is invariably not a temple that I recall, but a person like Ly!

Ombi

Dedication: I would like to dedicate this to everyone at Thu Giang Guesthouse. To Ha for being a brilliant "mum". Thanks for your hugs, for being sincere and honest, for being so helpful, and for buying me tofu! To Tao (dad), for your smiles, friendliness and help. You showed us Tao that communication goes far beyond the spoken word. To Giang, for our wonderful, open conversations and of course your help. To Hien - you crazy, funny girl! Thanks for making me laugh and for always helping out. To Ly, my little Vietnamese sister. No task was too hard! You were patient and kind, and respectful, and for that you will always occupy a special place in my heart. And finally to one of the "unsung heroes", Lien. Lien, you spoke little English, but you always had a warm smile and touch. I know that we could not converse much, but I am sure that our hearts communicated. I want you to know how much I appreciated everything you did, from the coffees you made to cleaning our room. Thank you again to each and every on of you for showing us a magical part of Vietnam and its people! You are the jewels in Vietnam's crown!

"The guy who takes a chance, who walks the line between the known and unknown, who is unafraid of failure, will succeed." - Gordon Parks.

(Photos: 1.- The stampeding motorbikes of Hanoi. 2.- The conical hats which are a Vietnamese institution. 3.- Hanoi's old quarter. 4.- The....umm, Vietnamese flag! 5.- Incense and dragons, inside one of Hanoi's many temples. 6.- Ombi & (Co) Ha. 7.- Hoan Kiem Lake by night. 8.- Vietnamese dong, the country's currency. 9.- Water Puppet Show, Hanoi. 10.- Munching on some local food in one of Hanoi's many, tiny alley ways. L to R: Celeste, Andres, Joyjoy, Rama, Thierry and moi! 11.- Halong Bay. 12.- Halong Bay and its many visitors. 13.- Kayaking in Halong Bay. 14.- View of Halong Bay from Cat Ba Island. 15.- Sisters are doing it for themselves! L to R: Mai, Ombi & Ly. 16.- Saying goodbye to my little sister, Ly. 17.- The gang at Thu Giang, with (Co) Ha and (Thu) Tao in the centre.)

1 comment:

  1. Hanoi was very special indeed. With any great trip it's the people that matter and the people that stayed at the Thu Giang guest house made it the most memorable part of the trip for me. Was a great pleasure meeting you both and learning from your experiences.

    Love reading the blog. Take care.

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