Another Day Another Country – Vietnam

After a fairly short flight from Vientiane in Laos we arrived in Vietnam in the late afternoon of 17th January. I had been quite apprehensive about immigration procedures between SE Asian countries, but in reality the immigration officers at Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi barely looked at our passports before stamping them in and seemed generally quite bored with the whole process. We got the public bus from the airport into the city which was easy and cheap, then shouldered our backpacks for the 20 minute walk into the Old City and arrived at our Airbnb at about 6pm. Our digs were located right in the centre of the old quarter and looked to be on ‘pots and pans’ street, as every other shop had pavement displays of huge metal bowls, utensils and catering sized steel urns for cooking and heating water. The street was noisy, busy and chaotic and we worried we’d struggle to sleep, but luckily found that our apartment was located 2 floors up with good sound insulation!
The weather in Hanoi was pretty grey, drizzly from time to time and quite cold! It was a bit of a shock as we’d grown used to sunshine every day; we actually had to dig out our raincoats for the first time since North India!

View along the street from our second floor balcony. We had a kitchen area complete with microwave, electric hob and washing machine all on the balcony and open to the sky which felt rather odd!
One of the pots and pans shops. Would have loved to bring some of those massive bowls home.
Old women in traditional coolie hats wend their way in and out of the thousands of cars and bikes on the street selling foodstuffs like doughnuts and fruit.

Our Airbnb host, Phuong, suggested we go to the night market only a few hundred metres away. In Vietnam at the moment everything is being set up for the 2020 Tet Nguyen (New Year) celebrations, so the streets were full of lights flowers and street performers. Next year will be the “Year of the Mouse” so there were many mouse motifs, gold and red models and in one case real live mice for sale.

Dancing dragons on Phung Hung street which was lit with thousands of lanterns and decorated with many large potted almond trees just beginning to show pink blossom.
Gorgeous red and gold Chinese Lanterns for people to use to decorate their homes. I quite like the contrast between all that opulence and the prosaic everydayness of the scene at the bottom of the picture.
Wandering around the streets. Everyone in Hanoi seems to eat most of their meals at street stalls perched on the tiny plastic stools seen above. We also ate some of our meals in this way but it wasn’t easy for Paul to fold his long legs up and sit down comfortably enough to eat.

The following morning we were up bright and early to meet with our tour guide Giang (pronounced Zan) for our tour around the Old City. Giang was a very sweet university student who was able to give us lots of information about the old city and Vietnam in general. She also helped with purchase of a new SIM for the phone which was really helpful.

Giang in front of an artwork depicting the famous Long Bien bridge built by the French in 1902. It was made of coloured electrical cable and was brilliant!
The we went to see the real Long Bien bridge which was rusty and a bit disappointing. Mopeds streamed across continuously
The streets were full of kumquat and almond blossom trees with which the Vietnamese traditionally decorate their homes and businesses for the holiday. We saw lots of people carrying large trees on the backs of their mopeds which looked precarious – see below
On the main road as we were returning to the airport….
We visited a traditional Vietnamese house (which was a bit of a yawn) but this woman was making Banh Chung, a traditional rice cake made for the lunar New Year celebrations. Our kind Airbnb host gave us one, but as it needed to be boiled for 8 hour we ended up leaving it.
Eating Bun Cha at 74 Hang Quat, famous as being one of the best places in Hanoi to eat this delicious dish which consists of a warm, piquant, slightly sweet and spicy stock filled with onions and pieces of meat. With this you get cold cooked rice noodles and a big dish of fresh herbs and greens that you dip into the stock before eating. The stall has no inside space so you squat on tiny stools in a dingy back alley between buildings to eat. This, together with their hot crispy spring rolls fried over a gas burner on the street might well have been the best thing we have tasted for a while. Giang recommended the place to us and we also found out that the stall has 75% 5* reviews on TripAdviser.
Egg coffee is a speciality of Hanoi and was surprisingly delicious!

On our last evening we walked around Ho Hoan Kiem lake and looked around the temple in the centre before visiting the famous Hanoi Water Puppet Theatre.

Paul at entrance to gateway to the temple in the middle of the lake
Offerings in the form of amazing arrangements of flowers and fruit for Tet or the Lunar New Year at the temple
Hanoi’s famous Water Puppet Theatre
The puppets really do slosh around in a huge rectangular pool of water which is used to hide the rods that operate them. The operators also incorporate the water into their story telling and there is quite a bit of splashing! We didn’t understand much of the story which was very entertaining and colourful but really hard to capture pictures on the phone due to the strong contrasts in the lighting

We only had 3 nights in Hanoi and it went very quickly. On 20th January we got up quite early and shouldered our back packs once again to walk down to the minibus pickup point and catch the shuttle back to Hanoi airport. For the next part of our Vietnam journey, we opted for the 1 hour flight to the city of Da Nang and the nearby old town of Hoi An as this would save us a train journey of around 13 hours down the coast. Taking yet another flight is causing us some pangs of conscience in these days of global warming, but it’s a fact that the flight option can be so much easier, quicker and cheaper than booking a sleeper train or bus. However, after a couple of days exploring Hoi An we will then take a night train further south down the coast of Vietnam to the tourist city of Nha Trang. The Tet Nguyen celebrations kick off in earnest while we are there so we plan to hang around in the city for a few days and enjoy the festivities. Beyond Nha Trang we couldn’t get a train further south because they were all booked, presumably by people returning to work after the holiday. On 28th January we will catch a daytime bus from Nha Trang down to Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by most of the locals). It’s a 10 1/2 hour journey so we will definitely need some good audiobooks and a few yummy snacks and drinks that day!

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