Thursday, December 30, 2010

I heart Hanoi!

We flew into Hanoi without a plan other than a 3-night hotel reservation and a prebooked airport transfer. After traveling over 24 hours (drive from Stellenbosch to Cape Town, wait 3 hours in the airport, fly over 10 hours from Cape Town to Kuala Lumpur, wait 4 hours in the airport, then fly another 3 hours to Hanoi), I was definitely glad to have someone picking us up to take us straight to our hotel, although we landed early and had to wait for the driver to get to the airport. Then, when we tried to check into the hotel, we were told that due to construction noise we were being transferred to their sister property about 2 km away. They called a taxi and soon enough we were settled in to our room.

Although we did venture out to eat lunch or dinner (breakfast was included at the hotel), we basically stayed in our room for the first two days to work on our Southeast Asia itinerary. Based on our research, we quickly decided that one month isn't nearly enough time for exploring the region. We only had to pay $200 total to push back our flights from Bangkok to Kochi, India until 20FEB (originally 12JAN). With that big step taken, we were able to make some plans and start sightseeing.
My first impression of Hanoi (on the one hour/35 km drive from the airport) was just like any other Asian city -- sprawling, hectic, crowded, crazy traffic, hazy from air pollution. But I started to fall in love with the city after my first $1 bowl of pho in a simple restaurant about a 10 minute walk from our hotel. It was already dark when we ventured out for dinner that first night and initially we couldn’t sort out where we were on the map so had to return to the hotel to get better directions. We found the restaurant easily enough on the second try, after navigating the moped-jammed streets and sidewalks, and stepping around the locals sitting on tiny stools enjoying a drink or a snack.
Even after eating pricier bowls of pho at a popular chain restaurant and variations on the dish elsewhere, the taste of that first serving haunts me, to the point that we tried to eat lunch at the same restaurant on another occasion but sadly discovered it was already closed for the day.
Of course, Hanoi isn’t all about food, although it certainly is a great place to sample the whole range of Vietnamese cuisine. What actually put the city on my all-time favorites list is the people. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered more truly friendly and gracious people anywhere in the world. From the street vendors to the shopkeepers to the hoteliers and all the locals going about their day-to-day lives, everyone always seems to be smiling, laughing, sharing and engaging. This is in spite of their basic living conditions and long working hours with minimal pay and little to no time off. Here, everyone is more or less equal and there is a communal sense of family along with a mutual caring and respect for your neighbors.
eating Christmas Eve lunch with the hotel staff
I could go on and on about what I love about Hanoi, but hopefully my pictures will convey some of that feeling:
Hanoi Photos
TripAdvisor review of our hotel

Here are my random notes on the city:
  • Many Hanoi restaurants have a few tables on the 2nd floor balcony so you can watch the action on the street below while you eat. Just watch your head - the ceilings are often less than 6 ft high!
  • If you sit in one spot long enough, you could buy everything you need from the various roving street vendors (clothing, groceries, meals, books, baskets, toys, etc.).
  • Street corner karaoke!
  • Women carrying heavy baskets laden with food would often try to put the baskets on Greg’s or my shoulder so we could pose for a photo but then would expect a tip.
  • Every time I order duck at an Asian restaurant I’m disappointed because it’s served on the bone and is often chewy or is just not enjoyable to eat.
  • Our favorite meals were at restaurants NOT listed in the guidebooks!
  • We encountered fewer smokers in Hanoi than in other big Asian cities like Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul although cigarettes were cheap at less than $2 per pack.
  • Most people wear what I call “moto masks” which look like medical masks but are meant to prevent dirt from getting in the nose and mouth when driving. They come in a wide variety of designs, colors, prints, etc. and are very stylish!
  • We were often approached by people selling illegal copies of guidebooks and novels. After awhile I noticed it was always the same 20 or so titles. Asking price was usually around $6-8 but could negotiate down to $4 depending on the title. Quality was generally good.
  • A popular way to take an Old City tour is by “cyclo” or bike taxi. We would see caravans of cyclos 20+ long peddling tour groups around town!
  • Most entrance fees were only around $0.50 per person. The best seats at the water puppet shows were $3 per person.
  • Large grocery stores are hard to find but there are mini-marts everywhere selling all the basic necessities.
  • Beer prices varied from 15000-30000 VND ($0.65-$1.50) for local brews.
  • Most places in the tourist areas were festively decorated for Christmas even though there are few Christians in Vietnam.
  • There are coins in the Vietnamese currency but we never received a single one.
  • There is free wifi everywhere!

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