With us weary from a night on the sleeper train, being ripped off by a taxi driver with an overclocked meter didn’t exactly endear us to Hanoi. Our hostility hardly improved when we made it to the hotel on foot to find they didn’t have the twin room we’d reserved at the price we’d agreed. Fortunately, a bit of negotiation and a handshake later, we were settled into a ‘delux’ room within our budget, refreshed and set to take on the city, with even HBO on the television as a home comfort to return to at night.
The old quarter of the city is a confusing warren of congested streets filled with honking motorbikes, hostels with misleading names, and 101 places all claiming to be the Sinh Cafe, the most popular travel agent in Vietnam. Alongside the motorbikes, the streets are crammed full of stalls with tiny stools selling beer, and sometimes also offering self-cook BBQs (tasty, but watch the hot oil splashing!). There are also hostels and hotels everywhere – this is traveller central, if our being scammed on the journey in hadn’t already confirmed it.
We orientated ourselves in the typical way – by finding a geocache! It gave us a great tour of the lake at the heart of town, and some entertaining snaps of people posing for their wedding photos with the lake as a backdrop. We played ‘guess the genuine couple’; plenty of them seemed to be posing for magazine photoshoots instead. It also gave us a chance to take in the Cathedral, a huge old building with lovely stained glass, bringing back memories of churches back home.
The city is home to Vietnam’s ‘Temple of Literature’, a homage to academia and the country’s first university – the use of word ‘temple’ shows just how ubiquitous worship is as part of society, much like we found in India. The temple was constructed to following Confucius’ teachings (imported from China), and the Emperor made it the place to sit entrance exams to become a mandarin and join the civil service. In some years, up to 15,000 applied, but only five passed the final royal exam, set by the emperor himself. In an entertaining challenge which perhaps should be adopted back home, none of the letters in the Emperor’s name could be used when giving answers, as to do so would be disrespectful. Fortunately his name was usually quite short; ‘Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth Windsor’ might prove more of an obstacle!
While in town, we also picked up our visas for Laos (they were brilliantly efficient), and while waiting for them we did our first puzzle geocache, which involved us sitting next to a noisy and busy road by a lake desperately working out how to get some cats, dogs and a lion across a river without catastrophe ensuing. We succeeded, they survived, and the cache was a great distraction!
Our final night saw us take in high culture, in the form of Water Puppets. This traditional artform originated from villagers putting on performances during the seasonal flooding; it’s now descended to be just a pure tourist attraction, but was entertaining nonetheless, with the puppetmasters behind a bamboo screen, controlling their actors through poles and wires hidden underwater. Most memorable was the range of motions they were able to achieve, with puppets spinning, dragons diving under water and spitting water, and flaming processions of much of the cast along a hidden track.
Finally, as we were packing to leave for Ha Long Bay, we learnt a lesson that I never thought I’d have to acknowledge – follow your sister’s advice! We’d been staying at the Hanoi Emperor Hotel, which was slightly cheaper than the place Alison had recommended (and hence within our budget). However, as we received back our laundry things began to unravel, as it was dirtier than it had been when we sent it off. When we refused to pay, they were less than friendly let alone apologetic, resulting in us departing at 7am the next morning amid some raised voices and charming language, and a certainty for us that we will instead go to the Little Hanoi Hostel. Thanks Alison!