Courtesy of the 12-hour time difference, we’ve condensed 3 days into 2 — and with all we’ve done and seen so far, it feels as though we’ve packed several more days’ worth of experiences into just those 2! Jet lag is taking its toll as I type, but here are the highlights:
We travelled for 25 hours to get from our home in Guelph to our hotel in Hanoi. All went very smoothly and even the 15-hour flight from Toronto to Hong Kong aboard Cathay Pacific was very manageable. They served us Haagen-Dazs ice cream, so no complaints!
We arrived into Hanoi airport late morning on Wednesday February 8. It’s a brand new airport with a brand new bridge connecting it to the city. We love it when there is someone waiting for us with a sign with our name on it. In this case, seeing “The Rebecca Family” made us happy. The traffic into the city wasn’t as wild as we’d been expecting — until we turned the corner into the Old Quarter…Our hotel (“La Dolce Vita” – very Vietnamese) is right in the heart of the amazing chaos.
Our plan was to take a nap, shower, and explore the neighbourhood for the afternoon. The nap and shower happened, but exploration was minimal. Gen and Jonah just couldn’t get out of bed! They came outside for a few minutes and were too overwhelmed and exhausted to take another step. We tucked them back into bed and went in search of takeout. We found a place nearby called Gecko that served pizza (again – very Vietnamese) and brought it back to the hotel for them. We tried to encourage them to stay awake — it was funny watching them sit up out of bed for their turn at euchre, then lie back down while everyone else played — but in the end it was a losing battle. By 4:30pm they were asleep for the night.
I wasn’t ready to miss out on our first afternoon in the city, so I went to a hotel next door where I’d seen a sign for full body massages for $12. I was concerned I’d fall asleep — no danger of that! I was led into a rabbit warren of rooms in the back, told to undress (without the door closed), and met by a masseuse who literally got up on the table with me to work her magic, while muzak of “Desperado” and various old Chicago songs (the group, not the musical) played slightly too loudly in the background. She had amazingly strong hands and I felt like I’d had a workout by the end. Reminiscent of our Turkish bath house experience last spring, minus the steam. Glad I tried it.
Afterwards I walked down to the lake in the centre of the city. Walking here is an adventure, as the sidewalks are “side parks” as our guide today called them — completely full of scooters and street vendors, with no room for pedestrians. I felt I was taking my life in my hands walking on the road, but loved it at the same time. The place is truly teeming with life.
Tim and I dashed out for a quick supper at Highway 4 — a westernized, expat-oriented local place we’d read about and the hotel recommended. We ate spring rolls (mostly cabbage, coated in panko), garlic green beans and tiny spare ribs. Home at 6:50, asleep by 7pm! The kids slept 12+ hours each and we weren’t far behind them. We all awoke feeling much better.
Breakfast at the hotel was a pleasant surprise — eggs cooked to order, pork noodle soup, fried noodles, bacon, ham, watermelon, yogurt, various juices.
Our day had been planned by the tour company — we were only vaguely aware of the details, so we gladly just surrendered ourselves into the care of our driver and guides. In the morning we expected a “rural village tour.” It was more like a suburb, about 20 minutes outside of the city centre. We were given bicycles and we toured the town, visiting various temples and pagodas. We learned that a temple pays tribute to a family member or civilian dignitary, while a pagoda is a religious shrine (usually combining Buddhism with traditional local religions). Both were amazingly peaceful — like an oasis in the centre of an otherwise noisy, busy environment. Jonah loved that about them. We were also struck by the offerings on the altars. People bring whatever they have — including cans of Coke and beer, or boxes of cookies. We then visited an area similar to the Holland Marsh where rice paddies had been turned into flower and vegetable gardens — there are lots of flowers being grown here, mostly for offerings at shrines we were told. We biked through the market and marvelled at the large fish swimming in small bowls for sale. We ate lunch at the home of a local family — they showed us how to make pork spring rolls and fed us a terrific meal of noodles, vegetables, sweet sauce, fried pork, mint, coriander — and juicy pomelo wedges for dessert. We were more than ready for a nap when we got back to the hotel around 1pm.
Later in the afternoon we were met by a different guide — he was very dynamic and knowledgeable. When he told us he graduated near the top of his class at his university, where he studied tourism, we could understand why. We visited the Temple of Literature (a UNESCO World Heritage Site and shrine to education and knowledge), the central square (including the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh and the Canadian Embassy), then took a 45-minute rickshaw ride — a definite highlight. Each of us was pedalled by our own driver at a lovely slow pace around the city, while scooters and cars whizzed past us. It was oddly peaceful — like being in a slow motion movie while everything else was at regular speed. Then we walked around a market and enjoyed our guide’s commentary — he was a great source of insight as he is from the Old Quarter himself. He took us into a “tube house” that is basically an alley — we hadn’t realized that the apartments we could see are just the front of large complexes that extend up to 200m deep. He took us for pho (noodle soup) for supper — a delicious bargain at $1.50/bowl — then coffee and tea on tiny stools on the sidewalk.
This place is an amazing mixture of Asian and Western influences. Their history of colonialism and invasion is evident everywhere — Russian military outfits, communist symbols and propaganda speakers, French bakeries and architecture — blend with globalization (Aldo and Pandora and KFC) and traditional Vietnamese elements (although at times it’s hard to figure out what those are). There are no stop signs or traffic signals, yet people seem very relaxed about the chaos. To cross the road, you simply start moving forward slowly — don’t run, don’t stop, be predictable — and people avoid hitting you. The doormen at the hotel are there to carry your bags, but also to help you cross the street safely!
It’s been an incredible start — more “adventure” than “sabbatical” so far!