5th March 2012
The more observant of you will be wondering why this is titled Hanoi and not Ninh Binh. Well theres a story behind that!
The previous night we had boarded the night bus for Ninh Binh fully expecting to be awoken at 5am to disembark and then bleary eyed be collected by the hotel transport and whisked back to our accommodation for a few more hours sleep before setting off to see the sights.
Tania and I woke around 6am and as we passed the shops lining the road we squinted at the sign boards which usually show both the street address and the town/city. All of them said Ha Noi and it slowly dawned on us that we had missed our stop, or had not been awoken, and we were now in the capital of Vietnam. Exchanging horrified looks and some raised eyebrows we frantically thumbed our way through the LP Vietnam guide to discern as much information as we could before the bus finally stopped.
All too soon we reached the end of the line, some 7km outside the old town of Hanoi. We were unprepared to say the least – Hanoi was not on the agenda for 3 or 4 days, but here we were and we just had to deal with it. Descending from the bus we were immediately surrounded by taxi drivers offering to take us to their pet hotels. Its a situation we absolutely hate, besieged on all sides and dazed, confused and uninformed all this with 3 children to manage.
One driver, in possibly the smallest taxi we have ever seen, showed us the leaflet for Elizabeth Hotel in the old town and offered to take us there. Firstly we knew nothing of this hotel (its not in the guide) and secondly we could scarcely believe that the boot of the taxi would accommodate all of our rucksacks. Taking a chance we finally agreed and to his credit, the driver squeezed our bags into his meagre boot and we were off. Horn blaring and each and every opportunity we weaved through the crazy traffic, the driver kindly pointing out a road side vendor – “Dog” he said as the skinless head of a dog, fangs and all slid into view.
Welcome to Hanoi!
Twenty minutes later we pulled up outside a double fronted hotel in the shadow of an overpass and extricated ourselves from the miniature taxi and breached its portals. We were joyfully greeted by the ladies within and it seemed that the boys and girls instantly fell in love! They offered us a very pleasant room on the 3rd floor for a very reasonable price and we dumped our things and returned downstairs for breakfast – a most welcome bonus. After copious coffee and mini baguettes with jam (we passed on the cold fried eggs) we went back up to the room to unpack and settle in.
As is customary for us when we arrive in a new place we headed out into the city, armed with a map or two and started to get our bearings. The old town of Hanoi is relatively compact, but the actual streets are orientated somewhat differently to the map (which was confusing) and they also change name every few 100m. We stumbled across an old merchant meeting hall and popped in for a look…
Heading back into the busy streets we navigated our way through motorbike clogged pavements (they park them everywhere they can) to the lake in the centre of which stands a pagoda reached by a red painted wooden bridge. It was colourfully decorated, of that there was no doubt, but I found the temple to be uninspiring, but the island was tranquil and calm after the maniacal traffic and noise of the city.
We walked back around the lake to the west and found ourselves down toy street, and then along silk street, and jewellery street, sunglasses street – you name it, there seems to be a street selling it! Finding our way back to the hotel we ate an early dinner and then retired to bed.
6th March 2012
We spent some of the morning planning our itinerary for the rest of the trip, no mean feat as we tried to calculate earliest arrival dates in Thailand and where, after 30 days would we go next. Singapore would be too expensive to stay for a fortnight and so we arrived at the idea of returning to Kuala Lumpur to see our friends at Step Inn. One thing was certain, we were anxious to return home earlier than planned – Cambodia and Vietnam had not quite lived up to expectation, although there were definitely places that we had really enjoyed.
So, armed with the flight documentation I set off to the Singapore Airlines office to see what we could do about changing our return date. The kind lady searched and searched but the earliest available flight would not be until 2nd May, and it would be a day flight, rather than the night flight we had originally booked. Along the way I passed a large open area that was flooded with Brides and Grooms having their photos taken, a sight we were to see many times as we trekked around the city. These ones were having a break and a cup of tea!
On returning to the hotel we revised the itinerary and factoring in everything that we still wanted to do (Chiang Mai & Sukhothai) and our firm dates (Koh Samui) we planned our schedule so that we would return to Bangkok on 21st March and then go to Kuala Lumpur on 20th April before arriving in Singapore on 30th April. Phew!
Gathering the family we set off to the Water Puppet Theatre to see the show, picking up some spring rolls along the way to take the edge of our hunger. The Water Puppet shows started out in the villages as a form of entertainment. The puppeteers stand knee deep in water (originally rice paddies) behind a large pagoda with a screen, and the wooden painted puppets emerge from behind the screen are controlled by rods hidden under the water. They have moving parts including their hands, mouths and eyes, and they tell a series of stories to the accompaniment of a live traditional orchestra. We had seats on the front row, and we were expecting to get a little wet!!
Although we didn’t completely understand everything, it was a great spectacle and we thoroughly enjoyed the show. We didn’t get wet in case you were wondering.
We wandered back to the hotel and then relaxed for a few hours before the arrival of Tuan, a Vietnamese friend of one of our French friends. He and his wife were going to take us out to dinner during which we would plan some activities that we could do together – so that we could see another side of Hanoi from the perspective of a local.
They arrived and after introductions all round we jumped in a taxi for the entrée – some street food which surprisingly included chicken feet. We tried them, eaten with salt and lime, but it was definitely not our most favourite cuisine! We left the street behind and arrived at one of the oldest fish restaurants in Hanoi. We climbed very narrow and steep stairs to an upper floor. The tables were squashed in and every one was full of locals enjoying the food. The smell was amazing and we were soon joining in the feast.
The staff brought spirit burners and a frying pan. Into the pan went chunks of fish and various leaves and vegetables and noodles finished off with your preferred sauce – be it prawn, fish, or plain. You then let the food gently cook, all the time your tastebuds yearning to try. It was delicious, and the boys tucked in too – which is always a relief!
After dinner (for which we weren’t allow to pay) we walked and walked, around the lake to the south east side where there was an ice cream centre set in a courtyard behind the main street. It was full of locals on their scooters all there to eat and to see and be seen amongst the crowd. The exhaust fumes didn’t really add to the ice cream flavour though, but at least we got the chance to pay.
Leaving the crowd behind we walked some more, arriving at the theatre, a very grand building constructed by the French. We had to stop a while here as Tuan’s wife’s feet were very sore – we had walked several kilometres and she was wearing high heels. From there we wandered back to the hotel where we thanked them for a very good evening and bade them good night.
7th March 2012
Not much to report for today. We spent some time arranging flights for the last legs of our journey and Tania investigated just about every tour operator that plied the seas of Halong Bay to find a boat for us all for a reasonable price and a decent itinerary – it was hard, but eventually we booked onto the A-Class tours boat for 2 days and 1 night, leaving on 9th March.
The boys played games on the hotel PC and spent some time with the pretty girls that worked in the hotel. After which we walked to the cinema, some 2km south of the hotel to give the boys a treat. We watched Journey 2 starring the Rock and his pecs (if you’ve seen the film you’ll understand). It was entertaining enough with a decent eccentric performance from Michael Caine. On the way back we stopped for coffee and cake at a place just off the lake.
After dinner we headed off in search of our Bier Hoi place for some cheap, fresh beer. As we paused to get our bearings there was the sound of running feet and then “Oskar!” – “Brook!” We looked up to see Brook and Lavina and close behind Debs and John, the English family we had last seen in Hoi An. They had arrived that morning and were thinking about going to bed. With only a small twist of the arm they were persuaded to join us for one or two (or three or four or five)…
They were heading to Halong Bay the next day, but independently and planning to spend some time on Cat Ba, the largest island in the bay. We would, it transpired, return to Hanoi around the same time and would have an opportunity to spend some more time together. But for now it was Cheers! and Adieu!
8th March 2012 – International Womens Day
Tania wanted some pampering and who were we to argue given the nature of the day. The hotel gave her a spare voucher for a place not far away, and so whilst she unwound, I took Oskar, Luca and Mateo to Lenin Park to play on the climbing frames and swings and a little football which we had brought with us. It was a long walk, particularly as we went via Singapore Airlines to confirm the change of date. This, unsurprisingly, brought a lifting of all our spirits as we realised that we were now 2 weeks closer to going back home.
It began to drizzle a little as Tania and the rest of us parted company. We boys marched onwards and arrived at the park and paid our entrance fee. Its not really what I would call a park – yes there are trees and flowers and green bits, but there wasn’t any grass or open spaces for football. The equipment was mostly old fashioned and in need of some TLC and the fairground rides were mute and still, but gave the impression that when working they wouldn’t be that much more exciting.
The boys ran around and burned some energy, making the best of what was available. We found a tarmac area bedecked with badminton courts and adopted that as our football pitch. Local youngsters came and went, smiling at the boys and kicking the odd ball back that had strayed wide of its target. Midday came and went and breakfast was but a distant memory when our tummies told us it was time to find some food.
The LP guide mentioned a place to the west of the old town that did superb Italian (i.e. pizza) and so we left Lenin park, walked up past the train station and searched and searched. Either the restaurant in question was extremely well hidden, or it had vanished without a trace. Back towards the hotel with disappointed and hungry children in tow, we came to a Pizza place just around from Bier Hoi corner and we enjoyed some fairly good pizzas. We returned to our digs and the return of Tania.
As we were off to Halong Bay the following morning we made our selection of clothes to pack into Oskar’s rucksack and rearranged everything else into the other 4 to be left in the hotel storage. Then it was a simple dinner and bed with the anticipation of being pirates the next day on our very own ship.