My visa was running out, and it was time to leave Laos. I departed on an early morning flight bound for Hanoi. It was a beautiful day in Luang Prabang but after an hour’s flight I landed in rain and murk in Hanoi. It was cold.
I had bought a letter of introduction but had to queue for my visa. It was slow because of the volume of tourists entering. Outside the terminal, I searched for the express bus stop. There were signs for the buses but not that one. I eventually discovered it across the road from the terminal entrance!
In the old quarter, I walked to the hostel I’d booked. I found the street but the lane in which it was located was not on Google maps so it took me some time to find. Motorbikes and scooters were everywhere. I trusted they would avoid me. It was too early to check in, so I left my bags, had an egg coffee which was very rich and a speciality of Hanoi, and went walking.
It was Saturday so the streets around the Hoan Kiem lake were closed to traffic. Loud noise emanated from the traffic and music, and there were crowds of people. My senses struggled to adjust after the tranquility of Luang Prabang. I strolled along the lake to the other end where children were enjoying rides on miniature motorised vehicles in the empty street. My grandson would have loved it! My destination was the Vietnam Women’s Museum which displayed the diversity of women and their historic role in the family and society of the many ethnological groups around Vietnam. I spent two hours wandering around the floors of exhibits before returning to my hostel for a rest before that night’s street food tour.
The guide met me at the hostel. A French couple were also on the tour. We visited half a dozen places, and I disgraced myself by eating too much (again!). I hadn’t had lunch and was starving. Our first stop was for a delicious dish of grated green papaya served with meat, basil and fish sauce. Of all the dishes we tried that evening, this was my favourite. Fried spring roll, Vietnamese baguette with pate, noodle soup, rice pancakes and a dessert of sticky rice and ice cream followed. The French couple were amusing, and it was an entertaining evening. When I tried to find the food stalls the next day, they were nowhere to be seen but Hanoi streets are a jungle and I was probably not in the right ones.
I took my time the next day. After breakfast, I set off for the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I walked and walked. There was much to look at in the streets, especially the motor bikes. The number of people and variety of goods that could be transported on the back of a bike was incredible! I hadn’t looked at the map carefully enough and walked much further than necessary. There is only one entrance to the Mausoleum, and I emerged outside the enormous grounds as far from it as possible. The queue to visit stretched out of the complex and down the street. I decided I didn’t need to see the embalmed body of a dead person no matter how famous he was.
I walked on, this time aiming for the Ethnology Museum. The road I followed was long, noisy, and the pollution disgusting. I was not appreciating Hanoi. Feeling weary and sick from the traffic fumes, I reached the museum and spent some time inside looking at the exhibits from the different ethnic groups. In the gardens were examples of houses from each group. There was also a Water Puppet Theatre but if I stayed for a performance, I would not have been able to get to the Temple of Literature before it closed. Museums, like those in France, close on Mondays so I only had a day. Also in the grounds, was a modern building that had a well-presented exhibition of cultural artifacts from around the world.
Having had enough of walking in less than ideal conditions, I intended to catch a bus to the Temple of Literature. It went sailing past! I was at the wrong bus stop. I started walking again, but soon decided to cross the road and wait for a bus. Two ladies with some small children were also crossing, so I used them as a shield to traverse the busy street. (Small children sometimes have their uses!) That road was too much for me to manage on my own!
The Temple is dedicated to learning and Confucius in particular. There were several courtyards, leading to a High Temple. I wandered around, along with the crowds, until I decided I was hungry, exhausted and had had enough. I walked back to the hostel buying some sweet doughnuts from a vendor after some hard bargaining. Whilst I was searching for change, she removed some from the bag. I didn’t have the energy to argue. They were revolting and probably the cause of the ensuing stomach upset.
After a rest, I needed dinner. The cafe next door sold duck noodle soup and was famous in Hanoi. There was always a queue outside. However, it was also only open at lunchtime so I settled on noodle soup from another street stall. It was cheap but smelt strange. The day finished with a short walk by the lakefront where activity was in full swing.
The next day, I continued my meanderings around the city. From my hostel I headed to the Long Bien Bridge, passing an extensive market on the way. I hadn’t intended to cross the bridge, but this is what I did. It is long, spans two rivers and is used solely by two-wheeled vehicles and the train. The smog over the city was much in evidence. Between the rivers was a stretch of agricultural land although I wouldn’t have wanted to eat anything that grew there.
The pedestrian way had some gaps between the boards, and the railings looked unstable. There were some fruit vendors part way along. I went over on one side, did a loop around the houses and returned on the other.
Back in the city, I looked for the murals painted on the railway arches. They weren’t immediately evident, so I strolled instead to another large lake, stopping for coffee on the way. I thought I ordered an iced one, but they served a small brown one with a glass of brown water on the side. Vietnamese coffee was a puzzle!
I wandered around a small loop of the lake, sitting down for a rest in a quiet street. The murky water resembled boiling mud in places. On closer observation, I realised there were tons of catfish in the water. People fished there but I would not have wanted to try that fish!
I had another attempt at finding the murals, and this time was successful. They depicted historic scenes of old Hanoi and were close to a well-photographed spot where the train runs close to the houses twice a day. I wasn’t there at the right time though.
On the way back to my hostel, I bought a piece of banana loaf and enjoyed it with a cup of tea in my room whilst listening to the hammering and drilling from the building site next door. I forced myself out in the early evening to go to the Night Market and to find some dinner. The choice of cafes and restaurants is enormous, making decisions difficult. I boringly settled for another noodle soup. This one was far tastier than the previous night’s though and definitely smelt better! On the corner of my lane was a dessert stall which I had been told was also famous. I investigated. Next to me on my small plastic chair were two ladies who advised on what I should order. This famous dessert was fruit with jelly and yoghourt. It was a throwback to my childhood!