Day 1: Hanoi Kids & Hanoi Social Club

For our first morning in Hanoi, we arranged a city tour with Hanoi Kids – a group which organises free tours by university students. It’s a pretty good trade off, a tour for free English practice. It’s a wonder more cities don’t organise something like this, because it’s a great idea.

We were picked up from our hotel by two students, Lan and Quyen. They showed us round some of Hanoi’s sites – a temple, an ancient house, the lake, the temple of literature and a great Vietnamese restaurant where you order food from a menu, but it comes from all different street vendor like stalls. It was a really great way to become acquainted with the city. We particularly enjoyed it as it gave us the opportunity to hang out with some Vietnamese people and learn a bit more about Vietnamese life. If you read this Lan and Quyen – thank you!

The rest of the day we spent just wandering the streets and soaking up what the city had to offer. This included heading to a cafe which looks across a busy intersection and watching the crazy Hanoi traffic. The first time we had to cross that intersection as pedestrians we were freaking out, but by the end of our stay in Hanoi, we were walking across like locals.

In the evening, we headed to a cafe/dr called the Hanoi Social Club – where the influence of its Melbournian owner did not go unnoticed. It had a great vibe to it, served great cocktails and food that was fresh, healthy and distinctly non Vietnamese. There was a lot of vegetarian and vegan on the menu, not something you get a lot of in Vietnam. It was a welcome change as we were starting to get to the end of our tolerance for spring rolls, noodles and Vietnamese pancake.

The real treat of the night though was heading up to the rooftop bar at the Social Club to listed to some local music. It seemed to be the hang out for a lot of the Hanoi expats, the types you’d proabably see down Brunswick street or High street (northcobte) if you were in Melbourne. We sat around a fire and listened to a Canadian singer song writer, who played kind of Folk and comedy stuff on a banjolele (cross between a ukulele and a banjo). Zippy, as she called herself, had a lovely voice and was quite funny and charming. We didn’t stick around for the following acts, but it was definitely a night to remember.

Day 2: Museums Museums

The main activities for the day two in Hanoi were going to the Museum of Ethnology and the Muesum of Fine Art. The museum of Ethnology takes you through a number of exhibits on the 54 different ethnic groups in Vietnam – customs, religions, costume, housing etc. it was really interesting, as travelling to the main tourist areas in Vietnam, you don’t get too see a lot of this diverse culture. While the inside exhibits are great, it seems the main attraction is really outside, where full size replica houses from a number of the different groups have been built. You can go inside and walk through them. It’s quite fascinating.

Our next stop for the day, which was equally as interesting, was the Museum of fine art. This was a great display of Vietnamese art from as far back as about the 10th century, right through the contempory art of today. You could really see the european influence in some of the art, but then on the other hand, some was distinctly Asian in its style. Some of the more Vietnamese style art included lacquer and silk paintings – which are also both very different in style.

One thing that really struck me at the gallery, was just how much war has influenced these people. I would say it would have been depicted in one in every three pieces. You have to feel sorry for a country whose history is so intertwined with fighting and destruction. While the younger generations are beginning to move beyond this, it is clear thant for the older generations, time will probably never heal the wounds.

Lunch after their museum was very Vietnamese – Bun Cha. It’s hard to explain exactly what Bun Cha is. You get a bowl filled with some kind of sweetish, soupy sauce, grilled pork and little pork risole things. You then have a plate of cold vermecilli noodles, another of lettuce and herb leaves, a bowl of garlic and chilli and some spring rolls. We weren’t entirely sure what to do with all of it, but after watching the Vietnamese around us, it was clear pretty much anything goes. Dunk this, mix that, add some garlic to this etc. I get the impression this place is pretty well regarded by the Vietnamese. It’s really only just a step up from street food, as you don’t actually have to sit on the street, but the vibe is equally as old school. Defintely an experience.

Since we had a bit more time in Hanoi and no tours booked (we were a bit toured out), we had quite a bit of time just to chill. Hangning out in the hotel for a bit in the afternoon was a nice change of pace and definitely needed.

Day 3 and a Half: Hanoi Hilton

Day three in Hanoi, we were a little restricted in our choice of activities, as all the museums are closed on Mondays. I can hardly even remember what we did for most the day. I think maybe a lot of wandering round. We also picked up an original artwork by a Vietnamese artisit. As a wedding gift, Tina and Martin had said for us to buy an artwork on our travels. We ended up with a piece by a fairly famous lacquer artist is called Le Tuan Anh. The reason why we were able to afford his work was that this was not lacquer, nor his usual style. It was an interesting abstract on rice paper, using some materials used in lacquer paintings, but in a different way.

In the evening we went and saw a Vietnamese water puppet show. We were a little bit skeptical, as we’ve had some not som great experiences with traditional Asian performing arts (the one that stands out is kabuki in Japan, where at one point out of Tim, Tina, Martin and I, I was the one one awake). Despite this skepticism, we quite enjoyed it. The music was the highlight though, particularly seeing what the musicians could do with the ancient instruments. They were very talented.

Oh, I should also mention we went to the most amazing Indian restaurant for dinner (we also went on one of our earlier nights in Hano)i. I feel a bit bad saying this, but it was probably the best food we had in Vietnam. If you’re ever in Hanoi, definitely check out Namaste Indian restaurant.

Our final half day, before it was time to leave for Cambodia, we went to Hoa Lo prison or Hanoi Hilton as it became more commonly known as in the Vietnam war. The prison was built and used by the French during the French war and occupation. It was quite horrifying the conditions that the prisoners were kept in. It was later used by the Vietnamese to house American POWs. I can tell you now, the conditions were a lot better for the Americans in the Vietnam war than they were for the Vietnamese in the French war.

Our final stop in Hanoi was one last walk around the lake, where Tim was hoping to spot the famous giant Hoan Kiem turtle that apparently lives in its waters. It’s supposed be the same turtle from an ancient Vietnamese legend. That I’m not so sure about that,, but recent sightings have confirmed this giant turtle does actually exist. It’s said that it is very lucky to see the turtle. Sadly, we didn’t spot it. Sorry Timmy. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hoan_Kiem_turtle