Sunday, April 5, 2009

Northern Viet Nam, Hanoi

The taxi dropped me off at the Holiday Hotel where I planned to meet my third travel companion, April a friend from Washington state. Inside the hotel I gave my name which was supposed to be on our reservation. The front desk clerk pulled out a ratty notebook and opened it to a page with illegible writing and began pointing. Nothing at all resembled my or April's name. I tried to explain how my friend should already have arrived. He was confused and I was growing weary that we had somehow fallen victim to a common phenomenon in Viet Nam, especially Hanoi. Many businesses that do well soon find copy-cats pop up with similar names. There was a travel company that eventually had to change it's name completely because of all the copy-cats. I asked to use the email and pulled up our reservation, which he confirmed was the correct hotel. Thankfully because it was after 10pm and I wasn't looking forward to a city-wide search for April and the correct hotel. Finally, he pulled out another ledger and pointed to April's name. "Yes!" I screamed with relief. Soon after I was up in our room catching up with April.

Hanoi's streets are narrower than Saigon's. We stayed in the Old Quarter which is a mix of tourists and a large number of Vietnamese. Each street is named for the items the stores sell. Our favorite was bamboo street, selling poles for construction or other wares made of bamboo. We spent a day weaving ourselves through the Old Quarter's streets and markets and visiting Hoan Kiem Lake that sits in the center. I tried this woman's street snack made from tofu and a seasoned mystery meat.

In the late afternoon we walked over to the old "Hanoi Hilton", the name given by troops during the war. It housed POWs (including Sen. John McCain) during the war but was originally built by the French when Viet Nam was under their control. What remains today is part of the yellow wall with electrical wires and glass shards used to deter escapes the entrance gate that now leads to a museum. The rest was destroyed and the modern Hanoi Towers hotel and office building was built in its place.

One of the things I love most about Hanoi is the Bia Hoi places. These are similar to beer gardens in the west just with smaller tables and stools. They are scattered all around the city and are both large and small. At one intersection in the Old Quarter there are three that compete for patrons. People spill out onto the sidewalk, sitting on plastic stools and and drink endless mugs of bia hoi, a "fresh beer" that is brewed without preservatives. Many places also serve food and it's a wonderful social atmosphere. April, Todd and I sat along the street and I did my best placing a food order with the young waitresses who only spoke a few words of English. We ended up with a huge plate of grilled beef tips, fried noodles and not the best fresh spring rolls. Sitting street side put us front row for people watching. Occasionally a woman would come by wheeling her large scale, trying to entice us to step on to weigh ourselves. We watched motorbikes whiz by with men and woman dressed up for a Friday night out.

April and I had to leave our stools to catch the evening performance of water puppets. Water puppetry was started centuries ago in small northern villages. Farmers would put on puppet shows in the flooded rice fields. Today it's performed in a theatre with musicians playing traditional instruments to narrate the stories. Sorry, no pictures to show you though. We learned once we got inside that you had to buy a special ticket for photos!

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