We arrived in Hanoi at 8:00 pm and at first blush, the traffic here seemed better than the other places we had visited. But, it was evening rather than the rush hour or mid-day, so we were curious to see how it would be the next day when we were out and about.
Our hotel gave us a list of tips for crossing the street:
- Be relaxed and confident
- Look two ways or keep your eyes on the drivers
- Keep the speed and walk slowly (sic)
- Never step back
We had booked a half-day Hanoi War Sites tour through Hanoi Free Tours by Foot and had received verification that we would be picked up at our hotel at 9 am for our tour. Unfortunately, the tour guide had not showed up by 9:15 so we decided to go out on our own.
Our first stop was Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum which was a half-hour walk from our hotel. The traffic still didn’t seem as bad as in Saigon but there were similarities. Walking on the sidewalks is virtually impossible because there are rows of motorbikes parked there. I tried walking between the rows and had visions of my “child-bearing hips” hitting one of them and knocking the whole line down like a stack of dominos. We opted for walking in the street instead. We found that the only challenge in crossing the street is that the cars don’t want to stop for you. Motorbikes will go around you. And, you need to keep moving because if you stop, it throws off the whole operation. The drivers here are either the best or worst in the world; I can’t decide which. They are constantly adjusting to what’s going on around them – other cars stopping in random places, people driving the wrong way down the street, vendors pulling carts in the middle of the road, you name it!
There were huge lines of people waiting to get into the mausoleum. At this point, my digestive system was rejecting the train food we had eaten and so I didn’t think I could manage a long line. And, cameras are not allowed inside. What’s the fun of visiting a place if you can’t take photographs? I took a couple of pictures of the exterior (the lines were moving by then) and we moved on. There was a list of do’s and don’ts posted. A young child tried climbing the fence. A guard sternly told him to knock it off!
The next stop was the Hanoi Hilton which was a prisoner of war camp that housed pilots during the Vietnam War. The actual place is called Hoa Lo Prison and was originally built by the French to house Vietnamese prisoners. Most of the displays related to the miserable conditions imposed by the French on their captives. The men were kept in stocks; the women’s cells did not have them. Of course, propaganda was quite apparent in the displays.
There was only one set of displays related to the Vietnam War. We found a set of pictures of John McCain who was “housed” here.
There were vignettes posted about some of the POWs. The ones highlighted were those that cooperated with Vietnamese; they were considered heroes to their captors. Recognize Jane Fonda in the bottom right-hand picture?
And pictures of a couple of guys you might recognize.
My favorite propaganda is below (read the last sentence):
There were plaques with the names of all of the Vietnamese that were prisoners at the prison.
By now it was lunch time so we walked back toward our hotel. We stopped to chat with an American couple from Pennsylvania that were trying to find the Hanoi Hilton. We were stopped by a group of older Vietnamese people that for some reason wanted to shake our hands. They were very friendly! We ended up at Dominos pizza for lunch. Yup, more good old American food. My tummy needed bland today. . .no local food for me.
And, since we were in a new city, it was time to find a place for a massage. We opted for foot massages at Van Xuan Massage (60 minutes for $6!). We were given a head/neck/shoulder AND foot massage for that price. What a deal.
We headed back to the hotel. Clayton wanted to get a haircut so one of the extremely helpful front desk guys at the hotel (Oriental Suites Hotel and Spa) walked us a few blocks over to a place that they recommended. He got a great $7 haircut. I think I will be getting one there tomorrow (same price for women’s cuts).
After some time catching up on my blog, we headed out for dinner and a cyclo ride. It’s touristy, but fun to do! Our hotel ordered a cyclo driver for us; instead of paying him directly, it would be added to our bill. I had read that you can expect to pay at least $10 for a ride; we paid $7. Have I mentioned how helpful the front desk people are at our hotel? They really do go above and beyond for their customers. I highly recommend this hotel both for its excellent location and excellent service.
Our driver, Sam, was a cheerful fellow. His motto? Don’t worry, be happy! He said it over and over again. He pedaled us around the old quarter and the French quarter. It was dusk and people were sitting along the streets drinking beer. Hanoi beer is the beer of choice here.
One of the highlights was the street art. Sam let us out to take some pictures. He suggested poses for us. He really had a wonderful personality; he made our tour very enjoyable. Across the street from the street art were some barbeque stands. What was on the menu? Dog. He said it is quite expensive, as is cat. Horrifying! Definitely a cultural difference.
I highly recommend taking a cyclo ride if you visit here. We squeezed into a cyclo together but it would probably have been a bit more comfortable if we had hired two. Two people in a single cyclo is a tight squeeze!
Today is a day for meandering with no set destination in mind. It’s what we like best about visiting a new city – getting a feel for what life is like in a foreign location. I wanted to see the infamous Metropole Hotel; a woman on our Angkor Wat tour highly recommended it.
We began our day with another delicious breakfast at the Oriental Suites Hotel & Spa. The restaurant serves a selection of Asian foods, fruits and pastries; you can order egg dishes, pancakes and other western foods off the menu.
I decided to try something new today – getting my hair cut by someone I couldn’t communicate with. Clayton had gotten his hair cut yesterday and the salon did such a great job that I decided to give it a try. I could either pay $7 here or $70 on the ship in a week or so. No brainer, right? And, if the haircut didn’t turn out, my hair grows super fast and I could get it recut in a couple of weeks. I was the first customer of the day and tried to explain to the stylist via hand signals that I wanted the exact same haircut and to trim about 3/4″ off. She wanted to trim my hair over my ears; I wanted to keep it the same. She cut it the way I wanted but was making faces at me to show that it wasn’t right; she needed to trim it above my ears in order for the lines of the haircut to blend. I agreed and she continued. She did a fantastic job; my hair looks great! Money well spent. If you are ever in Hanoi and need a haircut, go here (it is located one block over from Oriental Suites Hotel and Spa; 4A Dien Liet).
After the haircut we began our meandering for the day. We walked down narrow lanes that were lined with shops selling all types of food: fruits, vegetables, meat of all varieties (and I do mean all), fish, eels (still swimming in tanks) – you name it, we saw it. The meat is not refrigerated which is why we are always hesitant to try street food – you have no idea how the meat has been stored before being cooked.
We walked along Hoan Kiem Lake which his a lovely little lake right in the center of town. We saw quite a few tour groups today; perhaps a cruise ship is docked in Ha Long Bay. You could see long strings of cyclos pedaling groups of tourists. We sat on a bench along the lake and did some people-watching. An adorable Vietnamese girl came over to talk with us. She wanted to practice her English (she spoke it quite well). Her grandmother wants her to speak well enough that she can attend a foreign university (she is 12 right now). We had quite a long chat with her. She was very sweet.
Continuing our meander, we crossed the street and found a park where some kids were skateboarding. There was a stage; speakers and mics were being set up for some event there. We walked the length of the lake and then turned onto a side street that would take us to the Metropole. The Metropole is indeed lovely. There are a couple of older cars parked out front as well as a couple of rickshaws. The doormen are dressed in period costumes. It really is like stepping back in time. Very classy indeed.
We grabbed lunch and headed back to our hotel to pack and prepare for our journey to Hong Kong tomorrow.