Alex is here!

A short while after my previous post Alex came through customs, tired but excited to see me. I was very excited to finally see her and very relieved that she made it through three flights and four airports without running into any problems. I had arranged an airport pickup with the Hanoi Guesthouse who were there with Alex’s name of a piece of paper waiting to take us back. We arrived back in Hanoi and we unpacked Alex’s stuff, she showered, changed and we headed into Hanoi in the late afternoon so that I could show her around the old quarter. We immediately went for a light meal at Cafe Sago as we were both starving and walked around stopping off at a few bars including I-Box, and the City View cafe which is in the same building as Legend beer but on the 5th floor and has great views overlooking Hoan Kiem lake. My plan for the evening was that we’d go for dinner at the mock meat restaurant so we wandered in that direction however due to our late lunch at Sago neither of us were hungry. We walked past the mock meat place and saw that it was open until 11pm, it was only 9pm at the time so we went nearby for a couple of drinks. We returned at 10pm for some food to find that they were closing early. By now it was pretty late to get food in Hanoi and I knew from experience that if we didn’t find something quickly everywhere would be closed. We opted for Tandoor and Indian restaurant nearby that I’d been with Tom and Craig that served some surprisingly good quality Indian food and had a good vegetarian selection. I have to admit that coming from Birmingham where a good curry is always nearby and where in the last year I have made some really good curries, I have really missed a good curry partly because in Vietnam the food is often quite simple with quite a bland taste compared to what I’m used to. This isn’t really a criticism of Vietnamese food but is more down to the fact that, as a vegetarian, there isn’t a lot of choice for me! Anyway so we ended up at Tandoor, not really a good introduction to Vietnamese food for Alex but it was a very good meal. After food I introduced Alex to the joys of Bia Hoi at our favourite street bar and we had a few beers each for about 30p in total and eventually headed home. It was great to see Alex and although we had been in touch so knew the broader details of what each other had been up to it was great to catch up and compare our experiences of the last three weeks.

The next day I let Alex sleep in a little as she was quite jet lagged and, after the flight, needed to catch up on some sleep. We eventually staggered (I walked, Alex staggered as she was jet lagged and still behind on sleep) out of our room at midday and caught a taxi to teh army museum. I had been before with Tom and Craig but because we got there really late we had missed everything to do with the America Vietnam war apart from the captured planes and helicopters outside. It was great to see the rest of the museum as although the Viet Minh’s campaign against French occupation was interesting it is not something I really know much about, or didn’t before visiting the museum! Anyway we took the museum really slowly as the heat was really getting to Alex and she was also still very tired. After the museum we headed over to the very nice but expensive cafe in the mueum grounds for a drink and a relax before finding a taxi back into the old quarter of Hanoi. After a drink we wandered out of the museum and on the way one of the motorbike taxi guys saw us taking photos of each other infront of a MiG and offered to take a picture of both of us. We posed for the photo said thanks and wandered out of the museum to look for a taxi. Of course by now it was rush hour so a taxi was both very hard to find and not particularly convenient as at rush hour they have a lot of problems getting down the narrow streets of the old quarter. After about 5 minutes of looking for a empty taxi and failing the same motorbike taxi guy drove over and offered us a lift. We refused but after another couple of minutes without any luck on the taxi front we gave in, haggled down to a reasonable price and jumped on. Normally I avoid motorbikes wherever humanly possible but it being rush hour and due to the fact that he said he’d take both of us on the same bike it seemed like a good way for Alex to experience a motorbike taxi. Sure enough due to the rush hour traffic the motorbike didn’t make it above bicycle speeds and we made it to our destination in about 5 minutes. Our destination was Fanny Ice cream a french ice cream parlour that sells ice cream in loads of flavours that would challenge even Australian ice cream in Amsterdam! (anyone who lived with me in Amsterdam would know that this is very high praise from me). Amongst all the usual flavours was sticky green rice which is actualy very tasty. After ice cream we sat by the lake for a while watching the people of Hanoi go by before heading over to I-Box for some half priced and therefore affordable happy hour beers. The staff at I-Box have a habit of putting free snacks in front of you while you drink. For Tom, Craig and I it was peanuts with an unusual spice. For Alex and I they put little baskets of popcorn in front of us that seemed to be flavoured with something spicy which was delicious. During our three small beers we managed to get through six baskets of popcorn with the staff happily replacing them the instant that one was empty. We felt a little bad but they kept on putting them in front of us and we were starving so couldn’t resist it. After this we headed over to the top of the lake to change some money and them upstairs for some homebrewed beer at ‘Legend Beer’. unfortunately the weiss beer was off so we had the dark which was still great. We headed to ‘Whole Earth’ the mock meat restaurant for some really good dinner and Alex’s first experience of Vietnamese mock meat. After food though it was still pretty early but we were tired so we decided to head to ‘Red Beer’ a microbrewery/bar where the beer is brewed right behind the bar. We planned to stay for just one drink but just as we were about to leave it started to rain as heavily as it did in Thailand and pretty quickly the street was flooding. We stayed for another beer and it eased off a bit but we could see that it wasn’t going to stop anytime soon and the bar started to close up (at 10:30pm!) We braved the rain darting between overhanging balconies and planning our route to cross the road where the puddles wouldn’t soak our shoes. Of course this being Vietnam the locals spotted an opportunity and within 2 minutes we were approached by a young guy selling plastic bag ponchos for a dollar (16,000 dong) each. He knew that we were a captive audience and we knew that he’d paid no more than a few thousand dong for them (at most)  so we offered him a reasonable price and when he refused walked off. Sure enough 20 seconds later he came back with a better offer and we got ourselves 2 ponchos for less than a dollar, he still seemed pretty pleased with the money and headed off to try and make some money off some richer tourists. The plastic poncho even went over my small backpack so we got home a few minutes later relatively dry! When we got back to the room we headed out to the balcony and stood under the covered part to watch some of the most impressive lightning I’ve seen since the night that Tom and I spent in Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica.

It rained for lots of the night and we awoke at 7:00am to a cool morning in Hanoi. We got up early to take a trip to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum which is only open from 8-10am. We had breakfast and grabbed a taxi before 8am. When we arrived we joined the back of the huge but fast moving, mostly Vietnamese, queue. We were led in a long line through security checks where we had to hand over all bags and mobile phones and cameras and eventually headed into the mausoleum. We walked as if in a procession in absolute silence around 3 sides of a glass case containing the embalmed corpse of Ho Chi Minh. It was the quietest and most respectful I’ve seen the Vietnamese be and it was quite obvious that they were awestruck, quite understandable when you read about him. After the mausoleum we continued on to Ho Chi Minh’s house and his stilthouse where he lived from 1954 until his death in 1969. We decided not to go to the museum after as we were both feeling pretty rough and not in the mood for a museum. We grabbed a taxi back to the Hanoi Guesthouse and packed up ready to check out. We relaxed for a while and Alex grabbed some more sleep while I read until 12pm when we checked out and dumped our bags at reception. Next we headed to my tailor as I had an appointment to pick up my suit. The suit was finished and looked excellent. I tried on the now finished jacket which fit as if it was made for me, probably because it was! I paid the last 50% of the full price (GBP30) and we headed back home. Tom managed to bring a little bit too much stuff travelling with him so to bring the weight down he had left some with me in Hanoi to post home along with my suit. We packed up the box with Tom’s stuff and my suit and headed to the post office to send it. On the way to the post office we stopped at the currency exchange to change my remaining dollars and plenty for Alex so that we didn’t have to worry about money in the smaller towns. We changed money with the girls behind the counter who I’d dealt with quite a few times over the last few weeks. After we changed money the girls thanked us profusely for all the business we’d given them. They seemed really greatful and I think that because I’d been in with Tom and Craig and then Alex they thought that I’d brought both sets of people to them. We stayed and chatted for a few minutes and I explained that I was leaving today and told them our plans. It was nice to realise that had recognised me all along and really appreciated my business. We headed over to the post office in a good mood. When we arrived at the post office with my sealed box we were asked to fill in a multitude of forms including 2 inventories of the box contents. I listed the major items in the box but not having looked through Tom’s stuff didn’t list everything. When we eventually got all the forms filled in they took my box and told me they’d have to open it to confirm the contents. They then proceeded to unseal the box and unpack all of my carefully packed items and go through each one to translate my English inventory into Vietnamese. Luckily all the major items were at the top and somehow once she had translated the listed items she ignored the other bits and pieces of Tom’s and repacked the box. I made sure that she packed it back well and sealed it properly. After 30 minutes of the ‘sending a box’ process we were almost finished and she weighed the box, (6kgs in total) charged me GBP15 and after gettting me to write the to and from addresses on almost every side of the box we were finally able to leave and get some lunch.

We went to everything bun for lunch a noodle place that we had been to before and was quite expensive but I wanted Alex to get some good quality interesting Vietnamese food and this was the perfect place. I helped Alex choose the roll your own fish rolls dish that Tom had eaten previously. When it arrived I showed Alex how to make the rice paper rolls containing fish, fresh veg and some really tasty salad leaves. She really enjoyed the experience and I was pleasantly surprised by the fish which had loads of meat where Tom’s hadn’t been great. After lunch I took Alex for a walk around the lake, something we had never actually done and on the way we stopped at the temple for a look around. After the temple we continued slowly around the lake, stopping for photos and to sit in the somewhat peaceful surroundings. We stopped at Fanny ice cream as we passed, then at Hapro for a sandwich and a drink. We realised that the bus to Hue was picking us up soon so we headed back to the Hanoi guesthouse to catch it. We decided to get the sleepy bus as although we would have preferred the train the train was $29 compared to $12 for the bus. The bus was late and while we waited I chatted for Thin about life in Vietnam, and Nam Dinh where she originally came from in the countryside. As we left I gave her an envelope that I had prepared containing some money and a note that I’d agreed with Tom and Craig days before. It wasn’t a lot of money to us though on our budget it wasn’t insignificant but we all felt that she had really gone out of her way to help us out and although we’d agreed it beforehand in the end it was mostly covered by the money she’d got us back after we were ripped off by the hotel in Sa Pa! I told Thin not to open the envelope until after we left as I didn’t want her to feel obliged to thank us for it but I hope that it helps her out a little as she really deserved it.

I was really quite sad to leave Hanoi as it had been my base for almost 3 weeks and although we spent over a week of that travelling to other places it was nice to always have somewhere to leave luggage and come back to where I was sure that we wouldn’t be ripped off and could really relax. It was also great to get to know Hanoi a little better than the average traveller as by the time I left I knew my way around so well that I appeared coinfident of where I was heading when walking around and was barely hassled. I will miss Hanoi and Thin but we still have plenty to see and do so must move on!

Author: Chris Greenwood

IT Consultant, traveller, foodie, husband and occasional blogger

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