Apart from that it is the bustling, crowded, narrowly-streeted, liberally polluted, and altogether exciting metropolitan heart of Northern Vietnam. Everything here seems a bit more chic than Saigon, and the city seems to revel in its triumph over the South in the Vietnam War. Men wear military regalia casually, and at least one cafe shamelessly capitalises on the wartime aesthetic while serving artisanal mojitos. I wondered if the cocktails during the war were of quite the same standard, but never let authenticity get in the way of a good aperitif, I always say.
Jade: As Greg’s tale is clearly lacking in detail I thought I’d step in with the actual story I told him which is amusing and also historically interesting as it led to the declaration of independence for Vietnam (from China).
Legend of the Golden Turtle God
The legend goes a man named Le Loi was praying near a lake and suddenly a giant tortoise rose up, it was the Golden Turtle god Kim Qui, who presented Le Loi with a magical sword to answer his prayers and defeat the Chinese invaders (as you do). Le Loi managed to defeat the Chinese, declare Vietnam’s independence and establish himself as the first Emperor of the Le Dynasty, magical sword indeed! He returned the sword to the lake and both the turtle and sword were never seen again. He built a turtle island, temple and renamed the lake Hoam Kiem, Lake of the Returned Sword.
This fantastic and slightly amusing tale was retold in the water puppet theatre that I dragged Greg to, but more on that later...
Later that first evening after fasting all day I emerged hungry and slightly dazed into the Hanoi streets, I wandered around in something akin to a LSD dream, and it was surreal with scooters, yelling, tiny chairs and celebrations. I ordered a tasty banh mi, forgot to pay and then got lost on the way home, wandering the streets, I had to ask directions from other tourists only to find they were lost as well! What a night.
Greg: We also went to the 'Hanoi Hilton', ironically named as it had been the prison in which generations of Indochinese rebels, political dissidents, Southern fighters, and American soldiers had been detained and tortured.
Jade: Originally a prison where the French who put communist freedom fighters. Then some of them went on to form the communist party after the French left. During the Vietnam war it became known as the Hanoi Hilton. They talked about nice treatment of the GIs. All very happy singing and making turkey. What a nice jail.
Greg: It is clearly a propaganda piece for the Communist government, and paints a very glossy picture of the US soldier experience (Christmas parties and letters home!), but it was interesting nonetheless.
Jade: On a lighter note, we also checked out the Vietnam History museum which is highly recommended for seeing some beautiful Cham sculptures and a very flamboyant lion.... (see below)
Jade: my favourite moment was when they did a little reenactment of Le Loi handing back his sword to the Golden Turtle god. It was hilarious!
Greg: The second and most enjoyable part of our Hanoi trip was the finale: an evening street food tour by Hanoi Street Food Tours. We were met by Andrew Conn (friend of Mitch & Tanya, of Bai Xep fame) and our delightful guide, Sunshine, and spent 5 hours consuming our way around the street stalls, bars, and nameless eateries of Hanoi. The selection of food was supreme, and Sunshine was indefatigably enthusiastic. Each stop brought new and wonderful delicacies, and we ate until we could no longer.
Jade; Sunshine and I realised we shared middle names ‘Jade’, only hers was the Vietnamese word which is Ngoc. She took us to sticky rice pancakes, soup noodles, spring rolls and more! Amazing! Topped it off with fresh fruit and coconut milk, coconut wrap with honey and sugar cane. Rice beer and then amazing Ca Phe Sua Chua - frozen yoghurt coffee!!! Kind of like an affogato. YUMMmm this was at the famous Cafe Kong, which is all Vietnamese war themed, there are bars on the concrete windows, and waiters all dress in old military uniforms, uber cool cafe for the young vietnamese kids.
Greg:Towards the end of the evening we ended up in the aforementioned war-themed cafe, where the others enjoyed a last drink and we said our fond farewells.
First sheep experience, we were ferried off on buses out of Hanoi, to a handicraft workshop for do advantaged and disabled people. Joining throngs of other tourists and seeing giant wooden Chinese bling chairs, which we were enthusiastically informed could be shipped to anywhere in the world…hmmm.
We were greeted with even more glee by the staff on board our boat, but were also pleased to see the level of hygiene and cleanliness was on par with what we’d hoped. Some of the other boats looked pretty dicey with regards to staying afloat.
We sailed out to Halong bay and ironically it was so foggy, we couldn't see a thing. Oh the irony.
They took us to a fairly sad looking beach where a few people braved the freezing waters to swim. (europeans of course). Then we got to kayak around a beautiful inlet lake. Great fun, Greg "feels like we are in a bonsai display". After dinner we were promised activities, like squid fishing - where staff said you could catch 30 or 40 in an hour. They showed us how to slap the water with a fishing rod, and a large light but the squid never appeared…I wondered if they were somewhere else laughing at us...
We met Fumiko and Eric through chilli, a very cool couple living in Tokyo. Yes thats right, through chilli - that Fumiko had brought with her to spice up the bland western food they served (why not vietnamese food its amazing?!). I’m looking forward to catching up with Rumiko in Tokyo and Greg decided he’d start to carry his own bottle of chilli too - more on that when we get to Cambodia.
There was a trip to a small floating fishing village, and Greg & the others got to kayak around while I sat on the main boat and felt ill. Argh.
We saw some huge caves the largest being 12,000 ft, that local tribes sheltered in during times of war and typhoon (winter) seasons. We were tightly packed together with other tourists. Amazingly large caves and yet we felt like sardines being ushered through. Our exhuberant guide was also playing up for his middle aged female audience with enthusiastic and terrible jokes. Greg couldn’t even manage a smile, it was that bad.
I did learn however there are many different ancient tribes in the area and the steep and sharp limestone rocks make climbing and settling on the islands impossible. So they are all based on the water.
With beautiful rocks and limestone peaks Ha Long Bay is amazing, however I would definitely check what season to visit in, I hear Autumn is best. This time wasn't great, foggy, overcast and not much visability. As you can see Greg took almost no photos (shock horror gasp!).
Soon it was time to leave, and we headed onwards through South East Asia to ……Laos.
Read all about it in our next blog Loving & Living in Luang Prabung.
As always comments and messages of awesomeness are welcome ; )
Love Jade & Greg