Thursday, 28 March 2013

Travel To: Hanoi, Vietnam

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I've done a lot of traveling the last couple of months, and not a lot of writing. With all major holidays finished before the school year ends, I think the table is about to turn on that equation.

A couple (several) weeks ago I wrote about our adventures in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap with Other Half's dad. Well, that was just half the story. After Cambodia we hauled ourselves over to Northern Vietnam to spend some time in Hanoi and the surrounding area.

I was a bit nervous about visiting Vietnam at first because many travellers have had less than glowing things to say about the people, and it's well known that travel scams are extremely common, especially in large cities like Hanoi.  Armed with our guidebook to help point out some of these, we were feeling pretty okay, none of us were new travellers and we were all aware of the stories. Before I dive into my next tale, I want to note that these warnings come from somewhere, but I think as long as you are mindful, you can avoid most scams.

Ngoc Son Temple

Unfortunately we missed the part of the guidebook that told us there are only two official taxi companies in Hanoi, and all others had "high-speed meters" that charge about double the rate. Yep, that would be a good thing to know before we got into our taxi from airport to hotel. Our first tip off that something was amiss came just outside the airport parking gates when our driver stopped in the middle of the road, got out and traded taxis with another driver, calling a mumbled "sorry" over his shoulder as he went. Yes, my mind was RACING at this point, and it turned out the new driver had even less English than the first (to match our zero Vietnamese) and so after a few feeble attempts to retell where we wanted to go (and lots of head nodding from the driver) we sat back and let life happen.

To cut a long story short... we did end up in a high-speed metered taxi, we did end up in the city centre, we didn't do too many circles, and I do believe the driver genuinely wanted to get us where we wanted to go. Unfortunately for him he got lost in the tangle of the Old Quarter and after some fruitless attempts to find our hotel we eventually got out and walked the remaining 500 metres. And that was our welcome to Hanoi. Freezing temperatures, a stressful taxi, and a cold walk to the hotel at midnight.  I swear we were excited to be there.

Bridge entrance leading from the outskirts of Hoan Kiem Lake to Ngoc Son Temple

At this point I need to pause and make a confession. A grossly ignorant confession. I don't know about you, but when I think about South East Asia I picture warm and sunny, or warm and rainy. Two seasons, both warm. NEWS FLASH! Unlike Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma (Myanmar), and a whole variety of other places, northern Vietnam gets C-O-L-D, cold! After a week in the scorching heat of Cambodia it was a pure shock to the system to land in damp, dreary, and chilly Hanoi. Brrrrrrrr. Never the less, we pulled ourselves together, layered on everything we had with us and set our sites to exploring!

During our time in Hanoi we stayed at the Church Boutique hotel, which due to some last minute travel planning was a squeak more luxurious than I normally would have opted for, but hooooo boy was it nice! Not recommended for the budget traveller, but if you want a clean, comfortable, accommodating and warm place to rest your head, then you can't go wrong here. Good service, good breakfast, comfy beds, heating. It was like heaven. It was also perfectly situated in the Old Quarter so that everything was on our doorstep.

Temple of Literature - first courtyard

We spent our days entirely within walking distance of the Old Quarter because there was a) so much to see there, and b) only a day before we wanted to leave for Halong Bay.

Our very first stop was Hoan Kiem Lake which sits at the base of the Old Quarter and includes a pleasent walk around the lake and Ngoc Son Temple which extends out into the middle of the lake and is accessible by bridge.  It's said that giant turtles live in the lake and long ago one came to the surface, took the sword of King Le Loi while he was boating from the lake and took to the depths of the lake to return it (the sword) to the Gods from whom it came. In memory of this they have mummified and gold plated a giant turtle and put it on display in the Ngoc Son Temple.

Stelae of Doctors - Temple of Literature

From here we wandered over to the Temple of Literature, an expansive complex that has 5 inner courtyards. The temple has been dedicated to Confucius and education, and was established as the cities first University in the 11th Century.  Though it no longer operates as a University, it does house what is known as the Stelae of Doctors, a series of blue stone carved tortoises each holding a plaque on its back engraved with the names of individuals who were successful in the royal exams. It was meant to encourage education and the study of culture, but I believe the practice stopped sometime in the 18th Century.

The fifth courtyard, though slightly hidden behind the fourth, opens onto the building that was constructed for the actual studying. An open, two storey structure that now acts as a place of offering to Confucius. As an outsider, the temple of literature was most fascinating in its mixture of Confucianism and Buddhism. A worthy stop on your visit to the city.

You can't visit Hanoi without seeing and sampling the huge variety of street food on offer. I wish I had done more of this, but it's just reason to return. There was everything from fried dough balls of goodness (their official name), Bahn Mi sandwiches, Pho soups, fruits, and so, so much more. Sadly, I didn't get any photos of this because I was too busy drooling and gawking.

After a very cold and busy day in the city we packed up once again and moved on to Halong Bay,. Known as the Bay of Descending Dragons holding some 1000 karst cliffs jutting up from the water, I knew we were in for something special... I can't wait to tell you about it in the next post!

Keeping warm...

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