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Asia Trip 2011: Day 2 – Hanoi

We woke up at 6:30am to be ready for breakfast at 7am. We had a full day of walking around the city to do, and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was only open until 11am, so we wanted to get there quick.

After enjoy our pho breakfast (with fresh juice and a tea / coffee and some fruit), we set off on foot to the Mausoleum to pay our respects to the famous Vietnamese president. The mausoleum is open for 10 months of the year – the rest of the time it is closed for maintenance, and we were lucky enough to arrive shortly after its re-opening. It’s a bit of a walk from out hotel, and we got lost for a little bit as well since the streets are not in a grid format, but we eventually found our way there. The area around the Mausoleum is very large, and there’s a beautiful square out front which no one is allowed to tread on. If you ever plan to visit this place, remember to bring something to cover up – shorts and tank tops are not permitted. Cameras and electronics are not allowed as well, and large bags need to be checked in. There are guards everywhere, so you always have to follow the rules and they make sure you don’t wander anywhere you’re not supposed to be. We got in trouble for whispering as we approached the Mausoleum, and were motioned to keep our hands by our sides at all times.

The visit isn’t just for tourists though, several locals come to pay their respects often. The queue for this trip is quite long, so make sure you arrive around 9am. There are several other areas to visit once you’ve gone through the Mausoleum, including the stilt house that Ho Chi Minh used to live in, and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. There is also the beautiful One Pillar Pagoda in the area as well.

After our stop there, we made our way to the Temple of Literature. The site of the first university in Vietnam, this place holds several stelae (large stone tablets) used to track the names of exceptional scholars, all of whom were given their examination questions by the King himself. The Temple is also a place where locals go to pray to Confucius and his four favourite disciples in hopes that their children will have good grades and excel in school.

A was very confused to see several Chinese characters here. All the stelae were engraved in Chinese, as well as the phrases above the doors and gates. Every time I asked for a translation, he said it didn’t make any sense. I claimed I had a faulty translator, but there was nothing we could do about it. After visiting the temple, we walked to a highly recommended restaurant in our guidebook called KOTO for a quick bite.

From there, we slowly made our way to the French Quarter on the other side of the lake. I commented about how we hadn’t seen very many schools in the area, when we turned a corner and obviously, there was a school. We also wandered into what we thought was a department store, which turned out to be an electronics store and people followed us around until we left. We finally found the famed Hoan Kiem lake, where the emperor Le Loi received a magical sword from a golden turtle, which helped him fight off the Chinese. The turtle is one of the four prominent animals in Vietnamese culture, representing wisdom and patience. I thought that was pretty funny, since I had said that A’s mascot is a turtle, but more like this one. We tried to get tickets to the water puppet show (thinking it’d be a good rest), but they were sold out for the next two days! Now I’ll never get to see it :(

We took pictures at the Opera House and walked past the Metropole Hotel before finally deciding to take a break and head back to our hotel. After a quick bit of research, we jotted down the walking tour recommended by our Lonely Planet book, as well as an address for what a local blogger said was one of the best bun cha stalls in the city. Excited about food, we made the trek back out and walked up and down several streets, which mostly consisted of shops and stalls separated by their wares (an entire street devoted to toys or tin or altars). The baguette & chocolate place recommended in the guide book was nowhere to be found, and the bun cha place was not open. Defeated and hungry, we wandered back to our hotel area where I spotted a banh mi store. I quickly picked one up to tide me over until dinner.

We went back to our hotel and asked the receptionist where I could get some bun cha. She recommended a stall down the street that closed at 7pm, so A and I hustled down to the place for a quick dinner. They apparently charge more for tourists, since the couple next to us got coke and the same meal for only 100,000 VND whereas A and I paid 120,000 VND for just the meal. That aside, the food was so delicious that I ordered it again the next day (except I had the receptionist call ahead for us so we could get the local rate).

Pretty sure the rest of the night was spent doing nothing, since I don’t remember anything happening that evening.

Asia Trip 2011: Day 1 – Hanoi

After many months of talking and researching, A and I finally bit the bullet and booked ourselves a trip to Vietnam. It worked out fairly well for us, my parents were headed back to Hong Kong for an extended vacation and we would make our stop there first to drop off luggage and see family we haven’t visited in over 5 years. From there, we would fly into Ha Noi and begin our Vietnam / Cambodia adventure for two weeks, before heading back to Hong Kong, and then home.

Hong Kong was definitely a good place to stop over before heading to Vietnam. We were able to adjust to the time-zones better, we had a place to stay, and we always people to see / things to do / places to eat at. I was a bit sad to leave Hong Kong for our trip, but I don’t think I would be saying such nice things about the city if I was visiting there for a month. The traffic and amount crowds require some getting used to, coming from my relaxing city in Canada! But it was nothing compared to Vietnam!

When we arrived in Ha Noi, we had arranged for someone to meet us at the airport. The airport is 45 minutes away by car from the city, so some hotels offer free pick-up service if you stay three nights. Definitely worth it, since I heard so many stories of taxi scams. Traffic here is madness. Cars and scooters and motorbikes (the main modes of transport) all drive between the lines and take up lanes and cram into whatever small spaces they can just to move forward a bit. Honking is the common language here and everyone lays on that horn. The city is noisy and even more crowded than Hong Kong, and was very overwhelming when we arrived.

Something we found useful was to have a city map downloaded onto our iPad with the GPS on, so we could see where we were going in the car to the hotel. It helped us familiarize with the area a bit and gave us a good sense of distances to different areas of the city.

We stayed at the Charming Hotel (#15 Yen Thai Street, Hoan Kiem District). It’s off a small street that looks like an alley way, with several other small hotels surrounding it. The place was cute, the room was small, but it was clean and comfortable and the people were very friendly and helpful. We arrived too late to make it to the train station, so the hotel offered to book us our train tickets while we explored the city the next day. They also exchanged VND for USD at the going rate on the Vietcombank website. We ended up booking an additional Perfume Pagoda tour and Halong Bay overnight tour through the hotel as well, to save us the trouble of having to find tour companies.

Also, Charming Hotel offers free breakfast. There is the regular continental (toast and jam), the American (the continental with eggs), and pho. A and I picked the pho breakfast for each of our three days there, but it varied from day to day and the second day was probably the best bowl.

As it was starting to get dark, A and I decided to do a quick walk around the block before calling it a day. We wandered only two streets away when it started to drizzle. The locals began pulling off to the side, which was probably a warning sign for us, but we continued to walk because what’s a bit of rain to Vancouverites, right? Wrong. It began pouring, and we were drenched within seconds. The locals were apparently prepared for rain, and they began pulling out a rain poncho that not only covered themselves, but also covered their scooters. Then they got right back on the road and continued driving. The rain got so bad, that the streets started to flood up, and soon the road was probably ankle deep with water. We hid under a shop awning for about fifteen minutes, and when we realized the rain wasn’t going to let up anytime soon, we hoofed it back to a restaurant we saw while walking that had a few backpackers in it. Turns out, quite a few other tourists had the same idea, and we were lucky enough to pick up the last table.

When the rain let down after 45 minutes, we made our way back to the hotel, picking up some water on the way, and the day was over by 9pm.