Hanoi (or Ha Noi), the capital city of Vietnam, was the first of our three stops in nine days following Taipei where this this spring journey began. Hanoi’s landmark hotel is the Sofitel Legend Metropole, established in 1901. The original building retains the era’s characteristics while the newer Opera Wing (where we stayed) has more modern rooms and architecture. The hotel is walking distance to the Old Quarter of the city. It is very safe to walk in Hanoi but one has to be mindful of the ubiquitous motorbikes! Our first and lasting impression of this country is the how very friendly the people are.
We randomly picked a restaurant in the Old Quarter for dinner and it was just delicious. Besides the terrific food, it was just $18 total for three courses and a bit of ice cream. Welcome to Vietnam …
I had arranged in advance for a daylong tour to Ha Long Bay, a World Heritage Site, roughly 2 hours from Hanoi via a fairly new highway. Many people do overnight trips to the area for a short getaway. Once there, the endless stream of boats in the bay is evidence of the area’s popularity and status as a must-see destination. Our guide Tien led us to our small charter with a staff of three for lunch and a few hours’ tour on the bay. It turned out to be a perfect amount of time (for us). Prior to the cruise, we were given a brief tour of a pearl farm and shown how the pearls are grown. Not surprisingly, there was a big showroom right there! Anyone who tours in this area of the world is accustomed to having a tutorial of some sort and then an “opportunity” to make purchases — whether it’s pearls, jade or even tea. I passed this time but they had some very beautiful items and were quite willing to negotiate, with calculator in hand.
After a long day, we opted for a restaurant near the hotel with pretty good Italian food. It rained a decent amount in the evening, providing some cooler temps for our city tour the next day. By “cooler” I mean lower 90’s … No point in going into the heat and humidity; it’s a known fact but one goes with the flow as best as one can. That’s the deal; otherwise it means missing many parts of the world where the weather is less than optimal when we travel in April/May. For that matter, it would mean forgoing much of Asia where there’s little variance at all in the course of a year. It’s either hot or wet or both.
Our young (just 21) guide Nam met us the next morning for a half-day tour of Hanoi highlights: Temple of Literature, Hoa Lo Prison (commonly referred by Americans as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”), the “notorious black market” area — with store after store of bike and car parts, electronics and other items — and finally some of the famous street food for lunch. The first thought was obviously the food isn’t being handled in a sanitary way — raw meat and poultry with no gloves as an example. Nam told us that it is typical for locals to shop twice daily; thus the ingredients are cooked and consumed so quickly that refrigeration is not an issue. In fact, we had the chance to go down one street where there were (still but not for long) live chickens, but I passed on that one.
Living conditions around these small streets are another reminder of how good so many of us have it at home. The last stop was the famous Railroad Street, where folks live just feet from the tracks. Trains go by six times a day. It is pretty amazing.
Our big dinner was at the well-known Press Club, located across the street from The Metropole. That was more of a splurge with fancy service and stemware, with obviously a steeper price. The place was empty save for a couple of Brits and a large tour group. Our fellow travelers provided some good tips and things we must see at our next stop. Whether or not we follow suggestions, the input is always welcome — it’s interesting to hear how others traverse a given area.
Next up: stop #2 in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon.