Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Hanoi days 2 to 4

A gravestone shop! this lady is carving RIP messages at the roadside!

Three days in Hanoi and we're in cultural and sensory overload, but it has been a great experience. Our hotel is located in the 'old quarter', which indeed it is, but it fares better than some SE Asian places we've been to, the streets are relatively clean and we have seen only the odd rat running around. It is a thriving area of small businesses, constant hustle and bustle, car and motorbike horns constantly tooting, exotic smells and an interesting experience just walking down the roads in amongst the traffic.

See the blue figure u high? He's walking on those electrical cables (nothing else) to remove tree branches. Health and Safety?
My new job - fast food delivery!
We haven't seen any road accidents, nor any raised voices and the chaos just seems to sort itself out, motorcycles veer between other bikes, cars and pedestrians, often on the wrong side of the road and everyone is quite calm. We think we've mastered the art of crossing the road, where it appears red traffic lights and pedestrian crossings are meaningless. At some point, even on a busy street it is necessary to step out and, watching the traffic walk fairly slowly and deliberately across the road. Don't stop or hesitate as the drivers and riders will get confused, a steady walk across the road and all traffic veers round you, no one gets upset and it all works wonderfully well!

Street food stalls with tiny blue stools to sit on
Delivery vehicles! Hey Martin @ Andantex - if you're reading this, you don't need the Transit van, you just need one of these!
Women chat while preparing fish
We followed our 'Lonely Planet' guide 'a walk around the old town', which worked well, there are shops selling just one item, so we saw a packing tape shop, a rope shop, a mirror shop, tin box shop, silk shop etc etc. Whereas at home we would go to a hardware supermarket, here you go to a specific street. Everything is there, but instead of aisles in a big shop they are all separate shops, but at each one you get personal service - how refreshing! And it seems possible to buy just the one nut or bolt you need rather than a pack of 25, 24 of which you don't need! The herb street we could smell from the blacksmiths street, a fabulous fragrant smell, followed by the spice street, with huge sack of cinnamon sticks and every exotic spice you could name, each one staffed by someone ready to sell, a smile an arm wave and they are doing their best to get your money.

Its a pity you can't smell these herbs, it was fabulous!
Exotic spices by the sack load
In amongst all this are people selling food, from the person with a small BBQ, sitting on the ground cooking meat something or others, slightly larger establishments where they have a permanent site with a burner of some sort, a few small, low tables and tiny stools to sit on and the larger still where they may have a shop with tables inside. Some of the places look a bit scary, dingy and dark and not looking very clean, but the clue to a good place is the number of locals eating there. 

A slightly scary food street, but it's busy!
We've eaten at several of these places now, usually ones recommended by the girl on reception in our hotel, who has not let us down yet. Many only offer one dish, so there are no language problems, you just sit down on a tiny blue stool at a low table by the roadside, often with other people at the same table and maybe next to parked motorbikes or someone selling something else and cars and bikes passing by tooting their horns just feet away and you get amazing food put down in front of you!

'Ghost dollar bills' for sale. They apparently use it to burn in temples (for some reason)
The blacksmiths shop
It probably all sounds a bit strange, but it’s fabulous! The place is alive and its great just walking around soaking up all this culture, smells, sounds, sights and foods. It’s unique and has to be experienced, but after our three and a half days here we’ve had enough and are looking forward to getting out of the city to somewhere a bit quieter. Tomorrow we head off to Cat Ba Island and Halong Bay, which come highly recommended.

And the wire mesh shop
We found a nice place for a bit of lunch!
As well as our own city walk we must mention Mark and our free guided walk. Jackie found this on the internet on 'TripAdvisor' as the number 1 thing to do in Hanoi. It’s a free service offered by the Tourist Board, usually by students, who volunteer, to take people round and tell them all about Hanoi. They are not allowed to take any tips, but we pay for taxi fares and entrance fees and they will take you anywhere you want to go. 

Mark (in light blue t shirt) and Jackie at the Temple of Literature
Graduates to be line up for photos
We sent them an email late on Saturday night saying Sunday would be nice, but if not Monday. Got an email back on Sunday morning saying someone would be with us at 9:30am and at that time 25 year old local boy ‘Mark’ turned up speaking perfect English. A very well educated person, he knew everything there was to know about Vietnam and the world, but spoke British English and American English, understanding completely the differences between the two. He would use British English for formal communication and American English for informal. He said he wouldn't dream of writing to his boss in American English, and he would be offended if he did, it would have to be British English!

Confusius and his teachings put the students on the right path
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum
I wanted to see the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but other than that we left it to him. First we went to the Temple of Literature, which was Hanoi's first university, but is now a place, almost a shrine, where students go when entering or graduating. It’s a place where life values are understood and hundreds were there, lads in suits, girls in traditional dress, having there photos taken in this revered place. Graduates were there in gowns and mortar boards, throwing them into the air at the click of a camera shutter. Great to see!

The HCM museum
And inside a statue of the man himself
Second stop, the mausoleum and museum. The mausoleum is closed at the moment for renovation, so we couldn't see his body (which would have been a bit creepy anyway, he died in 1969!), but we did see his house, the presidents house, the communists party headquarters and the new, very extravagant National Assembly, all only from the outside. The presidents house is the grand old French govenors house from when Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were all lumped together as French Indochina, with Hanoi as the capital of them all.

Times have changed and Vietnam is one independent country and Ho Chi Minh seems to have been the guiding light and energy in bringing it all about, irrespective of your political views. All he wanted was for the country to be independent and in doing so he and his ill equipped army managed to defeat two of the greatest and best equipped countries of the world, France and the USA, in anyones book, that isn't bad! 
Outside the Presidents House
They fought against the French from the moment they arrived in 1858, fought against the Japanese when they kicked out the French in 1941, claimed independence in 1945, but had to fight the French again when they returned in 1946, finally totally defeating them In a famous battle in 1954, only to have the Americans come in afterwards to fight the Vietnam war, or as they call here, the American war (obviously!). There is a huge amount of bias here towards the Imperialistic French and Americans and, if I were French or American I would feel a bit aggrieved, but for once Britain was not involved and we don't mind saying we're British! Mark had a good opinion of British colonial rule, saying how we had invested in infrastructure, education and stable political systems in our colonies, whereas he felt the French had only exploited their colonies and put nothing back. I don't know enough about French colonial history to comment and maybe he was just being nice, but he did mention Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia as great success stories of former British rule.

The new National Assembly building
Ho Chi Minh's stilt house during the American War
The 'Hanoi Hilton' (as it was called by the American POW's) prison was our next visit. Its now mainly gone and what remains is a museum. It was built by the French in 1890 something and used to house, torture and execute anyone who oppose their rule, so there was a lot made of fallen comrades, but it was all very sobering looking at the conditions and an actual guillotine used for many executions. Used by the Vietnamese for American POW's, a big thing was made about how well they were treated there by comparison to the poor treatment of them by the French.

The Hanoi Hilton prison
One of the guilllotines inside
Anyway, the whole day with Mark was great and we feel as though we have a new friend.
That's about it from Hanoi, off for dinner somewhere nice tonight and then a 5 hour bus, boat ride and bus to our next hotel with sea view apparently.

Update on Facebook, via some nefarious means we can still see it sometimes, so all is not lost!

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