At the airport, we ask to share a taxi with two other girls on the same flight and are dropped off at a busy narrow street. Birds in cages hang above doorways, with pig trotters on sale and motorbikes screeching past us.
This scene welcomed us as we scrambled towards our hostel. A little bit grimmer than our other hostels and smack bang in the middle of the Old Town. At times, it felt like I was sleeping on the street with the amount of noise generated at godforsaken hours (the Vietnamese have a strange habit of riding around on bikes with speakers blasting at any time of day).
Although the Old Town is wonderful in its chaos, with clumps of electrical wires hanging above, shop wares tumbling into the street and whole families honking on the back of motorbikes, it is overwhelming. The best way to experience this area is to sit back on tiny blue and red plastic chairs that take up entire streets with a Bia Hoi (cheap local beer), and people watch.
For the first night we try a lively small restaurant that had people spilling out into the street, yet we enter to find more and more tables. They squeeze us into an obscure corner and the bun cha dish they serve us is gorgeous (a noodle dish, in a fish sauce with barbecued meat).
The next day we did what we do best – we took a stroll around the lake and made our way to the Fine Arts Museum. Opposite was the Temple of Literature, where we were asked again for our picture. Although, god knows why since we were literally dripping with sweat and so I played dumb and asked if they wanted a picture taken together, and in return was asked if I spoke English. Served me right.
We also checked out the Women’s Museum, with fantastic exhibitions on female soldiers in the war. For lunch we fell in love with bahn mi (sandwiches) and saw St. Joseph’s cathedral – a bizarre gothic sight in the middle of the Vietnamese capital.
Glittering Halong Bay
We then booked a boat trip to Halong Bay – a must-do if you visit Hanoi. Picked up early, we were met by our host at the harbour and were ushered onto the boat. We visited a cave called the Heavenly Palace cave, which looked like the belly of a dragon (ha meaning descending and long dragon). Our host told us tales of dragons, princesses and a hundred babies, pointing out various rock formations.
Scaly Insides of the Heavenly Palace
As the sun set, we kayaked across the golden water, dwarfed by the huge islands dotted around our boat. We returned the kayak and jumped in enthusiastically to swim, only to be told to avoid the jellyfish and cue our enthusiastic exit of the water.
In the evening we chilled on the top deck and talked with the other travellers on board, where we learned the Vietnamese cheers of mot hai ba, YO. Breakfast the next day, however, saw the effects of the drinking as many didn’t make it and some missed the visit to the oyster pearl farm.
We soon said goodbye to our host, who we found out only had four days off and therefore worked consecutively for 26 days out of the month. We also found out the reason for so many motorbikes, as there was a 100% import tax on cars.
Returning to our last hostel, we decided it was time to move onto quieter pastures (i.e. around the lake) after waking up to blaring Vietnamese and the A/C going down. We proceeded to spend the next few days sampling cafés, markets and restaurants. A highlight was a café accessed through a silk shop and a courtyard filled with motorbikes and birds, with an amazing rooftop view of the lake.
We also visited Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. After queuing in the middle of a Vietnamese school trip, we entered the creepy cold room. There were many guards keeping watch in white (although the matching white wellies ruined the severe look). Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and his body is sent off to Russia for maintenance every two months of the year and as we shuffled past his body and the guards in silence, the fast-paced intensity of the visit gave us the strong urge to laugh – a forbidden act.
Luckily our last night wasn’t so repressed as we ran through our first thunderstorm, our feet black with dirt.