Christmas in Hanoi
Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
58Trip End Jun 01, 2011
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We’d always dreamed of visiting Hanoi, capital city of Vietnam, and it surpassed all our expectations. It is beautiful and vibrant, blending exotic, effervescent south-east Asia with French colonial elegance, or as Lonely Planet says, ‘Parisian grace and Asian pace’. Vietnam is a youthful country; apparently 60% of the population is under 30 and it feels like it too; the energy, exuberance and enthusiasm is refreshing and tiring in equal measure. We spent 10 days here, based at Hotel Splendid Star www.splendidstarhotel.com in Hanoi‘s Old Quarter, and here’s what we got up to……
We landed at Noi Bai airport in grey, cool weather, around 15‘C (a bit of a shock coming from a hot Bangkok). Noi Bai is a notorious hang-out for taxi scamsters so we’d arranged for the hotel to pick us up and we cruised along the 40km duel carriage-way into Hanoi passing green paddies, banana plantations and huge advertising billboards, one pronouncing Hanoi as ‘World City of Peace'
Hanoi was the capital of French Indochina from 1902 to 1954 and when the French first took control in 1888 they modelled the city's architecture to their tastes. The Old Quarter has retained the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi, with many beautiful colonial buildings, some faded and crumbling, housing artisans and merchants, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. Originally each street had merchants and households specialising in a particular trade, such as silk, jewellery, bamboo screens, lanterns, metalwork, ornamental fish, and today the street names reflect these specialisations, although the commerce has since diversified. If they were to re-name the streets to reflect today’s trade a number would no doubt be called ‘tourist souvenir street’ or ‘motorbike helmet street’.
The streets themselves were not designed for the millions of Hanoian mopeds
For the locals much of their socialising takes place on the pavements at the numerous street-food stalls. All around St Joseph’s Cathedral square and the back lanes near our hotel Hanoians sat on squat red or blue plastic stools, tucking into pork skewers wrapped in banana leaves, cooked over a charcoal brazier, and thimbles of rice-wine. Westerners, their knees up round their chins, looked gangly and awkward by comparison. Business too is integral to the Vietnamese psyche, and they work extraordinarily hard. William, for example, our hotel receptionist, was a seriously driven individual. For the entire duration of our stay he manned the front desk until midnight and opened up reception at 6am every morning.
Not wanting to miss out on the chance for a big celebration the predominantly Buddhist Hanoi was gearing up for Christmas or ‘Merry Christmas Day’, except that most Hanoians really didn’t know what it was all about. The streets and trees were decorated with lights and the shops displayed all their red items with lots of cotton wool ‘snow’ thrown about
Our first few days were dominated by Christmas shopping and organising activities to share with Phil‘s Mum, Anita, and brother, James, who were jetting out to see us. It was a great way to get to know the Old Quarter and the French Quarter, and after a hard morning bartering for dragons from Sapa, silk teddies in nón lá, silk bags and laquerware, we would dive into one of the numerous restaurants and cafes - always full of character and great food, with young, friendly, professional staff. We returned a number of times to our favourite café, La Place, for their delicious egg-plant and chilli stew, fresh lemonade and chocolate ‘moofins’. We also went looking for some clothes for ourselves as our kit was getting pretty tired and whiffy, but the Vietnamese really are tiny and we fled numerous shops with ‘You too beeg!’ ringing in our ears from the young, slim shopkeepers wearing elegant áo dài. It was really depressing. I had to resort to buying men’s jeans and Phil found an XL shop where he was just the right size (maybe too many moofins?)
Once festive plans were in place we took time out to relax on Cat Ba Island, a five hour coach and ferry journey to the east of Hanoi. We had a surreal few days there (see separate blog entry) and then it was then time to return to Hanoi to welcome Phil’s mum and brother - the first of three family visits in quick succession. Anita and James settled in quickly to the pace of Hanoi and were genuinely surprised at the cosmopolitan eateries, the ‘tiny, friendly’ Vietnamese, the attractive architecture and the craziness of the traffic. Day one and Anita had us diving into the Huong Mai coffee house to try Weasel Coffee or civet-poop coffee. You might have seen Michael Palin trying it out on TV? The coffee beans are fed to weasels (actually civet cats), part digested, excreted, cleaned (!) and ground. The resulting coffee is great, or it would be if it wasn’t served up with a large gloop of sweetened condensed milk.
For our first family activity we headed out of the city to the Gulf of Tonkin for a three-day cruise around the beautiful Halong Bay (see separate blog entry). We then returned refreshed to Hanoi for some festive fun. On Christmas Eve we went to a concert of Vietnam’s most famous pop divas and singers (inc. Thanh Lam, Siu Black (check her out on youtube) and Quang Linh) at the Opera House, a beautifully restored small-scale replica of Paris’s Palais Garnier
Christmas day was spent browsing the shops, people-watching and walking around Hoàn Kiem Lake. This beautiful willow-lined lake is in the centre of the Old Quarter, a key attraction and a focal point for the city’s public life. Set back from the north shore is the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre. Performances are just 40 minutes long, so very short and sweet and well worth it, not least for the traditional live music (especially the stirring sound of the dan bau, the Vietnamese monochord) and the luminous flying water dragon. Our festive dinner was at the elegant Madam Hien's where we tucked into Vietnamese dishes such as fish steamed in a lotus leaf and succulent honey glazed pork. Later we skyped family in the UK and were astonished to hear that they winter had really tightened its grip and temperatures had plummeted to -15’C. Anita and James were really pleased to be on holiday
On boxing day we visited the Văn Mieu, the Confucian Temple of Literature, a quiet retreat from the noisy, frenetic streets, and afterwards we lunched at Koto www.koto.com.au. This busy restaurant specialises in giving training, experience and hope to the street children of Hanoi and has a delicious menu to boot. Other site visits included Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum and the One-Pillared Pagoda. The mausoleum of the Vietnamese leader is a huge Soviet-style memorial modelled on Lenin’s, and, like Lenin, Ho’s wishes to be cremated were ignored. The One Pillared Pagoda is a historic Buddhist temple and is regarded as ‘one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples’, so we had high expectations. Sadly the pagoda’s beautiful lotus pond (as per the postcards) was a small puddle of pea-green water, revealing the ugly concrete pillar, and not a blossoming lotus in sight.
On New Years Eve we gorged on pizzas in Alfredo's and ice cream at Fanny's before heading to Hoan Kiem Lake to see how the Hanoians celebrate the New Year. The willows were draped in lanterns and their colourful reflections danced on the inky water. Turtle Tower and the red Huk Bridge were aglow. A deep, repetitive beat was being carried across the water, so we just had to follow that and we found a big crowd, an open-air stage, DJ, MC, silver dancers, lasers and swirling smoke. The tunes were fantastic and James was loving it. We all were. The Vietnamese looked uncertain about the dance music and the cliques of western travellers grooving away, but as midnight neared the pop-stars were wheeled out and the Vietnamese went crazy…..well crazy in a sort of refined Vietnamese styley. Midnight marked fireworks, more lasers and all the westerners, inc ourselves, jumping about and hugging each other while the Vietnamese looked on with a mix of mystification and forbearance
The next morning, as we were waving goodbye to Anita and James in their taxi, a grand procession including drummers, choristers, a brass ensemble and religious leaders filed up the steps and into St Joseph‘s. A open New Years Day service was conducted in French, and an eager crowd spilled out of the main doors and into the square. We retreated to a balcony opposite, drank a beer and watched the spectacle in reverse an hour later, pleased to be witness to a part of religious Hanoian life and interested too to see how the Communist regime allows open Catholic worship after years of suppression.
Then, sadly, it was our turn to depart. We’d had a great time in Hanoi and had enjoyed reuniting, albeit briefly, with mum, Anita, and James. We were glad that our Vietnamese travels were to continue a while longer and excited about our next leg - The Reunification Express - a two day / two night train ride south to Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City. Tony, the young bell-hop from Hotel Splendid Star, epitomized the friendliness of the Vietnamese. He escorted us in our taxi to the train station and paid for the taxi. He carried both our back-packs onto the train having paid for a platform pass for himself, found our carriage and delivered our bags to our bunks. We tried few times to tip him but he kept laughing and saying 'nooo, nooo, its free, free!' His smiley face then appeared at our window and, as we pulled away from the platform, he waved us off. Amazing. We really couldn’t understand what we’d done to deserve such service!