But. HOLY COW. Coming from fairly calm Hoi An and Hue, and definitely after two and a half weeks in Sapa and on Cat Ba Island, the Old Quarter of Hanoi was insane. The motorbikes, the horns, the masses of people, the tourists - it definitely took some time to mentally adjust.
a day in Hanoi life
To catch our breath we spent a lot of time at Hoan Kiem Lake in the heart of Old Quarter. Known as "the soul of the city," this is where locals walk the 30-minute loop for exercise, or practice their English with tourists, or take wedding photos, or sit and catch up with friends... Kind of like Lake Merritt in Oakland without all the goose poop.
Hoan Kiem Lake Tortoise Tower
pondering her fate
(or the phone call she just took)
We also wandered into a free artists' gallery with some stunning portraits of rice paddies and city life. (There were many more free galleries we could've explored as well.) And between dodging motorbikes and rainclouds we managed to take in some tourist activities. Here are five, in no particular order...
- Women's Museum: fantastic displays of the roles women play in everyday life (urban and rural), as well as the roles they played in the military over the past century. We had no idea.
lots of detail (in English!)
about rural marriage practices
and rural wedding garb
(yep, there's a bride under there)
- Hỏa Lò Prison (AKA the "Hanoi Hilton"), now a museum: interesting in a haunting kind of way. John McCain's flight suit is on display here, and there is some interesting signage about how well the American prisoners were treated during their "stay". But the building dates back to the early 1900s when the French used it to hold political prisoners. We appreciated the historical learning opportunity and the ability to see inside the prison, particularly the holding cells which make Alcatraz look like an actual Hilton in comparison.
the remains of a sewer from which prisoners escaped
creepiest org chart ever
one of the memorial rooms
- Thang Long water puppet show: a total tourist trap that we highly recommend. For about $3 (if you opt for the cheap seats) you get about 50 minutes of beautiful folk music and traditional performance art. Just ignore all the tourists in the audience and the bored looks on the faces of the orchestra members and you'll enjoy it quite a bit...
synchronicity part one
synchronicity part two
- Ho Chi Minh complex: we stopped by our first time through but we were too late for the mausoleum displaying the mummified Uncle Ho and decided to save the museum for our next trip. Our second time through was over Reunification Day holiday weekend and approximately 40 billion Vietnamese were visiting the complex that day. (Really. We circled block after block after block with them looking for the end of the entrance line, so we had plenty of time to count them all.) So unfortunately, all we have are some shots from the outside that we took on our first visit. No offense intended to Uncle Ho but we're okay with that.
the changing of the guards at the mausoleum
(synchronicity part three)
so close and yet so far
- Paddle boats on West Lake: an indulgence to avoid the 40 billion Vietnamese tourists visiting the HCM complex. It was fun. And now we can check "paddle boats" off our life list and not do that ever again.
darn these western long legs
synchronicity part four
Food notes: we ate a lot of delicious food in Hanoi. A LOT. But that's a topic worthy of its own blog post...!
- Our first time around we stayed at Little Hanoi Hostel in the Old Quarter. Everything about it was awesome except the price ($20/night).
office meets den meets bedroom meets dining room
- So our second time around we opted for Kangaroo Hostel. A lot more dated, but huge, two beds, otherwise totally fine and just $14/night. (Hey, that extra $6/night goes a long way here!)
her side, his side
On our last day we wandered outside the Old Quarter and found delicious com chay and a great all-English bookstore. In spite of these two TripAdvisor attractions, the streets were much quieter and the vibe was more real, more down-to-earth. We wish we'd spent more time there instead of downtown.
Next time! But now we go back to the madness of Ho Chi Minh City for reunion #7 with Kim! Very curious to see how it compares with our first visit seven weeks ago...