Hanoi: Hoa Lu and Tam Coc

The next stop of our trip was Hanoi. I’m going to have to turn this part into two posts because there’s simply too much material to fit in. The next part will cover Sapa and Halong Bay.

Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and has been for most of the last thousand years (the 1000-year anniversary of its foundation was just over a year ago; Vietnam’s only other capital). France’s 50-year occupation of the country has a profound effect upon the main cities in Vietnam, not least in Hanoi, which served as the capital of French Indochina (The French-occupied territory that comprised Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). To us this effect manifested itself particularly in the appearance of the buildings in and around Hanoi and also in the cuisine. But most memorable of Hanoi’s traits, though not necessarily the most endearing is the swarms of motorcycles that descend on the city every day. I’ve heard various statistics about their number compared to the total population. The one that’s stuck is the one told to us by our guide on the bus to Halong Bay. He said there were 5.8 million people and 3.8 million bikes. True or not, it’s like nothing else in the world.

The sheer number of motorcycles is what first struck us as we shared a taxi with Mike, whom we had met on the bus, from the bus station to our hostel in the old quarter. The relatively short journey took a long time, edging our way precariously across each junction. The bikes, like wasps, buzzed around us. Though wasps don’t have horns, which the drivers in Vietnam use at every opportunity no matter how empty the streets are. You’ve just got to hope you don’t get stung! It later transpired, when we met Mike by chance, that our taxi driver had an ulterior motive for elongating the journey. Despite having determined an already high price for the three of us, the driver had the cheek to charge Mike the ridiculous price he had managed to rack up on his dodgy meter. Mike stood his ground and refused to pay more than the agreed price, and after a good few minutes of litigation the driver drove off with one of Mike’s bags still in the back of the car. Luckily, a travel agents Mike knew from a previous visit had the presence of mind to take down his number. Remarkably, the driver later sheepishly brought back the bag, leaving his number and insisting that Mike call it and pay up at a later stage. From then on we probably became over suspicious of the taxi drivers who would tussle for your custom at the destination of any intercity coach or train, especially after our experience in Yangshuo too.

I have to admit my heart sunk a little when we first stepped foot into our hostel in Hanoi, ‘Hanoi Backpackers’ Hostel’. It was everything I feared it might be despite positive reviews and high ratings on Hostelworld. We might as well have walked into a bar in Newcastle for all the bronzed partygoers and the loud obnoxious music that drowned the communal area on the ground floor. To me it was a feeling at once familiar and alienating. As it turned out the hostel itself figured little in our experience of Hanoi and the rooms and facilities were actually excellent for the price. Also, through them we booked one of the highlights of the whole trip – our two-day outing to Sapa valley.

Out of fear from not being able to get to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) because of the Tet (Vietnamese name for the lunar new year) holiday, we were harried into rash and expensive decisions. Though, given the chance again, I couldn’t confidently say that I would have done any of it differently. All at the same time, we booked a trip for the next day to Tam Coc, our trip to Sapa valley, and our 35-hour train to Ho Chi Minh City. Maybe it would have been better to fly, as most people did, but it would have taken away from the trip had we booked a flight. You can catch a flight to anywhere you like and the experience would be much the same, but the train would be unique.

Our first full day in Vietnam was spent on the day trip we had booked to Hoa Lu and Tam Coc. Day trips are easy to come by in Vietnam, since a lot of what Vietnam has to offer lies outside the cities. The hostel books you a place with a travel agency; the agency sends a minibus complete with guide and driver to pick up the happy travellers from their respective hostels all over the city before heading to its destination. Our first destination that day was Hoa Lu, Vietnam’s ‘ancient capital’. It was a seat of power for only 41 years before moving 90km north in 1009AD to where Hanoi now stands. It was nice, after months of living in China, to see something of genuine historical significance. But Hoa Lu offered little beyond that. There were a couple of temples, which were certainly not 1000 years old, and very similar to the Buddhist temples we had seen in China. The guide’s English wasn’t really good enough to provide an insight into the remains. Instead, it was the surrounding scenery that stole the show. And it was for the scenery that we hopped back in the minivan and went to Tam Coc.

After a buffet lunch, the two of us were rowed along a stretch of water that snaked through karst ‘towers’ much like those in Yangshuo, though perhaps not as tall. Our oarsmen, like most of the others that plied their trade there, used his feet rather than his hands. An ingenious way to reduce the effort of a long row, but requiring a fair amount of dexterity of foot! He took great pride in the speed at which he propelled us, repeatedly indicating to us that our boat was ‘number one’. Tam Coc, meaning three caves, is so named because of the natural caves that you pass through along this route. Our winding path was lined with rice paddies, but you wouldn’t have known, as it was a long way off harvest time. This hour and a half boat was at least as spectacular as anything we had seen in Yangshuo – almost too much to take in all at once.

After the boat ride there was just enough time to fit in a short cycle ride through more rice paddies before heading back – probably too short for it to have been worthwhile. But the whole day trip was worth it for the three caves of Tam Coc alone. Back in Hanoi we had plenty of time to find somewhere nice to eat. So we followed the advice of our guidebook to a place a fair distance. On the way and completely by coincidence, we bumped into our Californian coach companion, Mike. It was then we learnt of his altercation with our taxi driver. Mike joined us for dinner and we discussed our future plans in Vietnam. It turned out to be great choice of restaurant. It was a big place and the rows of full tables (mostly outside) were a testament to its deserved popularity. We ordered a Vietnamese pancake on the recommendation of the waitress. This turned out to be a sort of make-your-own spring roll. When a waiter saw that we were obviously struggling to eat it he demonstrated, with incredible finesse, how to construct the spring roll with the rice paper greenery and seafood. I tried with my hands to replicate what he had managed with chopsticks. Needless to say I failed completely! Still, that and my Pho (noodle soup) made for one of the best meals of the trip.

The next day was our Hanoi day – the day we had set aside to explore the city itself. It was actually (with the exception of our minibus ride to Halong Bay) the last time we saw Hanoi in daylight, despite the fact our departure of Hanoi was still three days away. It will become clear why later on. We started our day having endured another terrible night’s sleep. There was nothing wrong with our dormitory, but rather one of its occupants. For two nights running this guy had woken us both up in the middle of the night. The tragic irony is that, as he had woken us up, he was enjoying blissful sleep. He managed this with his truly monumental snore! I have never heard anything like it, and I’m sure Amy would say the same. Once I had given up on sleep, his snoring even distracted me from reading. That very morning, I discovered that we had met the snorer on our first evening in Hanoi – a perfectly pleasant Australian traveller. We hadn’t worked out that we were in the same dorm before because we went to sleep and woke up before him. I actually found it difficult to converse with him, knowing the suffering he had inadvertently caused!

Another less redeeming feature of our stay in this hostel was the free breakfast. It was clearly deliberately bad to encourage us to go for the cooked breakfast.  It consisted of going stale rolls, butter and choices between a bizarre relish and a sorry excuse for marmalade, and between pre-mixed coffee sachets and Lipton’s yellow label tea, which is ubiquitous in all places that don’t ‘get’ tea.  They underestimated my thriftiness. If they offer a free breakfast, then a free breakfast I’ll get! Besides, the breakfast was made up for in two significant ways. Firstly, the big screens showing live Australian open games (I particularly remember a gripping encounter between Lleyton Hewitt and Cedrik-Marcel Stebe); secondly, another of France’s more positive legacies in Vietnam is the coffee. Anywhere you go in Vietnam you’re likely to find quality coffee. It is often drunk with sweetened condensed milk (perhaps that’s the USA’s input into Vietnam’s unique brand of coffee). For those that like it, it makes for an excellent iced coffee.

Finally steeled for a full day in Hanoi, we set off first to Hoan Kiem Lake. This lake is a defining feature of central Hanoi, evidenced by the several happy couples that had chosen it as the venue for their ‘western-style’ wedding photo shoot. A large lake right in the very centre of activity in the city, its serenity offers a welcome reprieve from the surrounding roads that are beset with unrelenting chaos. The extremely rare species of turtle that dwells within has given rise to a legend in which the Emperor, Le Loi, returns a sword to the golden turtle god, Kim Qui. We saw one of these turtles on display on one of the two islands in the lake, which is easily accessed via a bridge. The other island is very small and has just enough space for ‘Turtle tower’, which is lit up at night.

After that, we visited Hanoi’s neo-gothic, catholic cathedral, St. Joseph’s. Unmistakably an allusion to the Notre Dame with its circular stained glass, it was little bit of Paris hidden away in the back streets of Hanoi. We helped ourselves to a croque monsieur and an omelette for lunch. Once replete, our next stop was to be the temple of literature. The temple is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars, and functioned as a university from 1076-1779, meaning that it predated any university in Europe. The temple grounds are made up of five successive courtyards that contain, among other things, turtle stele with the names of successful graduates and fish-filled ponds. At the end there was a performance of traditional music. I had not heard such instruments being played since I went to Shanghai around ten years ago with the Haringey Young Musicians’ Big Band. It was delightful. I listened and reflected on what a shame it is that so few people learn these instruments nowadays. After we left the temple, I got a shave on the street. I had deliberately left without any shaving equipment, with the intention of allowing a chin of hair to grow. But it was irritating me so I gave up on the idea.

The temple is dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars, and functioned as a university from 1076-1779, meaning that it predated any university in Europe. The temple grounds are made up of five successive courtyards that contain, among other things, turtle stele with the names of successful graduates and fish-filled ponds. At the end there was a performance of traditional music. I had not heard such instruments being played since I went to Shanghai around ten years ago with the Haringey Young Musicians’ Big Band. It was delightful. I listened and reflected on what a shame it is that so few people learn these instruments nowadays. After we left the temple, I got a shave on the street. I had deliberately left without any shaving equipment, with the intention of allowing a chin of hair to grow. But it was irritating me so I gave up on the idea.

Next on the day’s agenda after seeing the temple of literature was to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh, largely responsible for reuniting Vietnam and repelling the French and the Americans, is practically worshipped.  His visage is plastered all over Vietnam, not least on every bank note whether it be worth 500 Dong (roughly 1.5p) or 500,0000 (£15). You can go inside and see the embalmed body of ‘uncle Ho’. It’s curious that a nation that adores him so would deny him his dying wish to be cremated. We didn’t go inside because it happened to be closed to the public when we got there. Instead we just rested while listening to the ridiculously jolly patriotic songs that blared out all around. So severe was the guard stationed outside the mausoleum that one of the guards blasted his whistle furiously at a small girl when she strayed slightly too close.

The walk back to the old quarter was fraught with danger.  It coincided with rush hour in Hanoi. Traffic lights were largely irrelevant at that or any time. In fact, so were pavements! There isn’t a time of day where the roads aren’t swarming with motorcycles. It’s pretty simple, though scary, to negotiate the roads when there are only motorcycles because the onus is on them to avoid you. The problem with rush hour is you can hardly cross the road the same way when there are cars involved. Having made it back unscathed, we used our remaining time that day preparing for our two-day trip to Sapa – the night train was to leave at 9 that evening. After a hearty western dinner, I picked up the laundry I dropped off that morning and we retrieved our bags from storage. I was to regret not purchasing a smaller bag and leaving the bigger one in Hanoi for the trekking up hills.

So ended our experience of Hanoi city three days before catching the train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Still to come before then was Sapa and Halong Bay.

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8 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. jonny
    Mar 09, 2012 @ 17:22:49

    Good effort on the breakfast front. Don’t kid yourself that you can grow a beard!!!


  2. Mum
    Mar 09, 2012 @ 17:49:54

    I am trying to imagine the oarsman using his feet! And I loved your getting your moneysworth attitude to the breakfast! Quite right. Also chortled a lot at the story about the snorer. I am going to find it very difficult cooking for you when you get back. I don’t think anything I’ve cooked could summon up such enthusiasm! Brilliant blog as always x


  3. Judith Ross
    Mar 13, 2012 @ 02:31:11

    I have really enjoyed reading about Vietnam. However you should have done something about that snorer! Maybe made him roll over, to give him a chance, and then ejected him…..


  4. Hannah
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 10:28:37

    Hi Chris – can’t sleep so am reading this post I haven’t seen before, and having a browse on Google Images of some of these wonderful places. There are some amazing pictures of the swarms of motorcycles too.

    I found this on Wiki ………

    A frequently heard, and reasonable, etymology of Sài Gòn is that Sài is a Chinese loanword (Chinese: 柴, pronounced chái in Mandarin) meaning “firewood, lops, twigs; palisade”, while Gòn is another Chinese loanword (Chinese: 棍, pronounced gùn in Mandarin) meaning “stick, pole, bole”, and whose meaning evolved into “cotton” in Vietnamese (bông gòn, literally “cotton stick”, i.e., “cotton plant”, then shortened to gòn)……..

    It put me in mind of your blog name Chaileaves, which I originally thought sounded vaguely India tea inspired, but now discover is actually Chinese twig related! Did you know this all along?

    PS. The ‘make your own spring roll’ episode might have gone rather well on Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game (before your time I guess)….


    • chaileaves
      Apr 05, 2012 @ 10:43:56

      Interesting… I totally knew it all along! Actually, I just chose ‘chai’ because it sounds better than the Chinese ‘cha’. I thought that was permissible because they are surely etymologically linked.
      I can appreciate the reference to Brucie’s Generation game! The one with the memory game at the end, right?


  5. Hannah
    Apr 05, 2012 @ 20:18:11

    Not sure about the memory thing (that’s the conveyor belt and take-home- everything-you-can-remember-you-saw – Sale of the Century as I remember). Generation Game was about competitive have-a-go at something skilled and deceptively simple, eg. making sausages, making cocktails, or – er – constructing spring rolls (a bit fancy and foreign for 1970s telly). Better check I’m right … http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=60lbIgq-9CU&feature=related. What have you got me into – now I’d better check Sale of the Century. (This is what holidays are for….. ) Any other experts on 1970s game shows out there??


  6. Hannah
    Apr 06, 2012 @ 06:29:03

    I’ve been told…. Ronan says it was definitely Generation Game that did the conveyor belt… and he should know. You might have thought he was practising the piano rather than watching game shows, but obviously not….


  7. Trackback: Gaoming « chaileaves

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