Hanoi Vietnam

The thousand year old city.

Flying in to Hanoi my excitement increased at the prospect of finally seeing a country I have long wanted to visit. Arriving in time for the Lunar New Year, Tet as it is known in Vietnam, added some spice to the visit with all the many special events taking place in this 1000 year old city. In spite of its age, Hanoi is still a thriving capital, with an historical Old Quarter and an elegant French Quarter at the core of the city. Because Hanoi is located in the delta of the Red River, it is peppered with lakes and parks adding beauty to a city that 7 million people call home.

Hoan Kiem Lake is in the heart of the city with the Old Quarter to the north and the French Quarter to the south. You can walk around the lake in 30 minutes except of course if its New Years Day and most of the 7 million people have flooded the core of the city in celebration. There is a small island connected to the shore by a red lacquered bridge and on the island is the Den Ngoc Son temple where people were busily making offerings in the hopes of having blessings for the New Year. In the middle of the lake is Turtle Tower, erected to tell the story of when the King relinquished his battle winning sword to a Turtle who had temporarily bequeathed to to him in order for him to vanquish the Mongols.

People watching, was at a premium on this special day and a lot of the people were dressed in their finery to usher in the New Year. One elderly lady in a beautiful gown and faux fur coat offered to pose for me when I commented on her dress.

Taking the Hop on Hop Off Bus was a good idea for our first day in Hanoi as it gave us the big picture and helped us decide what we would want to return to on day two. The bus of course had English audio and gave a great overview.

After the HOHO Bus we bought tickets to a water puppet show, a highlight for me. The puppet show was accompanied with ancient instruments and the stories and legends were acted out by puppets In a watery stage. It was really stupendous and the puppets were phenomenal in both costumes, maneuvrability and detail. Vocals were provided by the musician on the flanks of the stage. No flash photography during the show so no pictures except the “water” stage and some of the musicians. The puppets would emerge from behind the screen and act out there parts in the water.

The Old Quarter is a wonderful place to wander and we spent the first evening and some of the next day in the labyrinth of streets named after the artisan guild that occupied them, some for the past 5 centuries or so. Han Quat, for example, is still full of red banners and lacquerware for funerals and festivals and Hang Ma is still home to merchants who sell paper objects.

The narrow houses are called “Tube Houses” and some of them are so narrow at the street they only measure 2 meters. For tax and other reasons Tube Houses grew up and back but never wider at the curb. If you peek down the narrow passages that lead away from the street frontages, there are dark and mysterious storage and living areas.

From dawn til dark the Old Quarter was packed both days that we were in Hanoi. Tet is not just a one day celebration, providing the holiday revellers time to enjoy the fantastic street food, the coffee houses with games or just strolling and soaking it all up.

In the French Quarter there are some remarkable examples of French architecture including the Hanoi Opera House. Day 2 and with a route established by HOHO Bus we wandered for hours, following our noses and stopping at the Women’s Museum, the most visited museum in the city. It was interesting on many levels and certainly telling the story of women tells the story of the country and there was a great emphasis on the bravery, ingenuity and heroism of the women who survived the many violent conflicts that shaped the history of Vietnam. Pink headphones with English audio helped to understand the significant events of the past including family, history and fashion. The exhibits were interesting and engaging and often told the story through the voice of individual women.

Leaving the Women’s Museum we wandered through the French Quarter and came across a New Year’s book fair. Full of families there were books for all ages and it was heartwarming to see so many book lovers in one place, the stalls all decorated for Tet. At this point Dave & Christine felt the inevitable jet lag that is the travelers Bain and they returned to the hotel.

In keeping with the literacy theme I headed toward the Temple of Literature (you gotta love that for a temple name) for the annual calligraphy fair. The Temple is a remnant of the 11C city and consists of 5 inner courtyards modelled after Confucius’s birth place in Qufu China. The entry gates to the courtyards have names like; Well of Heavenly Clarity. The Temple served as a university, where between 1442 & 1779, student results were carved into stone pillars called the Doctors. In the courtyards, Hanoians lined up to buy calligraphy scrolls, insurance for New Years. At the altars inside the courtyards, people were shoulder to shoulder praying and making offerings.

Continuing along the streets of the French Quarter until I reached the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh where white uniformed guards ceremonially guarded the tomb, I entered the giant plaza that makes up Da Ninh Square. Close by were the government buildings and along the way the Canadian Embassy.

On the way back to the Old Quarter where I meant to finish my day with some street food, I came across a wonderful treasure, one of those places that if you were looking for it, you’d probably never find it. But wandering paid off. Along both sides of the railroad track, which were still in use, was an array of small restaurants, food vendors and merchants busy using the space provided by the tracks to back and forth, running hot plates of food and drink from kitchens to tables, up and down spiral staircases and seemingly oblivious to the potential danger of a train.

However, having some kind of advanced warning system there were suddenly shouts and whistles warning everyone off the tracks. I was sitting at a small table, having some delicious noodles when the excitement of the train coming happened, so I had to draw in my knees and hold my breath with everyone else as the train thundered through. As soon as the train disappeared down the tracks the bustle of activity started up again as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

Hanoi is a great city and schedules being what they are we had to see as much as we could in the 2.5 days we had. And now on our way to Halong Bay.

Luang Prabang & Vientiane

All along the Mekong.

The other day, in Vientiane I saw a travel poster for Laos and the slogan read “Simply Laos”, which captures the natural beauty of the place perfectly. Not as sophisticated as Thailand it still has the charm of a country not yet overrun by tourism. The natural beauty of Lao is enchanting and the Mekong River, the lifeline of the country is where you can best feel the pulse of this unassuming country. Along the Mekong are several cities worth visiting. My first stop after the Slow Boat was Luang Prabang and then a short flight later I was in the capital, Vientiane.

Laos was colonized by the French and their influence is still seen in the cuisine, architecture and many Lao speak some French. There are many French tourists here as well. Once a royal kingdom, Lao was a French colony from 1893 to to the mid 1950’s, gaining full independence after a Japanese occupation in WWII. After Independence the country was divided with the US supporting of the Royal Lao Army and the USSR backing the Pathet Lao independence supporters who were aligned with the Vietnamese and the Khmer against the French. Laos has been left with the terrible legacy of having been bombed with 2,093,100 tones during the so called “secret war” by the Americans. There are museums that display the unexplored ordinance that littered the country and there are people who make a living making crafts from the metal as a way of using the terrible events to remind everyone of the horrors that resulted. In the end the communist backed faction won and in 1975 Laos People’s Democratic Republic was proclaimed. A social regime, they sent up to 50000 royalist to labour camps.

Laos was closed to the world until 1990 when it became possible to visit Laos and see the traditional, rural lifestyles that have changed little over this tumultuous history.

Luang Prabang

Whoever coined “Simply Lao” must have had Luang Prabang in mind. It is a quiet, unassuming city with a slow pace. The old city is host to lots of foreigners from all parts of the globe. The easiest way to get about is in a long-benched Tuk-Tuk which can dart in and our of traffic and around potholes with greater ease than a car. You can also rent bikes and scooters in Luang Prabang and this would likely be the safest of cities in which to do that. You can see the French influence throughout Luang Prabang in the architecture and you can certainly enjoy a croissant and cafe au lait at a vast number of little coffee bars and restaurants.

A lovely place to wander you can climb Phousi a hill in the center of town to visit the golden Buddhist stupa and from there get a good view of the surrounding area.

The signage below indicates the main sites to be seen in Luang Prabang and although certainly possible to see them all in one day, there is no rush and spreading them out over the course of a few days mixed with a few cafe au laits is a wanderers delight. The Do’s and Dont’s are a reminder to foreigners that our Lao hosts do not share our same customs and I thought it was a gentle and friendly reminder about some of the unacceptable behaviours. Could have used this on the boat with the Tourist Thugs I encountered.

Lunag Prabang boasts some fine food experiences and one in particular, stands out…. A Lao style barbecue at your table, you first load your tray from a long buffet filled with meats/seafood, followed by vegetables, herbs and spices. The sticky rice comes at the end as does the cashier who you pay before returning to your table to “cook” your selections. The individual charcoal braziers on each table are red hot and chunks of port fat are provided to grease the piping hot metal inverted colander on which you spread your food. So delicious and very popular, the place was packed. Other Lao dishes I tried were “Larp”, a minced meat salad and Tam Mak Hung, a very spicy salad made from shredded green papaya, garlic, chillies, lime juice and fish paste. Noodle soups are also very popular and eaten for breakfast. It is served with lettuce, mint, coriander leaves and bean sprouts on the side. The best deserts, in spite of the French influence are the fresh fruits; guava, lychee, rambutan, mangosteen and pomelo. Mmmm good as is or whipped into a smoothy.

The Royal Palace Museum is another place to visit but was closed while I was there, all except the grounds which were interesting in themselves.

An evening stroll along the Mekong reveals the place to be for an evening of Lao food and people watching. Tons of restaurants line the banks and invite passerby’s to tarry over drinks and dinner and while being mesmerized by the Mekong.

Such a safe place, Luang Prabang is nice even at night and the Main Street is transformed into a very busy and long night market full of crafts and souvenirs. There are some beautiful fabrics and so many other things to buy and so little suitcase space to carry them home.

There are many day trips you can do from Luang Prabang and I chose to visit the multi-level Kuang Si waterfalls. Before you make the trek up to the falls you pass through a bear sanctuary, which was completely unexpected. There were dozens of bears enclosed in large spaces where they are free to wander, play and live out their days. Signage tells that there are no longer safe wilds for the bears in Laos, mainly thanks to poachers and deforestation. The poachers captured and killed the bears particularly for use in Chinese medicines. So sad, they can never be released.

The Kuang Si falls are beautiful shades of blue and the pools of water that form at their feet are great for swimming. A little on the cold side but being a west coast Canadian, I quickly adapted and enjoyed the refreshing waters. A little disconcerting are those self same little fish found in pedicure tanks that eat your dry dead skin. If you keep your feet moving though they are kept at bay.

The trail that leads up and along the falls is through a beautiful tropical forest and definitely is enjoyable on its own. The plant, flower and tree species are well marked and you can read about the wild life prevalent in the area as well. And in English, thank you to our Lao hosts.

The bride above is not intentionally included with the flora and fauna but is there simply because she was there, along the trail, posed, and anyone with camera in hand would be hard put to resist the intrusion.

Vientiane – The Capitol of Laos

My regret about Luang Prabang is that I spent only two nights there, saving my last four Laos nights for Vientiane. I wish that I had reversed that decision and enjoyed more of “Simply Laos”. Even though I read and did some research I fear that I thought there was more to do in Vientiane and that it too would reflect the “simply Laos” sentiment. There are some famous Pagodas in Vientiane but I visited the ruins of one that have an historical connection to the Khmer from Cambodia and resemble those that I saw in Ankhor Wat. Wandering the streets I marvelled at the electrical installations and wondered how a problem could ever be solved in the event of having to unravel the trail of tangled wires.

There are French architectural influences including a street compared to the Champs Élysées and an arch commemorating Independence. In front of the Arch is a remarkable sculpture made from blue and white porcelain cylinders. Until you are up close it’s hard to see how that is possible. At the opposite end of the street to the Arch is the Presidential Palace and in between the Morning Market is a great place to wander and see what’s for sale. The Lunar New Year was about to happen and signs of the upcoming celebration were everywhere.

I made good use of my four days in Vientiane, catching up on laundry, correspondence and the last night I had dinner with some “Slow Boat” friends. We strolled along the riverfront, visited the a night market with plenty of things for sale and many food stalls. There were also a number of rides and games for the whole family. We had decided on a South Indian Restaurant listed as the number one choice in Trip Advisor. We were not disappointed at the Flavours & Spices.

Next stop Vietnam!