We left Hoi An, Vietnam and headed to Da Nang to catch the night train to Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. We were not sure what we would find in the north of Vietnam so we marked out a week on our schedule. Most people would probably find a week in Hanoi too long, but for what it lacks in sights we wanted to see or visit it more than made up in coffee shops and food.
We made it to Da Nang with enough time to do some grocery shopping at the Big C downtown and to let John shop for a watch. He had coveted one in Hoi An but had decided to be patient and look at the shopping center in Da Nang. Having to carry around whatever purchase he has made and being faced with the constant question of liking it or not has made him a much more conscious buyer and thinker about what he wants. We also had time to go to the main post office, where again there is a desk that packs all our things for us. This is sooooo much better than finding packing materials and trying to navigate the size and shape regulations. We simply handed over our bag of trinkets, a nice lady wrote down everything on the packing slip, she boxed and filled it with packing material and then taped it all up. Wonderful.
Night Train Da Nang to Hanoi: The train station in Da Nang is not a place to hang out. It is a has all the charm and comfort of a DMV government office. Buying tickets for the night train was an interesting challenge and we purchased ours on line. For $25 each we bought all four beds in a four bed ‘soft sleeper’ car. Not from one of the private services but from VNR – the state railway. It was a good lesson in researching and you have to remember that blogs and on-line information is often outdated when it comes to details like times, cost and frequency of trains. We took the train that originated in Da Nang (SE 20) and it left precisely on time at 6:40pm. Our tickets were emailed to me and I printed them at our homestay. The staff person at the door to carriage #5 looked at all four of our tickets (not bar scanned or anything) and on we went. They were never checked again during our journey. We had a fine picnic with our groceries from the Big C and bought drinks from the cart that came past. There was a Vietnamese toilet at one end and a western toilet at the other. The only thing to be aware of that the AC was blasting the entire time – which was great at the start but by the middle of the night the kids (on the top bunks) were freezing. I grabbed sweatshirts and jackets out of their bags so they could get back to sleep. There did not appear to be any way to individually control them. In the end the kids just bundled up.
After a long taxi ride (which finally got shorter when I got out our phone and had the map out on the dash to show the driver I knew he was taking us on a joy ride) we arrived at the fabulous Rendezvous Hotel (also a YHA hostel). We booked a room with a twin and a king in it and then had them bring in a single for John. We eventually gave up on the single because it was so uncomfortable. But for $45 a night, wonderful breakfasts included, it has been a great stay. Wifi worked everywhere, laundry service was lightening fast, Thursdays were free beer and spring roll night but best of all the staff became good friends. Kate and John were adopted by the staff of twenty-somethings and Kate spent a lot of nights down drawing or hanging out with them. Yesterday John stayed downstairs late showing one young man pictures of Oregon and explaining the west coast states and cities.
Vietnam Women’s Museum: After a sad attempt to get my iPhone 6 fixed (which went snorkeling in my pocket while in Hoi An) ended in failure, we spent the rest of the time exploring the Old Quarter part of Hanoi. Not being moved to see Ho Chi Minh’s tomb, we opted to visit the Vietnam Women’s Museum. This was a fascinating way to study the War time through the stories and roles of women – as nurses, spies, mechanics, fighters, and mothers. We were all very glad to have gone – 30,000VD ($1.50) each; 30,000VD for the audio guide. While the exhibits are well signed in multiple languages, I have come to believe that the audio guides in museums gives great extra information for the money. To have come all this way and not spend the extra $6 (total for four of us) in order to get the best experience possible seems silly.
Hanoi Food Tour: Thanks to suggestion of our good friends the Reynolds family, we have embraced the idea of the Food Tour. We did the Hanoi Food Tour ($20 each and started at their office in the heart of the Old Quarter) and you had better come hungry. It was three hours of steady eating. These tours have been interesting because you don’t know exactly how much town history you are going to get or if is just the food. This was mostly the food but as usual, we ended up many places we would never have found or ventured into. Each stop was excellent and the group was fun. As always it is a great way to see an area and try foods that we wouldn’t know to try. We also got to practice our traffic crossing skills.
It is fun to hear our kids watch other new visitors struggle with street crossings now that we have gotten the hang of it. Like our previous post on learning to bike while in Hoi An, being a pedestrian in Hanoi (or Saigon for that matter) is accepting you are just part of the traffic flow. Since the sidewalks are loaded with either motor bikes, people selling things or people eating, it is normal to be walking in traffic to some degree. The key is to steadily venture forward across and into the traffic, not jerking around or jumping back. Clearly declaring your intention to head a certain direction and by making eye contact with the flow of on-coming cars, buses and motorbikes first from one direction and then the other; a pedestrian is just another part of the stream of ever-shifting traffic. It seems so natural to us now after a month, it is puzzling to see other people panic and fight the constant flow of traffic, just like we did a month ago.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter: We loved the Old Quarter that is north and west of Hoan Kiem Lake. The beautiful Turtle Lake – legend has it that Le Loi, the emperor in the 15th century, used a golden sword given to him by the Golden Turtle God to secure Vietnam’s independence from China and then sometime after the war the Turtle God reappeared in this Lake and asked for its return and Le Loi cast it into the Lake. The Lake is certainly a gift to Hanoians who enjoy this beautiful oasis. On weekends, the surrounding major road is shut down so it becomes a playground for kids and grownups alike. The Old Quarter is centered around 36 streets that each were name for the craft on that street – we lived near the street were almost every shop is paints and related products. Now businesses are much more mixed but you can still see the general theme if you search for it.
We found our grocery store and a poker club adjacent to the Lake. I went to play cards one day but they only run tournaments – by law locals can’t play cash games, only tournaments. I had just missed the start of the last tournament for the day sadly but I stuck around to watch it until I was sure that it was just poker the same we play it all over the world. I also was listening for sounds of the partying upstairs at the Playboy Club above the Poker Club but, as the Playboy Club should be, it is apparently sound proof.
We got to connect with our German friends, the Nestlers, again in Hanoi. They arrived a few days later than we did after visiting Cat Bay (near to Ha Long Bay where we went – which deserves a post of it’s own). It was fun to enjoy Hanoi and spend time with them these dear friends and kindred spirits exploring the world. We have adopted many of Frank’s rules such as – the best places to eat already have lots of people there and a person can never have too many pairs of sunglasses.
We liked Hanoi slightly better than HCMC but not because there was more to do – since we didn’t need to see Ho Chi Minh’s body or Museum there wasn’t a lot of top attractions. We have read other blogs that claim that maybe people are friendly one place or another but we felt welcomed in both places. The kids made wonderful friends of the staff in Hanoi, even to the point where we let Kate venture off on a motorbike with our new friends, Judi – which took a huge amount of parental faith.
The only thing we can say is that the Old Quarter of Hanoi is marginally less crazy than the Old Quarter of HCMC – not that there are fewer motorbikes or any chance of walking on a sidewalk anywhere, just a slightly slower pace of traffic. But we loved them both and would encourage anyone to go visit either or both of Vietnam’s big cities.