My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi – 2018

My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi – 2018

It has come to the last day at Kaz’s Health Retreat at the Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel and it is a day of so many mixed emotions saying goodbye to the owners Ilana & Adam and their staff, mainly Oun Kim and to the Health Retreat participants and of course the star attraction Kaz (Karyn) herself. It was a strange goodbye as we shared a tut-tut to the Siem Reap International Airport (some 15mins) knowing our respective planes are only a couple of hours apart. Again, another goodbye, another welcomed hug. I am on my own again … left to listen to my mind, heart & soul trying to eliminate my anxiety and talking to myself again in amidst of new adventures and challenges. I’ll certainly miss the banter and stimulating conversation of the past week of such great humans. I won’t miss the crocodiles behind the hotel of course. Before leaving the hotel, I reconfirmed with my Hanoi hotel (Hanoi Gratitude Hotel) for they are arranging a dedicated driver for the long journey from Hanoi Airport  (Noi Bai International Airport) to the Historical Centre area where the hotel is located. My landing will be around 11pm their time so having a dedicated driver is reassuring.

My last 2months backpacking ‘escape’ was primarily set for Cambodia with the focal point of staying as long as possible in Sihanoukville (more than my 2months) from my ex-girlfriend’s travel discussions with her (Dale) showing me how to travel. If you want to know more about why, how, etc on getting to this ‘escape’ situation you had best scroll down to one or two of my earliest blogs. She taught me enough that I dared to use my wings in this case and to this moment of the last fortnight or so I am again stepping well out of my comfort zone and heading for Vietnam, which was totally unplanned or expected. Yikes!!!!

A quote that I recently found and aligned myself to & truly love is from Ekhart Tolle ..

“If I am not the hero of my life … who in the hell could be?”

Leaving Siem Reap after clearing Customs & Immigration and sitting in the small lounge a bad storm is brewing, much larger than the one that caused a lightning bolt to the Baby Elephant Boutique Hotel’s roof earlier in the week (refer to previous blog). Despite this we were cleared to board the plane and we started to taxi out to the runway. Lightning all around, loud thunder is instant for it seems almost overhead. A sketchy announcement was made over the intercom but it took the hostess to confirm we are now stopping to await an opening in the storm. Our plane is sitting still … I said hello to the very young people sitting next to me again & offered some of my snacks I had plenty of, for they were shy & declined the offering with a smile. Yet, I received a “hello” in very good English and then the couple started talking to the group behind as well. I now found myself in a young group of 5 holidaying from Iceland. My first & only Icelanders I have come across. Conversations evolved magically & there was no more shyness.

Surprisingly, the plane had been sitting still for some 35mins & I was wondering if we had to go back and refuel. It’s a very long time to be sitting in a plane. Passengers kept asking the hostesses if they could use the bathroom; but they must hurry as there will be little warning for take-off. Suddenly at 35mins & without warning the plane starts full throttle and woosh!!! For we are in the air. Hope no-one was in the toilet. LOL!!! With my airport experience I have never heard of any plane sitting motionless on a runway!!! A taxiway yes (normal) .. but NEVER on a runway!!!

We arrived late at Hanoi however, the pilot stated we had made good time so not as late as it was expected. After clearing Immigration & Customs and the steely eye of the Vietnamese officer I was cleared for baggage retrieval and the search for my Limo driver. I noticed the Hanoi Airport was ultra-modern and very impressive; possibly the best I have seen to date. The Hotel Limo driver found me promptly (sent my ID photo prior) which helped & he graciously said I was late .. hint .. subtle hint.

Driving in to the city was a surprise with a well-constructed highway elevated to 2 very impressive cable bridges allowing passengers to view the city lights above the river. Very impressive at night time!! The impression of this super infrastructure forced me into thinking this part of Vietnam is decades more advanced than anywhere in Cambodia. After the bridges I was totally lost, for we are now in darker streets and very busy ones too. After a bit of winding through streets the Limo stops abruptly and the driver seems to be ejected from his seat and has my door open & the boot at the same time. I enter the hotel which looks more like a shopfront straight into Reception where I am met by Maureen, dressed in authentic Vietnam evening wear. So impressive and most polite and a bit past midnight too. My room was excellent and the sleep was amazing. I found myself just making the brekky deadline in the little dining room beyond the Reception counter after the gracious “good morning” from Maureen. It was a small buffet setup so I helped myself accordingly with the Western type menu. Maureen guided me via the city plan to the Historical Centre and the famous city lake, Hoan Kiem Lake & Park within the centre, a few city blocks away (10min walk).

As I came closer to the lake area the footpaths and the traffic (cars & scooters) became heavier & more erratic. Hanoi is a city of 5 Million scooters in a population of 7 Million. Cars only number 500,000 according to 2017 stats. The pedestrian crossings work better than Cambodia but you still have to have your wits about you. Concentrate & keep walking; don’t stop; traffic will avoid you. One of the first things I notice is the extreme lack of English signage. I soon remember I am now in a stronger Communist country and much later I found out the Vietnamese (Government) encouraged the dislike of America since the Vietnam war, hence the US Dollar is very rarely used or mentioned. Vietnam use their own currency; The Dong. I was blessed in Cambodia where they predominately use the USD but now, I have to use my ANZ currency converter to rationalise the 22,000 approx Dong to the $1USD.

I headed towards the French Quarter as Maureen suggested to see the French architecture and where the French decimated the ancient pagodas, old market areas and original village structures so they could take over the ‘surrendered’ Vietnamese people. My first stop was the Hoa Lo Prison, built in 1896. The original prison covered 12,908sq metres, making it the largest prison in Indochina. Today, the prison is drastically reduced in size by only the original frontage building and courtyard and dedicated into a museum now where you will still find it very confronting. There are real-life mannequins shackled as they would in normal life there and where they sat through the day is also where they laid at night. Totally barbaric. The French were very evil then. There is also a guillotine in place where it was used quite frequently.

This prison housed the future president, Ho Chi Minh for many years until he, & several of his followers escaped through the sewer manhole and sewer pipes in the most-smallest of places. A superhuman effort. Later on, some of his followers became his Generals, etc when Vietnam regained its independence. This prison also had writings discussing Hanoi Jane, alias Jane Fonda where she is said to have betrayed the US POWs housed here during the Vietnam War. Controversy on this continues today.  Heading away from the prison and to the Southern end of the lake I see a very impressive roundabout and French building; The Opera House or Grand Classical Music Hall, built 1911 stands before me in all its glory. A truly beautiful heritage French building.  Adjacent to the Opera House is the upmarket shopping centre, Trang Tien Plaza. I thought I would enjoy a coffee within the 5 floors of shopping but alas, I walked the entire plaza only to find on the top floor a ‘Dunkin Donuts’ as their only coffee shop. LOL!!! No Thanks. Heading back along my steps I came across another masterpiece, the Grand Catholic St Joseph’s Cathedral built 1886; the city’s oldest church with the resemblance of Notre Dame. A lot of French buildings have now become major hotels and the like.

Walking the lake perimeter, I was able to transverse across the traditional bridge to the lake island temple Den Ngoc Son (1st photo above), located at the North end of the lake, where dozens of locals were praying and seeking solace in the landscaped garden grounds & bonsai trees set in extra-large pots. This temple uses the focus of the mineral Jade for all its healing and worshiping properties and have a large turtle in a glass tomb, but I could not find out why it is there. I suspect they are the water animal of grace and peace & there is plenty of that in this special place. The lake water is so calming too.

After the temple I found a close location and an easy place to hover around; The Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square which is really a very large traffic roundabout.  At around 5pm everyday; this roundabout & the associated streets are closed to traffic and the pedestrians immediately come out in swarms. A bustling night time area with lots of activities, singing, dancing, school musicians and people mingling. Looking around I see a curved tower building suiting the roundabout shape with about 6 levels of bars and restaurants. I took the privilege of taking the open area balcony on the 4th floor with a couple of beers & eventually a late dinner to gaze upon the activities below and start the people watching in the carnival environment. My first & second Vietnam days had certainly started well and I felt comfortable walking back to my hotel mid-evening. Surprisingly, I didn’t get lost. Point to note, the traffic doesn’t seem to ever ease and there’s always people about.

The next day was even more amazing. After the buffet brekky I reconfirmed what the hotel had organised for me when I originally booked in Cambodia. I will be heading to Sapa/ Fansipan (NW of Vietnam, very close to the Chinese border) first for 2 nights by bus & then back to the hotel overnight then off to Halong Bay by bus again for the Bai Tua Long Bay (North of Halong Bay with almost same Latitude as Hanoi) cruise then back to Hanoi Gratitude Hotel. Once all that was finalised with Reception, I went back to the lake area to continue my French Quarter touring of the streets; this time taking a street or so earlier that brought me further away from where I was the day before. I noticed a completely different day with so many young people and couples walking the lake perimeter pathway, amongst the leafy trees and well-manicured gardens. Out of the silence, a loud whistle blared!! It was an officer of some sought, Police maybe or a local authority sternly pointing at a young couple where the young male was sitting on a park bench & a young lady lying on his lap talking to each other. They immediately sat upright and rigid. Apparently, such western ‘love’ behaviour is unacceptable in public. I was quite taken aback by this regimental approach.

That event had me walking and thinking at the same time in reflection and I accidentally went left instead of right where I found myself in the roundabout area again but being a Saturday (non-school day), it was filled with very young children, mainly in groups with chaperones, teachers or parents in sync. Suddenly, I was confronted & surrounded by a group of children (students) wishing to talk to me in English. I was asked a variety of questions like where am I from, how old am I, what do I like about Vietnam, & a hundred more questions. Each young person was very polite although mostly shy but they hung on every word I was saying. This is their main approach to learning more English than they do in school. After say, about 8 or so groups in a row I was able to become better at handling their questions, accepting the video recordings, parents and teacher’s involvements, etc; but at the now end of the day I was completely worn out. It’s tiring talking about yourself ALL day and concentrating on their needs!!! LOL!!! For all those hours I don’t think I moved more than an area of 80m2.

Being around 5pm I sat alone on a timber low wall around a large tree to unwind and contemplate what I might like to do next. Sitting down was such a relief for it had been hours & hours involved with full-on eager children. Within about 10mins a very quietly spoken young lady asked politely if she could sit with me. Her name was Julia. She was 17 but looked 14. A slender young lady that wanted to ask me the same questions I had for most of the day. I graciously complied and I was allowed to ask questions in return. Her English & manner was excellent and the best quality conversation all day. I was in need of liquid and food and soon found out Julia had not had neither all day too. She said she will eat back at her sister’s place over an hour away on a bus. Looking across the street adjacent to the roundabout I saw a quaint little nook type shop. I asked her to trust me & sit with me while we replenished ourselves. After a while she said yes, but was extremely shy however I think she knew I needed to eat, being old, I guess. Haha!!

The quaint little shop was called The Note Coffee Shop for it was literally covered in thousands of post-it notes to every spare space on the walls, counters, tables, etc from travellers all over the world over the years. I knew what to order and the lady behind the counter spent time with Julia in choosing a cake (Julia liked their appearance I think) and smoothie drink.  We sat at the ground floor window counter and started talking again where Julia explained to me this was her first smoothie & cake .. ever!!! I nearly cried on the spot! I recovered, and said she must take little draws on the straw with the smoothie otherwise you will get a ‘brain freeze’.  Her first ‘sip’ gave her a brain freeze which totally surprised her … We both laughed long & loud. What an experience for both of us. Before long she had to catch her bus but she was able to convey her school learning problems to me and I gave her some things to concentrate on, like how to breathe to avoid test stress and how to study more effectively and approach tasks & assignments, etc.  All this was totally proper so I’m sure you maybe suggesting I was one of those pathetic, vile predators on a tourist visa chatting up young girls. Rest assured I am most certainly NOT!!! While I was sitting there with Julia, we both read as many post-it notes messages which kept her English still flowing. There were so many but I had one staring me right in the face in front of me (pls see photo). It was a message I could use for my ex-gf, Dale back home “If you break someone’s heart and they still talk to you … with the same excitement and respect .. believe me, they really love you”. For clarity, she broke my heart, yet I am the one communicating with respect.

Julia’s bus trip is well over an hour & she does this trip several times a week to learn English from tourists. Later that night Julia managed to track me down in Messenger, then Facebook which showed her resilience and commitment to learn more, much to my surprise. She immediately started on my suggestions while on the bus & when she got home & wanted to let me know how much I had done for her in just that little amount of time. She was sad that we couldn’t meet up again as I had my bus excursions happening but hoped we could meet again after them.

The next day I walked West towards the larger city lake, Ho Truc Bach which is quite a walk but not too much to see from my encounters. I noticed the single railway line crossing the street & then vanishing in between small buildings that gave the absolute minimum clearance for the train, yet pedestrians were walking down the tracks which appeared to be market stalls further on. Can’t believe the structures being so close to the line. Further on, I saw some impressive old buildings, mainly of French Colonial architecture and these became Govt buildings and military quarters but you can’t see what they actually are on Google Maps or by their respective signage being a Communist regime and very protective of their infrastructure.

On my way back to the hotel area I was heading towards the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at the Historic Square, where his body lies in state (tomb) but this was closed, as only mornings it is open. Before reaching this Mausoleum, I saw a large open street, much like an empty highway so I thought it best to walk up the medium strip to view both sides clearly. Next minute a voice was calling out to me from the other side and a local man waving furiously. I soon learnt I had to go back to the start & cross to the other side, for it was the military parade ground which aligned the Presidential Palace and other military buildings, some with soldiers marking the gates. The man was so relieved I had obeyed instantly. I wanted to obtain reassurance I could venture further up the sidewalk before walking back to the city centre so I asked a soldier on the gate. He was very steely eyed and with a forceful gesture, much like a slap across the face ‘encouraged’ me to be silent and keep walking. I got the hint real fast! OK .. sometimes I’m a slow learner.

I had walked about 8klms by the time I reached the City Centre again and was looking for a place to eat and lounge around when all of a sudden, I heard my name called out!! It was the young Iceland group I flew into Hanoi with. What are the chances in a city filled to the brim with people such as this? After a quick catchup (they had to be somewhere soon) we parted ways again only to cross paths a few hours later in a different part of the Quarter (suburb/ neighbourhood). Again, what are the chances? Back at my comfort roundabout I again settled for the 4th floor bar spot for dinner and enjoyed the ambiance of carnival sounds below.

With my bus trip to Sapa early in the morning I decided to head back for a well-earned sleep but was interrupted by a street shoe repairer who noticed my joggers had sole issues. He was determined to fix them but kept avoiding the repair fee. He was full of talk but very efficient on restitching my soles. When finished (15mins) he asked for 2Million Dong as I now have ‘new’ shoes. That’s $85USD folks!!! My joggers were about 3years old but good ones. Obviously, we argued for quite some time and in the end, he was paid $10USD worth, for those 15minutes of work so in money terms he did extremely well in the exchange but he remained aggressive. I left at the first opportunity to avoid a physical confrontation that would be hard to avoid police action. I referred this to my hotel staff and they wanted me to take them to him immediately, as they were most bitter that his vile actions had a negative reflection upon their city and Vietnam. I received warnings later that the street shoe repairers are to be avoided every time. I was happy at spending the $10USD to avoid the altercation and eventually was able to gain a good sleep but the event resurfaced many times after. I detest bad humans and would have liked to take stronger action against him.

The next day I had brekky & headed to Sapa by bus. Thankfully, a driver was arranged to take me to the bus pickup which was a blessing. Sapa/ Fansipan was highly recommended by the hotel so hopefully it will all work out well. I will return to Hanoi for overnight stays in between my booked tours so there’s still lots to write about. Stay tuned. There’s more to come on Julia too. I couldn’t provide more websites to the locations above as they are all in Vietnamese with no English conversion. Sorry Guys.

Thank you again for reading my blogs and I trust you will stay safe, happy & healthy, especially through this COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. I do not receive any commissions &/or ‘perks’ from the above nominated businesses & locations as I am purely happy to provide the acknowledgement and connection.

I always look forward to seeing the feedback so don’t be afraid to comment. My next blog/s will be the continuous amazing Vietnam experiences and quite a few were life changing, & not just for me.

2 thoughts on “My Vietnam Launch – Hanoi – 2018

  1. Hi there, thank you for sharing your experience of Hanoi, we had to cut out trip to Vietnam short last year and escape before the borders closed due to the Pandemic. Things began to close down whilst we were in Hanoi so we didn’t really get to see that much, the prison was one of those which were closed. We hope to resume our travels next year and see what Vietnam has to offer 😁


    1. Thank you … Hanoi was the start of my 2.5mths Vietnam experience. I was totally blown away on how much Vietnam provides. You must return when you can .. Apologies for being slow to do more blogs .. Stay safe & travel wisely.

      Liked by 1 person

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