Old Quarter – Hanoi
A short flight with Vietnam Airlines takes us from Hue to Hanoi – the capital of Vietnam.
Compared to hot and steamy Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi in mid-February is cold, overcast and drizzly – one morning it gets down to 11 degrees C and we’re still cold, even wearing four layers of clothing. Other Australians in the Hanoi cold are identifiable by their outfits of shorts, T-shirts and thongs.
Our hotel is in the Old Quarter and the surrounding area is more crowded and has more dangerous traffic than Ho Chi Minh City – which is saying something. It is impossible to walk directly along any footpath or roadside due to myriad motorcycles and motor scooters.
Wall-to-wall tiny shops line the footpaths, selling clothes, footwear, camping gear, electronics – you name it. There is no noticeable copyright law in Vietnam so many of them stock well-known brand name products, cheap. A local tells us the goods are often sourced from the same sweatshops that the big brand names use.
And there is even a relic of French colonialism as on the street corners old ladies sell baguettes by the dozen.
In the shopping areas, it is surprising to see that Australia’s ANZ Bank supplies most of the ATMs.
Ha Long Bay
Next on the agenda is a bus trip to Ha Long Bay, where Intrepid Travel has booked the team a cruise and overnight stay on a cute looking junk. The Bien Ngoc (Pearly Sea) looks somewhat old and small from the outside but the inside is magically spacious – with a dining salon, karaoke bar and eight comfortable staterooms, each with air conditioning and en suite facilities.
Photographs in Ha Long Bay brochures typically show one serene looking junk on the placid waters amidst the jutting limestone towers. Our guide tells us that there are in fact 500 junks plying this recently listed World Heritage site.
The area is truly beautiful but as we cruise along, plastic bags, oil slicks and other jetsam pollute the water. The area is undergoing massive high-rise tourist development and one wonders what it will be like in 20 years.
Young Australians in our group just had to do double back-flips with pike from the junk into the freezing water – “because it was there”.
Meeting in Hanoi
By chance, back in Hanoi, we catch up with Cheesemeister Richard Thomas. Richard takes us to the poky but excellent New Day Restaurant where we clamber up some rickety stairs past a warren of dining rooms to enjoy a fine lunch.
Later, we catch a cab and Richard shows us around the up-market Tay Ho district on the northeast side of the West Lake.
In contrast to the Old Quarter, this is an area for the wealthy tourist, dotted with major international hotels, classy wine bars, restaurants and top shelf delis. On the way there we pass Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and, incongruously, in this relatively poor country, a showroom selling new Bentleys and Rollers.
Dog food anyone?
That evening we pop into the promising-looking Cafe Refresher and are surprised to find a selection of dog meat dishes on the menu. We leave, not wishing our initial tofu selection to be wok-seared in Rottweiler grease.
Vietnamese coffee is mighty fine
Highly recommended is the Vietnamese coffee that most restaurants and cafes serve. The coffee drips through a little filter that sits on top of your cup and is sweetened with condensed milk. The flavour and aroma is not unlike that of Bali ‘kopi’ – rich and thick, with undertones of bitter chocolate.
In fact, we liked it so much that we brought some home and then found we could buy it in local Vietnamese supermarkets.
Back to Australia
After a couple of extra days swanning around Hanoi, it’s back to Brisbane on Singapore Airlines. Economy class vegetarian food on most planes is usually bland in the extreme but, surprisingly, on the leg from Hanoi to Singapore the food is excellent.
Hong Ngoc 2 Hotel, Hanoi, $66 per room per night. A small, narrow, comfortable hotel in the heart of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
Women’s Museum. Here we check out a fine selection of historical exhibits, among which is a fascinating display related to Vietnamese women’s participation in military operations during the Vietnam War.