The sleeper from Dong Hoi to Hanoi took about 12 hours, we left at 11pm and got in at just past 11am. As first time sleeper train experiences go, it wasn’t too bad. Sleep was of course interrupted, every time the train stopped you’d be jolted a little.
Coming into Hanoi we’d had our breakfast, for Sam that was a pot noodle, for me a giant apple; Sam read the Lonely Planet’s guide to Hanoi, and I tried to relax with my white earphones and music.
Hanoi is known for its scam taxis; taxis with an insanely high meter rate, one that will treble before you’ve left the station. Lindsey, the girl we’d taken the Hoi An cooking course with, had exactly this problem; at 3am she’d arrived in Hanoi and her taxi tried to charge her extortionate rates. We were naturally paranoid, but needn’t have worried; our hotel met us on the platform and led us through the busy station exit safely. “Taxi? You need a taxi? Taxi to your hotel?”, we must’ve said no a hundred times. We threw our heavy red and blue backpacks into the boot of the car and set off.
Hanoi is insane, that was my first impression. A busy, crazy place where motorcycles fight for their patch of road, mapping a weaving course to whatever destination they seek. Our taxi was slow, manoeuvring diligently through traffic, mopeds laden with goods kept streaming past. This place isn’t designed for cars, though there’s more here than we’d seen elsewhere.
We were staying at Charming Hotel, note, that’s not Charming Hotel 2, that’s the sequel. It’s down Yen Thai St, a narrow alleyway for bikes only; a quintessential Hanoi side street teaming with life, it’s own micro community amongst the craziness of the capital city. The hotel was nestled between some food stalls and a porcelain painting shop for kids.
Our room was modest, if a little old, it had the essentials — a toilet, a bed, wifi, breakfast, and we paid a little more for a room with a window, “city room” it was called. The staff were lovely and always wanting to help, a team always waiting in the lobby.
We slept, showered, sorted our laundry and headed into Hanoi for the afternoon. We were in the old quarter, a short walk from the sights, the restaurants and the plethora of shops.
The shops are small, thin and narrow again like most of the houses (see: obscure government tax on building width). Outside is usually a patch of sidewalk, it would be wrong to let this go to waste; business in Hanoi takes place on the street — food stalls, shoe repairs, metal work. The path is valuable workspace and the shop is for storage. Busy streets are oozing with the working life of the Hanoians.
We set out to follow the Lonely Planet walking tour, which started by Hanoi’s renowned Hoan Kiem lake, though we got sidetracked. For almost an hour, strolling through the streets and around the lake no one hassled us. A first. Was everyone sleeping? A lovely teenage girl did stop and say hello to us by the lake, I was being all defensive, but she was genuinely practicing her English, the sales pitch never came and she wished us a pleasant holiday. When we mentioned Halong Bay her eyes lit up, she had some prepared sentences ready.
Standing at the foot of the lake, Sam shared with me the story of Cu Rua, the lake’s legendary giant turtle. Cu Rua is the last surviving lake turtle, a mere 200kg, 2m long and 100 years old. Locals believe the turtle to be sacred; he is one of only three of this freshwater turtle species left. He wasn’t coming out to see us today.
To the north of the lake, on an island, sits Ngoc Son temple, reached by an arching red wooden bridge. Beneath lanterns hanging from an ornate wooden roof men played mahjong. Inside, beyond the plastic fruit and standard temple dedication affairs, lies a bronze plated stuffed turtle, one of Hanoi’s ancient turtles. Outside a couple played badminton by the Martyr’s Monument, a dedication to those that died for Vietnam’s independence.
Diversion complete, we set about the Lonely Planet walking tour. Old quarter street names are self descriptive, Hang Bong — cotton street, Hang Giay — shoe street, and so on. The streets have diversified a little now, but their original flavour is plain to see. Along shoe street people sold and mended shoes, and children carrying thread hassle you, suggesting your perfectly good sandals need fixing.
We crossed the road back and forth a few times, quickly becoming masters of the Vietnam road crossing game (of life and death). The walking tour devolved into a tour of variously named shopping streets and ultimately a shopping trip we weren’t ready for. We abandoned it, booked tickets for the water puppet theatre and nipped back to our nearby hotel.
At 6:30pm we were back at the water puppet theatre for a performance described by the Lonely Planet as, “Punch and Judy in a pool”. Water puppetry, or roi nuoc, is a traditional art form dating back a thousand years, emerging from flooded rice paddies. Set against live traditional music, puppets move about the water surface, controlled by hidden poles in murky water. Sam enjoyed the hour long show, but I couldn’t find the appeal, it wasn’t particularly graceful.
In night time Hanoi we meandered towards Madame Hien, housed in an old villa and specialising in elegant street food. Sam opted for the five course taster menu. My soft-shelled crab starter, as might be expected, was delicious.