Another overnight train journey (oh, I’ve missed those – so much nicer than buses), brought me to Hanoi, where the cold, windy weather of Hoi An morphed into cold, windy, wet, miserable weather. It appears I’ve come to the end of my extended summer at last. I had to buy leggings and extra socks here. I haven’t yet succumbed and bought a coat but it’s early days yet.
I stayed near Hoan Kiem lake, where a legend says that a divine turtle surfaced to reclaim a magical sword from the emperor and take it back to heaven now that Vietnam was at peace again. There a rather pointless temple with a stuffed turtle in the middle of the lake, but it’s a nice place to walk around in the evenings, particularly because a lot of young couples come here to get their wedding photos taken.
Just before I got on the train I was browsing TripAdvisor and saw a review for HanoiKids, a volunteer group of English students who offer free tours of the city. They advise that you book a tour two weeks in advance so I wasn’t holding out too much hope but I emailed them anyway, and got an email back inviting me out the next day. They were even able to add two more people on no notice when I met Ash and Chris from America on the train. We were guided by Nga and Thun, who were happy to take us wherever we wanted to go in the city. We went to the Hoa Lo prison (aka the Hanoi Hilton, which I’m sure the actual Hanoi Hilton still feels pretty pissed off about), and then to the Women’s Museum, which has interesting exhibits on things like marriage traditions, childcare, female war heroes, goddess worship and street vendors. The museums were interesting and could obviously be swapped for anywhere else you wanted to visit, but mostly it’s a chance to chat to a couple of local kids so they can improve their English and you can learn a little about each other’s culture.
The best part was obviously asking them for the best place to eat lunch and being introduced to bun cha – grilled pork patties in a sweet and sour soup served with vermicelli noodles, beansprouts and herbs. It’s amazing. I had it a few times in Hanoi, but the first was the best, so if you go seek out the bun cha restaurant at 34 Hang Than.
One of the traditional wedding outfits from the Vietnamese minorities.
We started talking about the differences between Vietnamese and Western weddings here – Nga explained to us that the couples around the lake aren’t actually married yet, but most Vietnamese people get their photos taken in advance so they can display them at the wedding. She was surprised at how much went into planning a wedding in the UK or US as apparently it’s quite normal to get married in Vietnam only a couple of days after getting engaged. Clearly I thought Chris and Ash, being married, were much better suited to answer her questions on Western traditions, but then, they didn’t exactly have a traditional engagement. Chris revealed later that as they weren’t really ‘engagement ring people’ they didn’t go for diamonds. Instead he bought Ash an engagement rifle. As you do.
After getting back from the HanoiKids tour (we talked so much that we ran over our booked time slot by about two hours!), I had a food tour booked with Crossing Vietnam. I ended up being the only person on the tour which I thought might be a bit dull, but the tour guide Minh was really friendly and accommodating – one of the Hanoi specialties is egg coffee but when I told him I didn’t drink coffee we went for street side beer instead!
By the way, 5000 doing is about 15p. Yes, seriously. I had many varied and mostly tasty things (yay pho, yay spring rolls, boo weird fried tofu in shrimp sauce), but I still don’t think anything came close to the bun cha.
One of the last things I did in Hanoi was visiting the water puppet theatre. The stage is entirely filled with the water with a pagoda structure at the back to hide the puppeteers and the puppets dance around in the artificial lake (presumably controlled by long sticks under the surface of the water?) It’s a short show, but simple and quite charming as long as you’re not expecting a grand spectacle – certainly more entertaining than the shadow puppets in Indonesia.
P.S. Just for you Mum, I took a butt tonne of pictures of textiles at the women’s museum, which I won’t put on here, but I may flood Facebook with them. This is one of my favourites though, from a collection of baby hats. The coins and amulets are there to protect the baby from evil spirits! And I always thought bobble hats were just for cuteness.