I was heart broken to see the smokey air obscuring everything including the airport as we landed. I had booked a ride through our hotel because they said on the website the hotel was hard to find and down an alleyway. There is a totally different style of driving here than everywhere else – tons of honking and light flashing. We crossed a bridge from a unicorn fantasy with arches lighting up in rainbow colours. Our room is nice and clean – a little small but we aren’t planning to hang around. We find a restaurant that is supposed to be good – Yin and Yang – and it was fine maybe even good for a first night but both Chris and I wished we had grabbed a small plastic stool at the streetside hot pot bbq close outside of the hotel. We were all a little rangy with travel and feeling like we wanted to sit non actual chairs and not stools. Our bed is – if possible – harder than the dock. No matter what happens we are not stying an other night. The next day we find a better spot – a little homestay that is bright and cheerful with a restaurant next door that has its kitchen on the third floor and sends the food down in a dumbwaiter. We barely manage to pull the kids away. We walk – through the Old Quarter and get tickets to the water puppet show, the kids get their portraits sketched and we stay out late walking the night market. The streets close down to traffic on the weekend for the night market. It’s the usual suspects of meat on sticks, treats and shopping but with the added bonus of street theatre. It’s a fun night that finds us home late with an Elsa ballon and nitrogen cooled ice cream balls that smoke.
Hanoi pulses with an energy that is at once welcoming and alien. The traffic flows like water around river rocks. You pretty much close your eyes and step out on a wing and a prayer. Both our hotels have been down narrow alleys off the side streets. The Old Quarter is twisty and narrow with remarkably huge trees. The streets have a canopy of electrical wires and leaves. It is a little disconcerting to repeatedly have to veer off the side walk onto the street to walk around parked scooters. We decided to stay the weekend because the weather at Cat Ba and Ha Long was calling for rain and the night market in Hanoi is only open on the weekend.
All the classes we took while in Laos were so much fun that I book us into three more “experiences” here in Hanoi. The first is a small version of the homestay that we did in Thailand. We take a cab a few kilometres out of the city – like any big city it doesn’t really seem like we have left the city – the suburbs blur into the village seamlessly. All of a sudden the streets are narrowing the buildings have fallen away and we are dropped unceremoniously on a corner and pointed down an even more narrow alleyway. At the end of that alleyway we bumped into our guide Manh and his wife and kids on their way home. The village has been there forever – as long as Hanoi at least. There were tombs and monuments on the side of the narrow streets – the village has obviously grown and changed into more of a neighbourhood but people were buried on their land and those people have not been moved. The Vietnamese are not united with religion – there are many iterations of spiritual life some that revolve around Pagodas for the more formal honouring of Buddha and other gods and Temples which are for remembering people who have become godly with their lives. There is big Chinese influence – burning paper that signifies your wishes as well as worshipping the Mother Goddess with music and dance. One tradition that unites the Vietnamese is the honouring of their ancestors. We saw this on our first day in the Old Quarter when we visited The Ancient House – the main room had a huge heavy teak wood armour with pictures of dead family on top surrounded by food offerings, incense and candles. Every house we peaked into as we wandered down the alleys of the village had the same style of alter set up. Mostly the houses are one room with big doors open. The kitchen and sleeping rooms are smaller buildings set away from the main home. There is usually a courtyard style front that is paved or tiled or stoned. Then some gardens, pots of orange trees, bonsai pots, jack fruit and guava trees, chicken pens and koi ponds. We wandered the streets past a few larger plantation areas with banana trees and then down to the river’s edge to watch the sunset. Manh’s five year old son joined us, happy to try out his English skills and to teach Anderson and Sabine a game involving violently whacking the heads off weeds – it was a huge hit no pun intended. Then we walked back up to the village to see the temple that was built at the furthest point on the small peninsula that the village is situated on. It was a temple to honour two women from the 11th century who were warriors. This is an other reason I love Vietnam – the women do it all here – they have always been not only central to family life but they are also warriors and soldiers as well as business runners. You see only men sitting about on tiny plastic stools sipping Bia Ha (young or fresh beer) the women are busy getting stuff done. The Temple has three rooms and is cared for by a league of people in the village – again I saw mostly women. We gazed out over the water to the crazy disco unicorn bridge we had driven over in the dark just two brights before. Then we went back to Manh’s home that he shares with his family and his wife’s family. His brother in law lives up the street with his family and his in-laws. Inside we find the big ancestral altar along with giant poster sized pictures of Manh’s wedding. When I booked the experience we were supposed to cook with his mother in law – I’m
not sure what happened – maybe we played too long at the beach or stayed too long at the Temple but the food was cooked and ready when we arrived. We sat down – low as usual – you would think that I would be getting better at the squat but it eludes me still. I am as awkward as ever all knee and limb sprawled about taking up as much space as a small family. The food is amazing – pretty much all pork based – but super fresh and with tons of my favourite morning glory on the side as well as a huge fried river fish. Everyone eats family style picking bits of huge plates with chopsticks and putting it on top of little bowls of rice. Anderson is now an expert with the chopsticks while Sabine still eats with a serving spoon. We eat and talk through Manh learning about the family and the customs of the village. Then Manh organizes a cab to bring us home.
The following day buoyed by the new found “experiences” booking magic – I find a leather workshop in the Old Quarter as well as a well as a cake making class with a women who owns a bakery. It’s brilliant. The leather making manages to keep us engaged and working for five hours! Anderson even designs and makes a bracelet for Chris.
The baking class is at Thuey Anh’s home. She owns a bakery but since it’s a Sunday we meet her at her apartment building and spend the afternoon making brioche and caramelized banana bread. She has her own recipes and is self taught. Her kitchen is tiny and her main room dominated with the altar to her ancestors as well as a large poster sized picture from her wedding. She also has two kittens so it’s a fun day for both kids.
The next day we are picked up at ten am for a bus ride and ferry to Cat Ba island where we will cruise the bays – Lan Ha and Ha Long. Here is where full time travel is a drag – researching and finding the best way to see the spots – tours – I know this isn’t the most cool but I tend to like tours – maybe I’m lazy but I like getting picked up knowing we don’t need to worry about food or where we are going we just have to look and learn. But of course there are all manner of tours and prices and it’s easy to get ripped off or to just get something that is not right for us. Ha Long is a tourist Mecca so there a about one million companies to look through. There are at least as many blog posts on them as well. Chris also really resists organized tours – wanting to figure it out himself and to try to get the most authentic experience. So while I find two really well reviewed options for families they are both a little pricy and when Chris looks at booking it all separately we end up deciding to do that. The other thing is the age range with us – Sabine can’t do a lot of the fun tour things like kayaking and hiking. Anyway we decide to just get ourselves there and figure it out. It’s a packed ride up – one thing that they excel at in Vietnam is packing it in – small space? No problem – motorcycles are parked with not even a whisper between them. Buildings touch with narrow alleys leading to back stairs that run up to many doorways. And tourists, giant non Asian bodies, get jammed into busses narrow enough for the streets. We are poured out of our bus and onto a tiny half submerged ferry bobbing in the grey green murky water at the bottom of a ladder. “There is NO way that all of us and our luggage is going to fit in there”, I think. Oh but it does. Tetris in real life as the bags are tossed down into the ferry and quickly shunted left or right onto a growing pile that remains neat as a pin. Then we are back onto a bus on Cat Ba Island navigating a lane and a half width highway past piles of oyster shells and women mending fishing nets in their front yards – the bus’s horn warning cows and goats to get out of the way. Our hotel is halfway up a hill outside of the main town – it is higgilty piggly all crooked staircases and steep inclines with little terraces jutting out in all directions. We are led to our room by Thea – originally from Norway who has chucked it all for a life of travel and front desk duty. We get the full run down including learning all about her cultural mix and her previous eight months in Africa. While she is a Chatty Cathy her stories are entertaining and she promises to help us set up a private tour. Our family room is fantastic. It’s a loft with huge two story windows overlooking a bay filled with fishing boats all toggled together as well as small fish farms lashed to the small shacks with laundry hanging outside. It’s bright and colourful and the kids love it. They run upstairs and wave to us while standing beside the “safety” railing that is at best to their knees. I love what passes for safe here. And yet everyone seems to stay alive.
In the morning we are picked up for our private tour – as soon as we get to the pier we can tell something might be amiss. We have booked any tours during the last few months – classes, day trips, overnight trips and it is always surprising that everything always seems to turn out right. We have been shunted off to different rooms, our pick ups have been late, seats have been uncomfortable but everything has always worked out in the end. So it was bound to happen once. A bad trip. Truthfully it wasn’t even a bad trip it just was not the trip we thought we had booked. The captain did not speak English, the boat was very uncomfortable, we were taken directly to the one location we specifically did not want to visit, the food was cooked with egg so Sabine had nothing to eat except for rice, there was no drinking water – like no actual water to drink on the boat and to top it off it was a grey and moody day. It wasn’t all bad. We had a great bike ride into a village. The lunch was delicious and more of it for us. Lan Ha and Ha Long are beautiful
No matter what the weather – there was swimming. I know Chris was thinking what I was – which is WTF is going on?! But we both decided to just go with the flow. Even though our captain knew one word in English that he would yell to get our attention – HELLAH – and then occasionally he would yell – HA LONG – I guess to remind us we were on Ha Long bay. It was still a beautiful day. Although it was a day that made me lean more toward booking further tours with everything all included as opposed to playing broken telephone with hotel desk jockeys. Today is scooter around the island day. It’s also the day to decide where to go next …….. north or south…..