Hanoi Haggling

The view from Cat Ba Island

It’s been so long since I have sat down to write that I needed to look at the last post to remember where I left off – the days have started to blend a bit. And I think we are into a period I want to call inertia. We have seen so many new things, tasted so many new dishes and tramped through so many night markets that we are saturated. As well as so very sick of each other. We need to do something to bring the joy back. For me that would be magically transporting some VDW – very dear women – to me so we could disappear into a long weekend of yelling stories to each other over wine and cheese, waking up whenever the fuck we want to and taking long leisurely brunches with longer walks all the while TALKING about anything other than how I have screwed something up. It might be a fantasy I have been retreating to lately.

Anyway Chris decides that we need to get to the beach so Anderson can surf and be active to the point of exhaustion for a week or so. Denang is the obvious choice – so we have booked to fly there after a final weekend in Hanoi.

Fifteen years ago I fell in love with Hanoi. I was so excited to come back and show it to Chris and the kids. It hasn’t lived up to my hype – at least for Anderson. He really hates cities – the crowded noisy streets, the dirt and the smells – it puts him off so as per my new plan moving forward I am scheduling the heck out of our time. But then we run into the weekend! This is the time Anderson has to connect with his buds back home and that means he stays up late chatting and playing and that meant our early morning excursion to the ceramics village was a tough go at first. But I have gotten ahead of myself – we left off after our little day boat trip with the yelly captain. So back on Cat Ba Chris decides we should spend a day exploring on a motorbike. Never mind the endless talk of Thailand tattoos and how dangerous it is. Cat Ba definitely seems more tame and it’s off season so there are not as many people on the road. I can tell that he’s a little disappointed that I don’t want to try to ride my own scooter. But – you know – I just don’t. Never mind the average age of the tourists scootering around. Or the insane no rules on the road traffic that flows like water. So Chris rented a bigger bike and we climbed on – all four of us – I don’t want to say we hit the road! But we headed out onto the twisty turny mountainy roads of Cat Ba. As it turns out it was almost the best thing we could have done. Almost – because the kids did manage to fight – the usual car fight but this time it was who gets to ride in front. Seriously! Seriously could someone PLEASE tell me a story of how their children manage to ruin or try to ruin EVERY goddamned fun thing that you try to do for them? I need to know that I am not alone and the buckets of our retirement that we are pouring into this venture is not for nothing. The silver lining is that it was beautiful and the noise of the motorcycle did almost drown them out.

We toodled around and got a little lost looking for a view point. After turning off the highway we found ourselves in a field of cows surrounded by steep hills, the gravel road had dwindled to a dirt path heading up toward the mountains. So we decided to skip it for the day since the four of us on a motorcycle do not make for swift ascents and it was getting late. The next day we were all excited to get back on the road. We had a lovely drive inland to the national park where upon learning there was some walking to do the kids revolted so we turned around and ended up doing a cave explore. As you may remember cave exploring is low on my list of fun things but I bucked up crouched down and explored that cave. There were bats and one occasion of paralyzing fear when I imagined being trapped in there forever. But we made it out the other side. I think I really mean it this time when I say I am not doing an other cave. Then we hopped back on the bike drive directly to an other cave. No bats this time and actual ceilings. This was a hospital built into the mountain. Basically a huge concrete bunker. There were meeting rooms and surgeries and bedrooms – they all were just empty concrete rooms. So just rooms. There were a few with mannequins in them to help with bringing it back to life.

Then it was off to catch our ride back to Hanoi.

A seller has pulled up beside and is dropping off some fruit to the fisherman

At the old armoury

At the top of the armoury

We got a bit lost on our bike explore

Farmer

Death grip the entire time

Having a casual meeting inside the hospital cave

Remains of a propaganda poster

We managed to snag an even bigger room at the homestay in Hanoi – a loft space with separate rooms so that was pretty luxurious. We got to spend an afternoon with Greg Wood and his lovely partner B at their place in Hanoi – they live just a short walk from the Old Quarter in a vibrant area surrounding a little lake. Greg informed us that the lake was actually where John McCain had been shot down and he had been imprisoned just a few kilometres away. After our history walk we were treated to an amazing meal from B who also got Anderson to help with the cooking. She speaks French and is a cooking teacher at a middle school so it was perfect. They were such sweet hosts and it was so nice to have a little bit of “family” while on the road.

Meeting a fisherman

Caught one

Sabine taking her walk in style

The lake that John McCain plane was shot down into

Greg Wood and The Bean

Learning spring rolls with B

This was seriously a super delicious cake

The next day was the ceramics village tour. This was the bomb! Our guide was amazing – his English was impeccable- he had a great sense of humour and was super knowledgeable. He talked politics, art, history, pop culture – you name it. The village we went to was called Bat Trang and ceramics have been made there since the 15th century but even prior to them the ancestors of the village had been creating pottery and ceramics at an other village further away. There is definitely a touristy bent to the village – it was filled with Vietnamese tourists as well as foreigners. As soon as we stepped off the bus we were called to by sellers and Son, our guide, gently deflected everyone. Then took us to meet the ceramics guide, a man whose name I promptly forgot, whose family had a ceramics plant and had been in the business for generations. Our tour started in the plant. We walked into a calm zen garden oasis with koi ponds and Japanese style bridges and bonsai trees. On either side of the ponds were show rooms with dark shelves that had well spaced ceramic ceremonial tea pots. It was quiet and beautiful. We walked through the gardens and into a warehouse where there were rows and rows of different stations. At the front the clay is poured into moulds allowed to dry and then removed. Then on to a finishing area where the pots are etched and polished and the handles are put on. Then to where the handles and lids are made. Finally to drying racks and the giant kilns. Apparently it takes at least five years for a worker to become a master at their station. Be it polishing or cleaning and etching. Then we walked back to the street and into a shop that made ceremonial ceramics. These are the classic white and blue vases and pots more Chinese style. The pots are for the incense that is burned at altars. We were lead into the workshop where everything is hand painted. It was all women – sitting and hand painting these incredible scenes – dragons, pagodas, fish, rural scenes, flowers. So beautiful. Then we went to try our hand at throwing a pot. We each had our own little hand wheel and our guide centred our clay and showed us a few techniques. Then we were off making huge messes. After our pottery dreams crashed and burned – it’s very very hard to do – Son took us to a little restaurant down a winding alley off the main tourist track for lunch. Here we got to see fresh rice noodles being made – a little like crepes. They were filled with pork and mushrooms and then sprinkled with crispy shallots. They are served with a warm soup that you dunk the rolled noodle/crepe into. So yummy – even the kids loved it. After lunch we got to paint our lumpy creations and then we headed home. We rested for a few hours and then hit the end of the weekend market so Anderson could get back up on a hover board and Sabine could terrorize us by driving over peoples toes in a mini scooter. I think that evening put a dent in of the romance of Hanoi. The haggling at the market, the sticky heat, the grey sky and the constant honking – even I was ready to go.

Giant bonsai and koi ponds

Unmoulding a pot

The very liquid clay

Out of the moulds

The green clay is a proprietary mix

Etching

Handles

Polishing

Before firing – after it will be cobalt and white

Hand painting

The following day was travel day – our flight to Denang was in the afternoon and we magically transformed into sloths for the entire morning. Cozy in the little loft – everyone on their personal screens. I feel itchy just thinking about it. But I told myself that sometimes we need a zone out reset. The flight was only an hour and everything was moving along fairly easily until I decided to stop at the cell phone kiosk at the airport in Denang. I needed to top up and it’s easiest at the airport because usually the person at the kiosk can speak English. But not this time – it took ages for us to understand each other. Then when we got to our hotel, the room we had booked was not a available so they offered to move us to an other hotel. So off we went on foot. The other hotel was a couple of blocks away and the room for us was nothing like what we had booked. So after some more haggling we were taken back to the first hotel where they magically found us the room we had originally booked. Bright side is that the kids learned of the term bait and switch. We woke to very loud construction and no hot water. Which – honestly would not have been an issue any other time – but this time I specifically booked a room with an actual tub and shower to properly bathe Sabine and also for ourselves just to have a relax. Our bathroom situations have been very modest. Modest in that the “shower” at our hotels and home stays for the last month and a bit have been just hoses with small shower heads hanging on a hook above the toilet. I was really looking forward to having a long hot shower and a long hot tub. But it was not to be. At least there was a pool and it was bright and hot out. Chris and Anderson has surf lessons and Sabine wanted to play at the pool. So off we went. But as it turned out the pool was at an other hotel! Upon reading the small print on our booking it stated very clearly “access” to a pool. So two blocks later Sabine and I found ourselves at the rooftop pool. Alone for the entire day – not even a mosquito stopped by let alone an other kid. It was nice to swim but it was a little lonely. The guys didn’t have any luck either – the surf was canceled for lack of waves. So after that bummer day we were really ready for our food tour that I had booked for the evening. This was an other stellar tour! Airbnb experiences have been knocking it out of the park. We got picked up by Tam, Tim and Jack and scootered around Denang stopping at the beach and flying over bridges and eating at four different spots to try the local traditional foods. They were super hosts – funny and fun and full of interesting facts. We tried so much food that we never would have tried – just because we wouldn’t have known what to order. It was a spectacular night – Anderson loved it and had a great time on the back of the scooter whipping around town. He even tried Durian. We all did. That is one confused fruit. The next day woken again by construction, no hot water and no waves we made the radical decision to get out of dodge. It took an entire morning of negotiating with the hotel and booking.com but we were able to get out money back from our prepaid room. So we booked a family room in a homestay in Hoi An and hopped a cab. I was really excited – the homestay looked great, two separate bedrooms and a beautiful pool. Upon arrival everything was a little more worn than the pictures depicted and even though that seems to be standard I felt a little flat and disappointed. I hate letting everyone down. But the smaller dingier pool was filled with children as was the worn couch in the big reception area. Phew. Other kids and families – just what we really need right now. So we drop our bags into our well worn room and head back down to the reception. It turns out the majority of the kids are leaving. But we do get a tip on an excellent kid friendly restaurant around the corner. Aaaannnd we almost make it. But it’s that little bit too far past lunch and the sun is a little bit too hot and we stop to check to see if we are on the right path just a little bit too long and the meltdown happens. These just drain us all. I can feel myself switching off so I don’t take all in. They really rock Chris and I – so much that sometimes when we are all having a great time and Anderson cracks a particularly sarcastic joke we just freeze thinking we are back in a meltdown. We have meltdown ptsd. Anyway we get through it – and this is now how I get through them – I just remember that it will end. He will come back. I will not say the incredibly angry and horrible things that I want to say. The good news is that the restaurant was great – inexpensive and not super touristy as well as delicious. We head back for a swim and the plan to walk the old town in the evening. We have the swim but something happens – the inertia comes – we listlessly lie on our beds reading or playing with dolls depending on our age. Finally we can’t even convince Anderson to come out. So we leave him and take Sabine to a restaurant across the street. Where she is a nightmare. What is happening??? I can only guess that we are tired – burnt out from travel – have spent too much time lazing about? I don’t know. We make a plan for an excellent bike ride in the morning. Hoi An is known for lanterns, tailoring and being easy to bike around not to mention the Unesco world heritage site at its core.

So the morning comes and as usual we are slow to rise but we manage to finally get our butts onto bikes with towels and bathing suits packed by 11. Once on the road it quickly becomes clear that Hoi An is not actually a great place to cycle. Well not if you are 9 and your parents have neglected to teach you your bike signal skills. Once again things got a little tense. Chris was in front with Sabine on the back of his bike – they had a leather cushion over that flat part that you could use as a book holder. She rode like that when we did our bike to the village on Cat Ba. In the morning we had gone over the rules about keeping her feet in the little pegs installed on the side of the wheel. Anderson had just narrowly missed being swiped by a scooter because he misread a signal so we had stopped to check in. He was scared and angry and hot and he didn’t want to go to the beach anymore so we abandoned the plan to head home – with the idea we would get off the road we were on and find a quieter street. We had just started down the street when Sabine wailed in that horrible way you know means a serious injury. I looked ahead to see her shoe on the ground and her foot bent into the wheel. Chris had stopped the bike and a man ran out from a cafe to help. Chris got her foot out and had her at the side of the road. Luckily we had water and towels to clean it and get a better look. We got a cab and I took the kids home – Chris got the bikes back. So day one in Hoi An was a bust. Sabine is doing well – her ankle is very swollen and bruised and her heel is raw but she spent the rest of the day watching videos, her ankle on a pillow with a bag of ice. Just before she fell asleep she said, “I keep thinking about it and I don’t want to remember it.” Poor little angel. I guess this will slow us down a little. Well probably not that much since Chris carries her everywhere anyway. Really considering all the crazy ways we have traveled we are lucky this has been our only injury.

Loft in Hanoi

Pho shop

We just fell in love with the man on the fawn statue

Fresh rice noddles tolled

Ceremonial pot for incense

Basket boats Danang

Our dinner tour

Clams

Shrimp and squid

Pho shop

Where the magic happens

A Bean and some buns

2 thoughts on “Hanoi Haggling

  1. I would love to fly out and whisk you away for an evening of wine and freedom. Thank you for writing these posts. I can feel it all with you – the beauty, the stickiness, the emotional energy and the fun. So complicated. And I hear you about the memories – why are the children not just grateful and happy all of the time? Will they ever be grateful and happy? WHY ARE WE DOING THIS?? (My kid took 10 years to realize how thankful she is for our adventures but it did happen, so fingers crossed for you my dear)

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    • My newest fear – I waited so long to have kids that by the time they realize how great it all was – I’ll be dead. And then I’ll also be dead for when they have their own children who live to break them down. Miss you! Thanks for the solidarity, understanding and love from afar. Xo

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