Hanoi, Vietnam

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From Ninh Binh, Claudia and I boarded the train back to Hanoi.  The seats assigned to us on our tickets were already taken, and it seemed like the standard operating procedure was people sat wherever they wanted.  That is, unless you’re German.  In that case, as some of our fellow passengers demonstrated, the thought of someone not being in their own proper place but in yours is so unbearable that even though there is plenty of room elsewhere, you will demand that the occupants of your seats get up and move.  (Being of half German descent myself, I only half wanted to do this.  The other half of me wanted to say, “It doesn’t matter who’s first in line, kids.  We’re all going to the same place.”)

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The city of Hanoi is utter madness, so those predisposed to being control freaks (ahem) might find themselves rolling through a series of overlapping panic attacks.  Flexibility and a sense of humor are required if you plan to visit Hanoi without having a meltdown.  What was supposed to have been a fifteen minute taxi ride to our hotel turned into an hour-long tour of the city.  (Apparently there are two different streets called Trung Yen in Hanoi.)  Good thing we hadn’t made any plans for the day besides walking around.  I had wanted to see the Soviet-style Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where despite his wishes to be cremated, the revolutionary leader’s body is creepily preserved and displayed.  However, because the site is only open during very, very limited hours (according to Google, Tuesday through Thursday between 7 and 10 AM), this was impossible.

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Hanoi is swarming with motorbikes and buzzing with activity.  The busy workers in this photo threw a Communist party outside the window of our hotel room.  Another complaint to register, while I’m at it: banh mi with “pâté,” which I mistakenly ordered for lunch in a lapse of good judgment.  Why I thought it would be made with real pâté, I cannot tell you.  How bourgeois of me.  Dinner at Little Hanoi Restaurant, on the other hand, was delicious if overpriced and full of tourists.

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After trouncing about the city for a while, we sought refuge in a café above the chaos.  While reading up on Hanoi before coming here, I encountered this odd recommendation from Travelfish titled Do Nothing and See the Best of Hanoi.  The author describes people watching from a coffee shop as the world passes him by, then writes, “The point is: This is Hanoi.  All of this.  Forget your war museums, mausoleums and pagodas.  This is it.  I will spell it out for you:  THERE IS NOT ONE SPECIFIC THING WORTH SEEING IN HANOI.  NOT ONE.”  I read this aloud to Claudia, and we laughed at how strangely emphatic he was about not going sightseeing.  Not to mention that it could be construed as: not only is there not one specific thing but absolutely nothing worth seeing in the whole city.  It only took us a couple of exhausting hours looking for an Eiffel-designed cantilever bridge to understand what he was talking about, and we ended up following his advice.

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However, where I must differ from Travelfish is on their claim that Hanoi is “one of the most beautiful of the colonial Indochinese cities” and “oozing with charm.”  Well, at the risk of being crude, I’m not sure where this alleged charm is oozing out of.  Maybe I’m too quick to judge.  Transitioning from the serenity of Tam Coc to the hectic pace of Hanoi left us feeling frazzled.  Simply crossing the street could be a life-or-death situation.  Step off the curb, keep moving forward slowly, and hope for the best.  Don’t stop or backtrack, as this only causes confusion and greater potential to get run over.  Fortunately, both Claudia and I lived to tell the cautionary tale.

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The nearby Hoan Kiem Lake was a much needed natural oasis in the midst of the urban jungle.

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The sun setting behind Turtle Tower, which stands on an island in the middle of the lake.  There’s some legend about an emperor, a Golden Turtle God, and a magic sword, but as you can probably tell, I’m way too cynical for that type of stuff.

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St. Joseph’s Cathedral in the French Quarter.  I preferred this neighborhood to the Old Quarter where we stayed.  One lesson I’ve learned over and over again during my travels is to avoid places known as “backpacker districts,” which is code for touristy areas with a seedy quality too blatantly obvious to be called an undertone.

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The ubiquitous propaganda art I’m so fond of.  Popular images include the Communist hammer and sickle, heroic depictions of Uncle Ho, glorification of peasants and weapons, Nixon caricatures, appropriation of flower power imagery, Russian and Vietnamese stereotypes as sister-comrades-in-arms, and of course Che Guevara.

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Lantern shop in the French Quarter.  Fine, I’ll admit it’s charming.

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Breakfast and a quick swing through the local street market: produce, animal body parts, snails, toads, warts and all.  Then it was hasta la vista, Hanoi.  While I much preferred Saigon, its big sister to the south, over the northern capital of the country, our 24-hour stint here was an experience we won’t (or can’t) forget.  To be honest, it’s going to places like this that make me happy I live in Thailand, but at the same time, I wouldn’t want to have skipped this part of the Southeast Asia circuit.  Not that I’m in a hurry to go back.


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