Hanoi is a dusty, noisy, hooting blur of whizzing motorbikes, tree lined roads and street food sellers. Women in pointed bamboo hats with fruit baskets on yokes bustle side by side with street cafes selling Pho – the Vietnamese soupy broth of rice noodles and meat, and baguettes. Birdcages complete with little yellow song birds hang from the trees. Apparently they are bought and set free as gifts. The motorbikes must outnumber people 10 to 1. There are hardly any cars here in comparison (apparently you pay 100% vat on a car) and they weave in and out honking their horns. They also park on the pavements so its impossible to do anything other than walk on the road. Its a little scary. I manage to meet up with Christine -the 42 year old French lady from Cannes who has realised that I will need some “luxury” after the bus ride and booked us a twin room for 11 dollars each a night. Expensive for Asia but i'm grateful and after a cheap eat of noodles with beef for about one pound fifty we retire and I manage to sleep for a good 12 hours.
The next day we are joined by Yoanne a photographer and Jerome, both from Paris. Jerome is tall, tanned and very very handsome. He has worked in media and production and then travel in Soho in London and in Paris. My attention is drawn. I've realised I can't just have casual sex with anyone – even if we are just ships that pass in the night – they must be the full package -i'm not going to lower my standards! We decide to go for lunch – all of us have a hankering for spring rolls!
We find a place where you can get fried spring rolls stuffed with crab meat. They come chopped up on a plate with a broth of sweet vinegar and garlic and a plate of noodle and greens. You then put the noodles and greens into the soup and dunk the spring roll or Nem in. Very very tasty.
Then we check out the Temple of Literature. Its late afternoon so the heat of the day has just started to subside. The temple was built for sages and scholars in the late 11th century and dedicated to Confucius. It houses Vietnam's first university and was built as a series of courtyards around a lake “of literature.” The atmosphere inside is tranquil. Lots of wooded trees and red lanterns and topiary too - foliage cut into
the shapes of monkeys and even a snake. The temples have dragon hoisted incense burners outside and golden buddhas inside. We take a walk to the lake opposite the temple to watch fishermen throwing out their rods and then walk back to the old town and find a nice leafy, arty cafe to sit in. Like Vientiane the French influence is strong in Vietnam. Cafes and baguettes abound. I have my first Vietnamese coffee (which I love) which has a strong, bitter chocolately flavour. Condensed milk is the norm here as well instead of fresh milk in hot drinks– and my palate seems to have become accustomed to it!
There is art on the walls and a leafy courtyard garden upstairs – its a gay cafe. Apparently Hanoi and Vietnam has one of the most progressive attitudes to homosexuality in South East Asia. This i find out from Jerome. ....
We have been talking about why we are travelling...
“Oh I just quit my job and had to go...” I say
“Me too” says Jerome
“ I quit my job and then my boyfriend...”
Typical. I should have guessed. And just in case I didn't he's dropped the fact he's gay into conversation about three times! Still he's a lot of fun so I start mentally lining him up as a husband for Zeb instead. (We've always had the same taste in men.)
That evening Christine and I go for a walk and see the main lake in Hanoi and check out the view and then find a restaurant that's been recommended by the hostel. We eat pork fried in lemongrass and honey, aubergine in garlic, rice and more fresh spring rolls. Scrumptious.
The next day we move down into the dorm (6 dollars a bed) to economise. We go for a walk around West Lake and to see the oldest pagoda complex in Vietnam – Tran Quoc Pagoda which was constructed in the sixth century.
The sun is boiling and Christine is doing her best to stop me from getting run over by the motorbikes. The trick is to not look at them and keep watching the road ahead. (Definitely don't stop because that confuses them and make them swerve to avoid you.) I start to whimper so she grabs my arms and briskly sees me across roads. I have my little silver umbrella out again as its so hot– and think “i could really do with an ice cream.” We are walking along the side of the West Lake past lots of little sea food restaurants and cafes and my prayers are answered with a little Italian style ice cream parlour. I have strawberry and sweet chestnut and Christine has passionfruit and chocolate. Delicious.
Tran Quoc Pagoda is set out into the lake and is beautiful to see at sunset. The main Pagoda structure is a rusty red brick and has little white buddhas sitting in enclaves all the way up it. The temple has a serene air to it as the sun sets across the lake. There is a Bodhi tree in the grounds here which has grown from a cutting of the same tree under which Buddha sat to gain enlightment. I am told off for entering one of the temples in shoes – and visitors must be appropriately dressed. (always a struggle for me at the best of times...!)
That evening we get another rip off taxi back from the Pagoda to the Water Puppet Theatre by Hoan Kiem Lake. Basically agree a fare before hand or they rip you off. This one has a dodgy meter and we end up getting charged 200,000 Dong (about six pounds) when we should have been charged 30,000 ( a quid!)
The Thang Long Water puppet Theatre tickets cost either 60,000 dong (about 2 pounds) or 100,000 (for the back half of the auditorium) but you get a good view from anywhere and the show lasts an hour. The water puppetry is a traditional art form that hails from the rural areas of Northern Vietnam and as far back as the 11thCentury, when villagers would carve little puppets out of wood, varnish them and then make up shows and perform them on the water when the rice paddies flooded. The little skits are based on stories and folklore passed down by generations and were used to both entertain each other and also to appease their spirit world.
The show is accompanied by a traditional Vietnamese orchestra with narration at intervals.
Its really sweet! The pool of water is lit a deep turqouoise and the puppets come out on rods and tell little stories of killing bulls, parading with parasols and falling in love.