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The first days in Hanoi
In every country I have visited I have experienced an emotional journey from the initial nervousness of leaving a place I have become familiar and comfortable in, to the anticipation of arriving in new and different city with no expectations and often, sadly, little preceding knowledge.
It was no different on September 17th 2019 when I left Hong Kong, a city fighting for its survival and independence that had also been so welcoming, to fly to Vietnam.
It is unfortunate that my knowledge of Vietnam before this trip was shockingly lacking, a combination of war films from Hollywood and the Top Gear special. Visions of motorbikes and air strikes.
I landed in Hanoi and, on the advice of my hotel, had arranged for a driver to meet me. Apparently it is common for taxi drivers to try and convince you to use them and they then take you to a completely different hotel leaving you lost, confused and down a few dollars. So it was I sought out my driver and confirmed our agreed code word ensuring I would get to the right place. A reassuring first step in a new country!
The hotel itself was incredible. At prices competing with some basic motels in America I was treated like a VIP rather than the dishevelled backpacker I was. Whilst being checked in I was given a free welcome dish of fresh fruits and fruit juice. Once all the admin was done the receptionist then spent nearly half an hour explaining the best places to go in Hanoi, drawing a custom map of things to see and answering any questions I had. She even taught me my first words in Vietnamese – cảm ơn (thank you).
Over the course of my time in Hanoi the staff at the New Vision Palace Hotel worked ridiculously hard to make my stay enjoyable, I am very grateful in particular to Annie & Tony.
Within less than 2 hours of being in the country I had already started to love the friendliness and desire to help of the Vietnamese people and feel back in my comfort zone.
That first evening I didn’t venture far, but I did find the unusually named Train Street. I learnt over the next few days that many streets in Hanoi are named after their prevailing trade, for example one street may deal only in metal works whilst another focuses on coffins and memorials; similar to the way car dealerships tend to congregate in England it seems businesses of every kind like to find each other in Hanoi.
Train Street is slightly different in that it does not sell trains, rather it is a narrow street with no real access to motor vehicles (although as my guide to Road Rules in Vietnam shows nothing is off limits if you really want to!) due to a single pair of train tracks running down the middle.
What would normally be an area off limits in Western countries has been turned into a bustling tourist attraction with restaurants and bars set up parallel to the railway line, chairs and tables stacked up against the steel tracks. Whenever a train comes through patrons and owners quickly gather their loose articles and breathe in to allow it past before resuming their drinking.
The layout of the street with chairs and tables on each side of the track looking onto the line itself does create the rather odd situation of having staring contests with the complete strangers sitting opposite you. A distance too wide for anyone to consider splitting their own party over, but narrow enough that you can easily over hear everything being said and make repeated eye contact each time you look up.
Sadly it seemed I had missed the evening train and after an uneventful dinner and beer in my new home for the week I returned to the hotel.
The next day I explored Hoa Lo Prison, a colonial French prison from the 1800s used to house political prisoners before being converted into a POW Prison during the American/Vietnam War. It was unexpectedly hard hitting learning about the abusive regime the French implemented and the uncensored photos pre and post guillotine executions were particularly impactive.
I also went to the National Museum of History however I feel I was spoilt by the larger budgets of Japan and South Korea for their museums and left knowing little more than when I arrived.
The following day I got more than I was expecting whilst at the Ho Chi Minh Museum. After discovering that most museums close for lunch between 12 and 2, by discovering I mean getting kicked out, I found myself talking to a Slovenian man who I never actually got the name of. That didn’t stop him from following me across 9 miles of Hanoi as I continued to explore. He was friendly and polite, if a little clingy, and I could find no kind way to explain I was quite happy exploring on my own!
Eventually I managed to say goodbye when he went to the loo and I was able to escape back to my hotel to prepare for my trip to Halong Bay tomorrow.Continue reading