Once again I find that my opinions are very different from everyone else’s. The Lonely Planet says, “The grand old dame of the orient, Hanoi is perhaps the most graceful, atmospheric and exotic capital city in Asia.” I keep thinking we must have missed something, because I didn’t think it was that great. We did have horrible weather while we were there, so maybe we did miss something. But from what I saw, the historic section of the city, the Old Quarter, didn’t seem charming, just crowded, claustrophobic, and noisy. The sights we did make it to, like the Temple of Literature, weren’t all that beautiful and interesting. And the people were more rude than in other cities.
But that being said, I did still enjoy Hanoi. The buses made it easy and cheap to get around. Hoan Kiem Lake is a pleasant area to walk around (even if we didn’t see any tortoises). The Ho Chi Minh Museum was definitely worth seeing. It started out like a normal museum, with newspaper articles about Uncle Ho and his background. Then when we got up to the second floor, it turned into a series of weird, surrealist art that seemed to have nothing to do with him. It was all very entertaining, but I still know very little about Vietnam’s national hero.
Another thing I really liked about Hanoi, and really all Asian cities, is the street culture. I remember one of my history teachers once saying that in America, the streets don’t belong to the people. At the time, I had no idea what she was talking about, but now I get it. Here, the streets do belong to the people. When they want to eat, drink, shop, or socialize, they go out to the streets. Food stalls and makeshift coffee shops set up right on the sidewalk, next to the parked motorbikes. I love seeing the old men sitting on tiny plastic stools, drinking beer, and playing Chinese chess. It just seems so much more connected than we are back home. The neighborhood feels more like a community.
After Hanoi, we were planning on doing a two day, one night boat tour of Halong Bay, but the tour was cancelled because of bad weather. Luckily we had booked with a reputable tour company, Vega Travel, and they were very honest with us about our options, saying we could go with another operator that was still going or just get our money back. I’m pretty sure a lot of other travel agents would have just stuck us on an inferior boat and kept the money. We had already booked a train ticket to Sapa for Saturday night, but we were able to change it to Friday night.
Now we’re freezing in Sapa! The internet is telling me the low was 63 last night, but I find that really hard to believe. We could see our breath! I’m wearing all the layers I have and I still just want to huddle under the blankets all day. I’m afraid that after four months in Southeast Asia, we’ve turned into those Florida people that need a winter jacket when it’s 60 degrees. I actually was looking at fake North Face winter coats yesterday.
Anyway, Sapa is a very nice town. It’s surrounded by green rice terraces and mountains, although fog is ruining our views. We went on a couple of hikes and took in what we could of the gorgeous scenery. There are also many minority hill-tribe people living here. Normally I’m not into the whole hill-tribe tourism thing, but it has been interesting to see the people here. I really like their unique and colorful clothes. (I could do without their constant sales pitches, though.) We also saw a very entertaining traditional dance show. I’m sure this would be an incredible destination, if it weren’t for the cold and fog.
So here we are, trying to stay warm and preparing for our next big challenge: China!