Posted from Seoul, Republic of Korea by Kaspar covering September 18-21
Our false start in Hanoi involved going to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. It was closed due to the fact that his embalmed body gets shipped to Russia for 2 months out of every year for "maintenance." This type of thing happens to us often since we don't do a lot of research and have a more organic approach to travel than trying to tick off a list of tourist sites, when we do try and hit the tourist trail it is usually an epic fail. This time was no different.
Often times when you are traveling the way we are (not making plans until you are forced to the day before you travel) you wind up having to adjust and figure out the reason you came after you arrive. In this case you begin with the most obvious characteristics of the place (which usually turns out to be the least interesting, but is a necessary step) and as the place comes into focus you get a sense for why you came and what you will get out of your stay. Ultimately we would find the architecture of Hanoi to be our favorite thing to explore, but it took us a day to figure it out.
We had a great train ride to Hanoi in another wood paneled 4 berth cabin and this time there was another couple who had taken the top and bottom bunk on the opposing side. Since I had learned from our last experience we now had a top and bottom bunk on the other side of the car (bottom bunk for hanging out, top bunk for sleeping). Our companions were in there mid to late 20's living in Sydney, Australia. He worked in mental health with recovering addicts. She was a computer hacker who had recovered from an opiate addiction so it seemed like a good match or the definition of codependency. Her parents were very conservative journalists in France and his dad was Swiss while his mother was Malaysian. They had taken up paragliding together and were engaged to be married...we had some interesting conversation late into the night before falling asleep.
Ali discovered the outline of a self guided walking tour from Travelfish that was taken from a book by Linda Mazur called The Hidden Houses of Hanoi The picture at the top of this post is of The Vietnam Debt and Asset Trading Corporation building at 51 Quang Trung. The curving balcony, ventilated stairwell, tiered rooftop overlooks, circular portal windows and the good condition made it our favorite. You can see similar features in the building at 14 Nguyen Gia Thieu, which unfortunately is now obscured at the bottom by new structures. This is the case with much of Hanoi that new structures keep layering in front of the old to utilize space which results in a chaotic jumble and layering of habitation. On the lower right you can see the tight squeeze approach to the apartment where we were staying. 5 Nguyen Thuong Hen was another buinding in great condition that is still in use as a government building as evidenced by the yellow paint.
Another area where you can see many examples of this colonial Vietnamese style is along Thuy Khue where the buildings are only blocked by a wall and some guards. There was one that is converted into a cafe where we took a little break to beat the heat. Ali made good use of her fan.
In the middle of our walking tour we came across this woman making a guava cooler type drink. It was too good to pass up and guards in front of the building found it very amusing that we wanted to try one. Ali gave her our own water to make it with just to be safe and It was delicious.
Our first dish when we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City was Bun Bo Nam Bo. Our first dish when we arrived in Hanoi was Bun Bo Nam Bo (see above) at a restaurant that bears this dishes name in the old quarter. It is a beef and vermicelli salad that has migrated up from the south just like we did on the train. We also ate a Hanoi specialty for dinner one night at Cha Ca Thang Long. They serve one dish, you guessed it, Cha Ca, which is like cat fish that they cook for you right at your table along with a lot of green onion.
We came to the Quiet Cafe a couple of times while we were in Hanoi. It is literally tucked away down an alley and they shush you if you get too loud, just ask Ali, she knows. Another one of our favorite cafes, seen below, was outside of the Nha Tho Lon Church (St. Joseph's Cathedral) where we would have a Vietnamese Coffee (ice and condensed milk) and just be creepy people watchers.
Avove are some additional scenes from around Hanoi. We got around mainly on motorbike and this was the most hectic traffic we had driven in yet. This final image of Ali is from one of our many walks down side streets to see what interesting buildings we could find. Our most rewarding experiences came from being curious or unsure. If you know where you are going and have an expectation of what you are about to see, you may be disappointed. We continue to find our favorite places and experiences by being willing to not know where we are going, to ask directions, to ask "how much?", to smile at strangers and be willing to taste anything that is put in front of you.