Sleep is not easy when the bus turns and winds its way on the road, but at the same time, I must admit, I was not uncomfortable. Just before 5 am the bus stopped in what looked like a terminus from the prone position I was in. However, none of the passengers got off the bus. I too remained where I was, waiting for someone to announce where we were. After about 45 minutes I saw a couple of passengers pick up their shoes in plastic bags and get off the bus. The stay at the place was getting prolonged and the day was breaking slowly. I got up and went out of the bus to be told that we had reached Hanoi bus terminus; the wait was for passengers to wake up! As soon as I alighted from the bus with my baggage a guy came to me shaking his car key, obviously a taxi driver. I chose another who offered to take me to a place where I could link to WiFi to get the address of the hotel where I was booked. The Gallant Hotel was more than 20 kms from the bus terminus and wound its way through streets that were congested and narrow. Finally, after making numerous enquiries I reached the hotel located in a nondescript road. I paid off the taxi driver, who smiled a great deal and handed me over to the next set of smiling faces – the hotel staff. I was told by one of them that the fare I was offering was a great deal less than what the meter read. 250,000 Dongs it came to and I was paying 25,000 Dongs. With a great many zeroes in the currency in Lao PDR and Vietnam I have been often at sixes and sevens dealing in the currencies. The zeroes may make one feel that a lot of money is passing hands; in fact the 300,000 Dong fare I paid for the bus ride of nearly 500 kms was less than Rs. 1000.
The hotel belies the surrounding; it was neat, clean and fairly big. Since I had arrived early I was told that I would have to pay 50% extra if I were to move into the room just then. I decided to wait in the lobby, despite the room rent being only $84 for three nights for a twin sharing room; the deal too good to believe. I got undisturbed time to work on my blogs and the rest of the documentation, particularly filling out the expense account. With WiFi available I was able to link up with Elvis D’Cruz, who had arrived Hanoi on 20th and was staying in another hotel. I told him to come over to the hotel by 10 am because the receptionist told me that the room could be ready by 11 am. I was feeling hungry too after a while. I walked to a small store on the narrow street and bought some cakes and biscuits to keep the growls in check. And there was plenty of water to drink at the reception.
When Elvis arrived I broke the news of the car being held up at the border. The totally unflappable guy he is, I was comfortable discussing the various alternatives that faced us, from the worst to the best. He is a guy with simple solutions to complex problems. His positive attitude and ‘can do’ thinking has endeared him to me over the past ten years that I have known him since being colleagues in DP World, Cochin. After an hour we had sorted out what we would do in the next two days – this being a Sunday we reserved to do some local sightseeing and on Monday visit the India Embassy to seek help with the border problem; a day visit to Halong Bay was scheduled for Tuesday. We were scheduled to stay in Hanoi for three days.
After freshening up in the room we took a taxi to the Opera House, which is now a major restaurant. The opera house has been the venue of many political battles, particularly at the time of the fight for Hanoi. In front of the building a stage was being readied for a show to commemorate the Earth Hour. We understood from the youngsters that the music show would be at 8.30 pm and quietly marked to be there during that time – it never happened finally. We walked around and reached the History Museum, which would open only by 1.30 pm. Just outside the gate we met three Indians from Himachal Pradesh, who were on a short holiday there. What caught our attention was one of them wanting to ride a motor bike that belonged to one of the three girls who were taking them on a city tour. Elvis and I thought it a good way to cover a lot more of the city and took down the numbers of the girls.
Lunch at the Van Nam hotel was an elaborate affair. First things first, it was local beer to start. The Saigon beer was excellent and then we tried the Hanoi beer that was not so great. We felt we should have stuck to Saigon. It was braised pork in claypot and braised pork belly with eggs and steamed rice for the main course. We barely managed to finish the meal. The pork and the preparations were outstanding; we took our time over it. Thereafter, intent on visiting the History Museum we unfolded the small map and sought directions numerous times and still lost our way. But, that was providential too. We finally landed up near the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which serves the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hanoi. We had to wait a while before being permitted to enter the church since the mass for children was going on.
By the time we came out of the church Minh and Tao were waiting with their mobikes to take us on a city tour. And for the next two hours they took us on an enjoyable ride in the city; we covered areas that t we would normally not have covered. The first landmark we visited was the Temple of Literature, which is a temple of Confucius, the great teacher of the 4 century BC. The temple was built in 1070 and houses the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. The admission charge is 30,000 Dongs. The temple, over the years, has seen many kings, nobility, bureaucrats and scholars pass through its portals. The temple is featured at the back of the 100,000 Dong currency note; such is the importance attached to this ancient seat of learning. The Vietnam Military History Museum, situated opposite the Lenin Park which features a very large statue of Lenin, was about to be closed when we visited it. We found that most tourist sites closed by 4.30 pm. However, we were permitted to get inside the gate and take a few pictures of the exhibits outside and the Flag Tower, which was built in 1812.
Then past the One Pillar Pagoda, which is considered one of the most historic Buddhist temples in Vietnam, we parked near the Truc Bach Lake. The huge freshwater West Lake has a road going around it for 17 kms. The Truc Bach Lake was created when a road was built through the West Lake. The two lakes seemed to be popular recreation destinations for locals and tourists alike with many gardens, villas, restaurants and paddle boats. We did cause some mirth among the passing public with the photography sessions there with the two mobike girls.
Without a doubt the most prominent feature of Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the embalmed body of the Vietminh leader, Ho Chi Minh, is kept in a glass case. The mausoleum, inspired by the Lenin mausoleum in the Kremlin, despite its imposing presence, has been dubbed the sixth ugliest building in the world by a TV channel. We were late to enter this historic site too and decided we would be back another day for it.
Then we drove over the Long Bien bridge, a 113 year old cantilever bridge across the Red River connecting two districts of the city of Hanoi. The bridge was bombarded heavily by the US troops during the Vietnam War due to its critical position – the bridge connected Hanoi to its main port Haiphong. The defence of the bridge is still part of the self image of the Vietnamese and is part of folklore and poetry of the time. Trains, two wheelers and pedestrians use this bridge while all other traffic uses the newly built Chuong Duong Bridge. It was sad to see poor people live under the Long Bien Bridge in squalor and extremely unhygienic conditions.
Minh and Tao, the two mobike girls, who had taken us all over the City, dropped us back to the hotel. After a bit of unwinding and debating if we should have dinner at all, for the lunch had been too heavy and was lying about a bit uneasily in the stomach, we took a walk down the rather bare street where the hotel is situated. The smells emanating from the eateries in the street only made us more nauseous. We walked further away from the street and came to the Almond Café, which, happily, had an English menu. We ordered soups we thought would be light; portions were humongous, but we got through them nevertheless.