Friday, July 20, 2012

Travel Advice: Vietnam (Hanoi)


Chua Tran Quoc
Besides all the great things in China, there are also nearby countries with even more great places to go; my first stop was Vietnam, despite a lot of shocked responses from my parents' generation.  You do have to have a visa to get into Vietnam.  The  way I did it was to go to Nanning, in Guangxi Province--if you’re already going to Yangshuo/Guilin, it’s an easy bus ride from Guilin.  In Nanning, some of the hostels can help you  get a visa.  It is fairly expensive;  it’s about 650 yuan to get it in one day, 550 in two, 400 in three, etc.  Personally, I decided to go ahead and spend the money to get it quicker; I figured I would spend the  difference anyways on lodging and food in Nanning if I waited.  I stayed at the Lotusland Train Station Hostel , and it was amazing.  They were really helpful handling everything with the visa, and the hostel was super clean and brand new.   

From Nanning, you can get a bus to Hanoi.  Here’s a map that shows the hostel  I recommended, the train station, and the bus office where you can buy tickets; you can also ask at your hostel and they can also give you directions on where to go.  
The trip to Hanoi involves one bus to the border, then you get off and go through customs, and then a second bus on to Hanoi.  Watch for the colorful houses in the towns you pass through--from what I understand, homeowners are taxed by the amount of road frontage they own.  So, nearly every house is only about as wide a garage door, but four or five stories tall. The back and sides are plain concrete, but the side facing the road is painted a vibrant color with elaborate balustrades on the balconies.  When I went, the bus did not stop at a station in Hanoi, it stopped just on a road.  There were plenty of taxi drivers around to meet it; be sure and ask about the rates first as some will assume you haven’t figured out the exchange rate yet and try to overcharge you.  If you don’t have Vietnamese currency yet,  the taxi driver will probably be willing to drop you by an atm on the way--more time they can charge you for!

    If you go to Vietnam in the summer, remember that they do have monsoons.  My experience was that it was beautiful all day long, but then about four in the afternoon a cloud would roll in and, for about half an hour, it would rain harder than I’ve ever seen it rain.  Then, it would clear off again and there would be a beautiful evening.  Just be sure to find a place to shelter about that time; an umbrella is not enough.  

Once you get into Hanoi, there are plenty of things to do.  The city is built around several large lakes, so there are nice areas to walk.  The Old Quarter of the city is worth just walking around exploring; it’s a mix of French style (from the French occupation in the 1800s) with Asian chaos.  There are restaurants of every type, and shops selling everything.  I got the best chicken parmesan I’ve ever had at a little Italian bistro on a back street.   Be careful of the traffic though--not many cars, but swarms of motorcycles.  Seriously, at least a hundred at every stoplight.  I got hit by one once--they were going the wrong way down a one-way-street.  So just keep your eyes open.  

You can visit the Hoa Lo Prison (the Hanoi Hilton), where American POWs were held during the Vietnam War, which was really interesting.  There are plenty of signs in English explaining everything, although they do tend to emphasize other periods of the prison’s history that are more flattering to the Vietnamese than just the American part.  

Another major stop is the Ho Chi Minh tomb and house, you can see how the Vietnamese people revere him as a great hero.  There is a grand presidential palace, but he chose to instead live in a simple wooden house on the grounds. Even if you don’t have the time to go in, at least walk by the tomb.  

Several temples are worth visiting; one famous one is the Temple of Literature and National University, but I don’t think I ever made it to that one; I wish I had.  I went to the Ngoc Son Temple, on the Hoan Kiem Lake.  The lake’s name translates as the Lake of the Restored Sword, and it’s famous for its huge turtles--you can see a stuffed one inside the temple.  There’s a little stone tower built on a tiny island in the middle, and I saw some men go out to it on a little boat.  This was a nice area one the edge of  the Old Quarter;  the tourist office is on the roundabout on the north end of the lake; there is a water puppet theater there, also.

Speaking of water puppets, the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater is interesting.  It’s at the north end of Hoan Kiem Lake. While musicians play traditional music, elaborate puppets act out  historical tales and legends in a pool of water with a colorful backdrop.  It was worth watching even though I, of course, didn’t know the tales.  However, half an hour of it would have been enough, but it went on for over an hour.  And fair warning, the seats are really cramped.  REALLY cramped.  I’m 5’7” and I was literally wedged in a seat; I couldn’t move my legs without standing up.  Try and see if you can get an aisle seat if you’re taller.  Altogether, I wouldn’t  arrange my plans around it, but it’s an enjoyable activity for the late evening once it’s too dark to sightsee, if you have the time.  I suppose you could go, and if you get tired, leave at intermission.  Sometimes it sells out, so It’s a good idea to drop by the box office earlier in the day and buy tickets. 

Also near the lake is St. Joseph’s cathedral, if you’re looking to step into Europe for a moment.  One Sunday night I walked past during the mass time; it was so crowded inside that no more could fit, so the square in front of it was full of people sitting on their motorcycles listening.  It was like a drive-in mass...Just across the road and down  a bit is the hostel I stayed in, the Central Backpackers hostel.  It was a good area to stay, within walking distance of several of the major things; several of the most popular hostels are in this area.    

Another really nice place to visit is Chua Tran Quoc.  It’s located on a narrow strip of land (Thanh Nien Road) separating two lakes; the one on the left is the huge West Lake.  There’s an ancient temple, and a beautiful pagoda built in the 6th century.  It’s a nice place to escape the craziness of the city, and it’s also a nice place to see the sun set over the lake.  

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