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Asia/SE Asia

Hanging out in Hanoi

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We are moving around Hanoi a little more slowly than our usual pace, both of us taking a little longer than normal to get over the jetlag.

I’m glad we booked 7 nights in Hanoi so we can get our Asia legs before we start cycling again, although it is very familiar for both of us given the time we have spent in busy Asian cities. In some ways the lack of culture shock was actually a disappointment when we first arrived – after temperatures in the high 20s in San Francisco and a week in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the temperature here (about the same) and the noise of a busy Hanoi neighborhood felt quite familiar. This is by comparison to the last time we landed in Asia when we were ecstatic to feel warm air after a month of rain in Vancouver.

Our guesthouse, (Madam Moon’s) is typical of the architecture here in Hanoi – it is a six-story building that is maybe 20 feet wide. These narrow buildings are the result of tax rates which are calculated by the width of a store front so many businesses have their stores in the front and live upstairs or in rooms behind the front one. This makes the neighborhood kind of claustrophobic and the first night here I really struggled with being on the top floor, and found myself up most of the night trying not to think about the narrow stairway that we had to navigate to get down to the ground level. The claustrophobia was exacerbated by a minor sinus infection I am now finally motivated to do something about and I am sure also by jet lag. Fortunately the first floor room was available our second night and we moved so I am now just dealing with sinus and jet lag. When booking here it is a good idea to check about what floor the room is on and whether it has a window (at all) or a window facing the street (as opposed to another building which might be 1 foot away).

Madam Moon’s is in the old quarter of Hanoi which dates back to the 13th century. It is a warren of narrow streets that were once organized by trade guilds (back in their early history) and are still organized by what vendors sell to a large degree. On our walks in the last few days we have seen a street dedicated to selling temple paraphernalia, a street full of mannequins, and a street with stores selling paint products for construction purposes. It takes a day or so to get used to the noise (traffic navigates by honking horns) and the visual chaos of third world wiring and stores and cafes that spill out on to the street blocking sidewalks (as do parked motorcycles and street vendors)…but once acclimatized the visual stimulation is fantastic. I could spend days here just looking at the buildings themselves, finding the old French colonial architecture amongst the new construction and finding the temples that are hidden amongst the storefronts.

I vaguely remember the neighborhood from my trip here in the mid-90s. Things have changed – the women all wear western clothes now instead of the ao dai (pants and long tunic) and people are more prosperous – things are generally more westernized.

There are even more motorcycles than there were then and that is probably the biggest challenge we have now both as pedestrians and cyclists. Yesterday we walked about 5 kms and so have become adept once again at learning to wade out into the traffic. There are some crosswalks and lights but for the most part traffic, most of it being motorcycles, just moves around you. The drivers expect you to walk out into the traffic (rather than waiting for the traffic to stop) and to keep going regardless of what’s coming. It is daunting but a day or two here and you get the hang of it. We are still researching our route out of town by bike…so far we think it might be about 10 kms and we will likely leave early morning to avoid the worst of the traffic. Once on the highway we will have shoulders most, if not all of the way to HaLong Bay, 150 or 160 kms away on the coast (of the South China Sea)

But that is still more than a week away. In the meantime we are enjoying wandering the chaos and getting our bearings. We are close to the famous Hoan Kiem Lake which houses two temples on islands, one of which is accessible by land over a bridge. Today’s plan is to get to the temple and a bookstore where we know they sell maps, to visit a tailor to get a couple of shirts made for me, and to take in the night market which takes place on the weekends here in the old quarter.

We are feeling great relief to be back to Aisan prices…even in relatively expensive Hanoi we are paying 25.00 a night for our guesthouse (has flat screen tv, internet, a fridge, a western style bathroom, French doors that open to the street, a wardrobe, a table and two chairs) and typically we’re paying 12 to 15 dollars for dinner including beer (for the two of us). This gets even cheaper once we begin eating street vendor food.

Off to breakfast – included with the room ☺

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