Arriving in Ha Noi was rather shocking. There are two wonderful quotes on wikivoyage that sum up traffic in this city…
“Hanoi’s traffic is extremely chaotic, with seemingly perpetual traffic jams, and a large number of almost suicidal motorcyclists, cyclists and pedestrians. Vietnamese drivers are among the most aggressive in the world, and lanes are effectively non-existent. As such, driving yourself around is not recommended, and you should leave your transportation needs in the hands of professional”
“There is no such thing as one-directional traffic in Vietnam. When you leave the curb, look not only left and right, but to the front and back. Even up and down would not be amiss. Take each step deliberately but resolutely. Patiently allow the motorbikes to pass. Don’t rush. Do not make any erratic movements. This way the drivers are aware of you, and can anticipate your vector (along with all of the other motorbikes).”
While Tim went to find a hotel, I sat in a corner watching people and motorbike pass by, and I must confess it was more entraining than most TV programs. We also arrived a day before the Lunar New Year (aka Chinese New Year) so the whole city was alive, with vendors selling tree parts, flowers and other omens and amulets. Tim eventually came back having found a great hotel, with the most amazing owner ever. She was so happy and smiley it was seriously contagious, along with having a lot of knowledge of her city. That night we walked around for quite a while until we found something to eat and then turned up for the night.
The following day we decided to walk around and explore the capital. I was also interested on buying a “North Face” jacket, as the further North we got, the colder it would get and my current equipment would not be enough to keep me warm. We passed a few shops, where we asked questions, compared materials and prices. Eventually we made it to the lake, where we continued strolling in the sun.
When we returned to our hotel, a surprise was waiting for us. The lovely owners had set up a New Year dinner for all hotel guests, so we got to sample a typical Vietnamese New Year meal. When she saw us and recalled we were vegetarian, she quickly run into the kitchen to boil some eggs, as most dishes were meaty. It was great to share this with the other people and the locals, and we also shared some sort of strong rice wine we used to cheer multiple times.
Around 7pm we left the party to attend a water puppet show, a famous art form all over Vietnam we did not want to miss out on. I have few words to describe the event, but to sum it up and with no offence intended: it was so awful it was hilarious. We were not sure if it was meant to be serious, but it was utterly uncoordinated, hard to follow (though attended mostly by tourist, the show is all in Vietnamese language) and a tad ridiculous. The traditional music accompanying it was a redeeming factor and I got to see a few instruments I had never heard before. I would still recommend it for the novelty, but man, it was bad. (Rick Morgan had warned me!)
We swiftly returned to the hotel and wasted a few hours until there were only 30 minutes to midnight or so. Then we made our way back towards the waterfront, where we enjoyed the amazing fireworks along with another thousand people. The show went on for more than half an hour and it was magnificent. The crowds were mostly polite and respectful. Once finished, we joined the exodus and were amazed to see multiple fires going on on the streets, and people burning fake money, paper rabbits (the year that went past), letters and other unidentified objects.
The next day was so quiet Ha Noi seemed like a complete different city. Most attractions and even restaurants were closed, but our hotel managers shared their meal with us and we had a nice quiet day together.
Our last day in Ha Noi we visited Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and then the museum. The first is next to a very beautiful pagoda and the famous “one pillar pagoda” so we made sure we visited both.
The museum was very interesting. We learned a lot about the revolution and life in the Vietnamese flavour of communism. Objections and critics aside, it is eye opening to see the long term planning that can go into such a regime and what it can accomplish. Different exhibits are dedicated to contrasting eras, but the way all the information is presented keeps you wanting to keep walking and see more – which not many museums manage to accomplish.
We walked quite a long way back and around the southern end of the lake to see another part of the city we had missed previously. For lunch Tim had a noodle soup sitting on a tiny stool in the side walk and we made some gorgeous little friends that practised their English with us.
That night, the sleeper bus that was to take us to the border with China finally made an appearance, but they had overbooked it, so after a heated argument (we were not the only ones ripped off) they gave us a partial refund and we cramped on the floor and went to sleep.
At 3am we were kicked out of the bus and the odyssey to the border started. The small town of Lao Cai was grave-quiet at that time and it was fun to walk through it. The cold was rather piercing, so when I saw a fancy hotel almost at the border I decided to test my luck. I walked in and asked if we could hang out at their reception, and the clerk was lovely enough to allow us to do just that. We quickly fell asleep on their comfy couches, to be aroused at 5am and moved to a place a bit more hidden, as they did not want their guests to see two backpackers snoring on their pristine couches. It was a blessing to have taken the chance, as by the time the border was opened, we were refreshed and ready for the next challenge.