After drunkenly booking a flight from Ho Chi Minh to Bangkok during 'wine and cheese night' in Cambodia (Lucy, Will, Andre... why did non of you stop us?) we found ourselves heading to the Vietnamese border for Hanoi with two weeks to sprint down the coast.
We had started to think Vietnam didn't want us after our problems acquiring a visa in Vientiene and the cancellation of the bus meaning that Andy had to sleep in the under seat luggage compartment from Laos to Vietnam, but we were prepared to force ourselves upon the country. Expecting further hold ups, and half expecting to see our photos behind the security counter at the border with 'No Entry' written above them, we instead went through the easiest and quickest border crossing we have perhaps experienced in South East Asia. No 'stamping fee' or 'tea money' changed hands, our visas were quickly stamped and approved and after a quick scramble to locate our passports in the pile of 'foreign ones' that they unceremoniously dumped on a public table for collection we were in! Vietnam tried to hold us out but damn it they did not succeed! We entered the country with big smiles and proud stances clutching our entry stamped passports with a sense of celebration; we had finally made it!
We were however wildly unprepared with no guidebook upon our arrival in Hanoi. Andy had previously sacrificed our guidebook when angry at the fact it had an overly substantial East Timor section that was both irrelevant to our trip and pretty hefty weight wise. However, the excitement of a new country and a new challenge literally had Andy shaking with excitement on our arrival! With the quick purchase of a $3 photocopied Lonely Planet Guide, which was only missing the pages on the top 1-8 of the top 15 things to do in Vietnam.. the top eight cant be that good anyway, we made a hasty plan over a beautiful Vietnamese coffee and hit the streets of cosmopolitan Hanoi Old Town.
We had heard negative things about Hanoi from those that had passed through. In addition a certain friend of ours of Vietnamese descent (no names there then) had also told us to spend no time there and instead head further South. However, I have never been more glad that we entirely disregarded all the advice we had heard. Hanoi was a buzzing and charming city full of sights and smells that were distinctly Vietnamese. From bustling carts full of dried squid, conical hats atop ladies on bicycles to Beer Hoi on the street for 20p a glass. The city is centred around a lake with an island temple in the middle and it was from here that we got our first real viewpoint of the city.
We also got our first introduction to a distinctly Vietnamese tradition, the pre wedding photographs that each couple have in the full wedding day garb. As we walked along the lake (around the lake, we had got into Vietnam but we had not acquired the powers of walking on water) there was a different couple in all their glory posing for their photographs. As one couple posed in a prime location, a queue of bridesmaids, brides, grooms and photographers appeared waiting for their turn and looking bored as they munched on crisps with denim jackets or sweatshirts over their wedding finery. Once they reached the front of the queue the couples donned looks of fanatic love as they gazed at each other for the photographs. Strange, seeing as these were the couples that two minutes before had been bickering in Adidas tracksuit jackets over the last wotsit. For anyone visiting Hanoi, I cannot recommend enough the joy of sitting by the lake watching this charade of forced romance. People watching at its finest!
Along with hitting a few of the museums we had one real plan in Hanoi. With my everlasting fascination with Communist Leaders and Andy's love for the weird and wonderful one thing stood out.... going to visit the Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself and take in the spectacle of his preserved body.
After the hustle with the tuk tuk drivers we instead took a metered taxi to the resting place of 'Uncle Ho' and were suitably impressed when we pulled up to an impressive building fronted with a sculptured lawn in an imposing grid pattern which gave the building a certain grandeur. Unfortunately when we began making our way down the paved grid lines towards what we thought was the entrance we began to realise we had made an enormous mistake. Clearly, these paved grids were not paths but decoration. The lawn was no garden but apparently sacred. We discovered this only by getting right to the middle of the grid before being spotted by the angry whistle patrol. Suddenly guards in bright white caps with equally bright shiny whistles unleashed an orchestra of warning whistles at us. As we had reached the centre of the grid we became confused as to the best way to get out of the situation and began wildly running up and down the grid pattern to find a suitable way to get off the sacred lawn. For some reason, doing a 180 turn and returning up the straight path we had come did not occur to us. After a strange and wonderful game of cat and mouse we managed to get out of the grid and returned to the road confused as to what had just happened and with a new found wariness for a man with a whistle.
After eventually finding the entrance and following a bizarre collection of security points which each seemed to have their own individual requirements about what size bag was acceptable. We entered the tomb. Filing silently through dark corridors we suddenly entered the square room resting place of Uncle Ho. Now unless Ho Chi Minh was actually made of Styrofoam when he was alive, I have some doubts that the 'body' we saw had at some point been the fellow with the cheery looking beard. However, the reverence from the other Vietnamese visitors laid pay to the claim that this was Uncle Ho and not Faux Chi Minh as I initially suspected. Andy again managed to upset the guards by dawdling and was silently instructed in the art of turning a corner which brought us back into the light and with a strange sensation.
It was only after speaking to my Grandma on the phone on the evening of our visit that I realised what a strange activity this was. After explaining our days activity my Grandma responded, 'Well you are certainly doing some strange things.... visiting a corpse before breakfast on a Tuesday'. I had no real response to that. She was right. It was strange.
The other stop in Hanoi was the excellent Museum of Vietnamese Ethnology. By large the museums we have visited in South East Asia have been traditional affairs full of glass cases full of fragments of pots and board after board of information misspelled (sometimes hilariously so) of English explanation. As interesting as the subject may be, this approach more often than not kills the exciting history it is trying to educate the visitor on. Therefore we were so happy when visiting the Museum of Ethnology that it had taken a different approach and was not only insightful but had things to play with (an important aspect of all museums I think). Learning about the cultural minorities in Vietnam we had an educational wander through each district within one building and saw brilliant photography, sculptures and models of houses and technology. But it was in the garden where the excitement started! With swings and tightropes, full size replicas of traditional straw houses to climb about in and massive steps to climb to get up in the first place it was fun for kids and big kids alike. We went home thoroughly educated and massively entertained.
Impressed with the start of Vietnam and eager for more we undertook the mine field of booking a trip to Ha Long Bay, one of the seven natural wonders of the world....