The Long Trek to Hanoi
Preface: This is the first of my posts about our wonderful cruise on the Azamara Journey to Vietnam & Thailand, sailing from Hong Kong and ending in Singapore. Sailing with Azamara is a favorite of ours. We love the ship size (<694 passengers) which is small enough to get to great destinations and large enough to have first-rate entertainment, wonderful spa, and other amenities. Service has always been exceptional and was on this cruise as well. Dining options are varied and excellent, especially the two specialty restaurants (Aqualina & Prime C), Chefs Tables, and interesting specialty dinners. Azamara also stays more nights in ports, a feature that allows passengers lots of options including taking advantage of interesting alternatives offered by the cruise line. One of the reasons I chose this trip was the option to fly from Bangkok to Cambodia to see Angkor Wat; it was amazing. I love Azamara’s focus on culture, flexibility to offer wonderful value-added (sometimes impromptu) experiences, and casual yet high-end vibe. To read more about my reflections of the trip, just click to the next entry.
This morning we arrived in Halong Bay – long on my travel bucket list. For years I wondered where this beautiful landscape existed . . . . a favorite with movie directors (think James Bond). Eventually, I figured out it was Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. But, more on that with my next post.
Today, we decided to make the long three-plus hour trek into the interior lowland city of Hanoi. I mean, we are in Vietnam, we have to make the effort. So we boarded a cramped bus (Americans are much bigger than the locals, who I’m sure are very comfortable), that sped along passing every vehicle in sight, honking each and every time. It’s apparently the law here – with all the motorcycles, etc., drivers honk to let others know they are being passed.
It’s quite chilly and breezy here. A gloomy-looking sky, but thankfully only a 5% chance of rain. Everything seems to be covered with dust and although the landscape is lush, it’s broken up by red soil, brown mud near the many rice paddies and a good amount of trash. Homes are very skinny, many the width of a garage, and built two-three stories high extending lengthwise on their tiny lots. The fronts of most homes are colorful and very ornate with balustrades and trim detail, but the special effects end there with the sides being left unfinished concrete. Plots of banana trees dot the landscape, tall palms tower over homes and fuchsia-colored Bougainvillea vines cover doorways. The overall effect is that of a photograph with a screen masking the shot, an overall muting of color and texture.
The entire ride traversed well-populated towns and villages. Street vendors piled wares along the side of the road, surprisingly selling potatoes today; and motor scooters, some with 3-4 riders and piled high with goods and/or livestock crowded the roads. Our guide was very hard to understand, but I did get it when he told us was not safe to get out of our bus along the road, due to “gangsters” in the area.
Once in Hanoi, we headed for the Old Town and immediately transferred to small electric cars for a mad-cap, 10-minute fun drive through the 36 crowded streets of the district. The streets are organized by category, for things like candy, shoes, and coffee, to name a few. The electrical wiring was something to behold – the biggest mess of tangled wires you’ve ever seen; we wondered how many US building codes were being violated. I’ve seen far more electric bikes and motor scooters than traditional bicycles.
Red and Gold decorations and kumquat trees are everywhere, and crowds are pouring into the city for the New Year (of the Rooster) that begins later this week. Lots of locals have the entire week off work and the street vendors are out in full force with baked treats, hats, paper cutouts, balloons and more. We walked over to the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake, one of many lakes in this scenic city. An important center for more than 1,000 years, Hanoi has been the capital of Vietnam during the Nguyen Dynasty of French Indochina from 1887-1954 and until 1976, of North Vietnam.
After a great lunch at a top Western hotel, we toured the sobering jail dubbed by Vietnam War-era American fighter pilots (Senator John McCain) as the “Hanoi Hilton,” and known here as the Hoa Lo Museum. Built by the French in 1896, exhibits focus on the inhumanity of Vietnamese imprisoned by the French and of American bombing raids; our 120 American prisoners of war were portrayed as being in summer-camp. Disturbing on many levels.
We saw the lovely French Quarter and concluded our visit at Ba Dinh Square, also called Red Square, to see the massive granite tomb of the much-revered Ho Chi Minh, the simple teak cottage he lived in, the French Governor’s opulent residence and “One Pillar Pagoda.” It’s a beautiful, peaceful area with perfectly trimmed grounds, carp-filled ponds and sounds of birds chirping.
Then it was back on the bus for the journey “home.” Fourteen hours after we started, I felt like we must resemble a zombie apocalypse as we emerged . . .