Monday, 7 February 2011

Asian Adventure 20 :: 3-6 Feb '11 :: Hanoi

Hanoi Rocks. The words, stuck onto a school bag, have stayed with me for the past fifteen years. My trip felt long overdue. Shame then, that we chose to go to Hanoi when our dates coincided with the Tết holiday. So smug had we felt when booking our cheap flights four months previously. So annoyed we felt when we arrived in 'post-apocalyptic Hanoi'.

Renowned for its busy and bustling streets filled with motorbikes and food stalls spilling across each pavement, Hanoi was a ghost town. After leaving our bags at our simple but effective hotel, we wandered the Old Town streets, dodging the odd wire hanging from the mess of cables overhead and marvelling at the anorexic buildings constructed to house several generations under one roof. After an unsuccessful attempt at finding nourishment at one of the few street food stalls (it tasted like crushed beetles wrapped in caterpillar skin), our grumbling bellies were soothed in the ubiquitous noodle chain, pho24.

Skinny living

That evening, we had a rather disappointing meal at Restaurant Bobby Chinn. For a restaurant that prides itself on its 'fusion' menu, this felt more like, 'blended cuisine'. Neither Asian nor Western; neither good nor awful. It was all just somewhere in between - nothing to excite the palate nor particularly to induce vomit. Distinctly average.

Thankfully, we were destined for a relaxing trip around Hạ Long Bay for the remainder of our long weekend, so the next morning we zoomed at breakneck speed to the coast care of the Paloma Cruise minibus. Only one stop was made for the rest and refueling of our driver - at a roadside cafe attached to a huge store selling an odd collection of marble statues and other random trinkets. Shockingly, photographs of people purchasing statues with their full names and email addresses adorned the outside walls. Weird 101.

No word of a lie

Arriving in the Bay, we were greeted on board by a loud blasting of 'Happy New Year' by Abba and a welcome speech given by our dear leader, who had an intriguing approach to the English language. Mostly, "We are so happy" interspersed with details of the cruise itinerary and the history of the poorly timed Tết holiday. We consoled ourselves with a Hanoi 'bia' on top deck with a slight chilly wind on our faces.

View from top deck

Just before dinner was served, we took part in a cooking (read: rolling) class where we assembled spring rolls and watched the chef dunk them in oil. Surprisingly, even the ones made by the stubby fingers of Chinese children onboard with their multi-member families were edible. Note to self: Add spring rolls to foolproof recipe list.

And then came a string of further disappointing meals (was the usual chef on his bloody Tết holiday too?) which were more Thai than Vietnamese, and more oil than substance. We retired early to bed after a short-lived attempt at squid fishing. Believe.

The next morning, we awoke to find ourselves in Vietnam's boat parking lot. Time to ride: off we pootled on our speedboat to clamber into a rowing boat steered by a pitiful lady struggling under the weight of four Western fatties. Trying not to be too distracted by her huffing and puffing, we enjoyed peering into the lives of those who live in the Floating Village. Next up was Sung Sot Cave (a.k.a. 'Amazing Cave'). Let's put it this way: apart from the penis rock, don't be fooled by the nickname. If piped music at a heritage site is your thing, however, please feel free to arrange for an extended visit.

I hope your biceps are strong...

Highlight of the trip to 'Amazing Cave' is 'Penis Rock'.

We exited the Bay in much the same fashion as we had arrived, only this time, our fellow minibus passengers had to ask the driver to conduct the vehicle a little less maniacally. Very amusing. We were rather enjoying the skill with which he demonstrated the signature Vietnamese haphazard weave. Back in Hanoi, we had enough luck to taste some of the dishes we had been craving by simply going to the Elegance Diamond Hotel's restaurant. Finally, cha ca la vong and bun cha were no more strangers and we slurped and munched with delight.

The height of fashion in downtown Hanoi

Overall, we felt like we had been in Hạ Long Bay about ten years too late - long after tourism's grubby fingers had touched everything. And we were just unlucky to coincide with the Tết holiday in Hanoi. Our love for Vietnam is far from over - we are only just beginning.

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