Thursday, 31 March 2011

Summers arrived in Hanoi

Thursday 31st March 2011

MP3 track of the day: Half the World Away – Oasis

Weather: Sunny and hot. The white clouds have gone; however they've been replaced by blinding light, bleaching the sky white ... I just can't win.


I had been told that, the hostel I was staying in, was classified as a 'party hostel'. This has not been my experience so far. Last night I went to sleep around 11pm; entering my dorm I found the lights off and everyone else in bed. The others weren't asleep and so I was able to turn on my 'reading light' to aid me in getting ready for bed. As I struggled to fit everything within my small locker I spoke to a woman from Derby. She used to live in Alvaston and she also used to go to Saint Benedict's School … small world. We chatted for a while before going to sleep.


At 7:30am everyone was up. Three girls, including the one from Derby, were off on a cruise around 'Ha Long Bay' for the next two nights. The other two people were off somewhere else leaving the entire dorm to me. I wished them all a pleasant trip as they went out of the door. I too decided to get up as I had a busy day ahead of me. Once dressed, and I had eaten breakfast, I looked at the sky. It seemed the weather was improving. Due to this I booked myself on a day trip to 'Ha Long bay', for tomorrow, for my Birthday. After this I hit the streets of Hanoi.

Within five minutes I had been offered six motorbike rides and I had nearly been run over twice. I made my way through the chaotic morning streets of the old Quarter heading, or so I thought, to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. It didn't take me long to find out that my, internal navigation system, had been slightly damaged. Due to the winding, and chaotic streets, of the old quarter I found that I had headed south, instead of West. I quickly recalculated where I was and rectified the situation.

Today I had made two decisions. Firstly, due to the weather yesterday, I had brought my coat with me; secondly I'd decided not to look at my map whilst walking around the city (to limit the amount of 'motorbike' offers I got). Both were bad decisions. Firstly the clouds had parted, the skies were turning blue and the sun was out in full force. Summer seemed to have arrived within Hanoi and there I was, wearing a gore-tex waterproof coat. The coat soon came off and, for the rest of the day, it hung annoyingly over my right arm. Not using my map was a decision I had made to stop the continual barge of motorbike requests. Previously every time I had put my hand into my back pocket, to located and display a map of a city with South Est Asia, a swarm of transport providers would circle my position. Even without a 'map in hand' I still got endless amounts for motorbike offers and I also found myself lost again. After a short while I was outside the prison I'd visited yesterday. The prison was located even further south than I was earlier today; I turned around and headed north west.

Finally I found myself on a long street leading to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum. The queue to see 'Uncle Ho' was vast, leading quite a few blocks south of the mausoleum. Not really seeing any point in joining the queue right away I decided to photograph the area. It soon became apparent that, due to the huge police presence, the area was very tightly restricted and I couldn't get anywhere near the mausoleum. Admitting failure I joined the queue.

The queue moved pretty quickly and I soon found myself having to have my bag scanned. My camera had to be taken out of my bag and placed with in a 'no camera' holdall. I came out of security completely confused. You weren't allowed to take your camera in with you and yet here I was, past security, still with my camera in my hand. I was about to follow the crowds and join another queue, in front of me, when a Vietnamese official instructed me to head down a road, to my left, to a 'camera drop off point'. Once at the 'camera drop off point' I handed over my expensive SLR; in return I received a piece of plastic with a number on it. I was told that I would be able to pick up my camera at the other end of this vast complex. I was then shown to, yet another queue, which didn't seem to be moving very quickly. I stood within this 'other queue' asking myself one simple question '...Was seeing a dead guy worth the possibility of my camera, plus most of my travel photos, getting stolen'. I pulled out of the queue, asked for my camera back, and walked away. The whole process had been chaotic, badly organized and intimidating. If I have time I'll come back at a later date … without my camera.

As Ho Chi Minh's museum was close by I headed there. For 15,000 dong I found myself, once through security, in a very grand '17th Century European feel' building. The ceilings were high and the floor, plus staircases, were made of marble and white stone. The museum consisted of one circular floor. It was more of an art museum – telling 'Uncle Ho's' life, in art, from start to finish – with documents in glass cabinets located in certain places. I didn't spent long; I was soon out of the museum thinking that the building had been more impressive than the contents.

Moving on I tried to find Ho Chi Minh's house with little success. Instead I found myself at the gates to 'Hanoi's Botanical Gardens'. As the entrance fee was only 2,000 dong (5p) I entered, just to get away from all these Vietnamese people asking me if I wanted a motorbike. The idea was to head straight through these gardens and out of the northern exit where I hoped to find a crashed B-52. The term 'Botanical gardens' should be used as loosely here as it was in Lakota, Fiji. There was a distinct lack of flowers, which is quite a vital part of a botanical garden. What it lacked in flora it made up in trees, brick paths and small lakes. I found the botanical gardens a metaphor for how I thought my day might plan out. The Vietnamese government knew that the capital needed a botanical garden, just like I knew that I had to see all of these sights. However both of us really couldn't be bothered and so a half-hearted attempt was made. It was lovely to leave the chaos of the city behind, if only for ten minutes, as I made my way to the northern exit. Once out I turned right to try to find this B-52. Instead I found the 'West Lake' (another 'sight' on my list) which was in the opposite direction to the crashed plane. I turned 180 degrees, went past the botanical gardens, and went into a small urban area. Once I had walked through some narrow, and chaotic, streets I was presented with two small square pools of, not very clean, water. In the middle was a bridge. To the left of me was the remains of a B-52. I circled the pond trying to find the best angle for a photo. The area of water wasn't that big – maybe thirty meters-squared – and so I was amazed that the pilot managed to ditch his plane here instead of the shanty town that fanned out from this central point.

Once photos had been taken I headed out, again passing the botanical gardens, and back to the 'West Lake'. I walked up one side of the lake, stopping to take photos and to have a 'nose' around a pagoda. This 'West Lake' has to be my favorite part of the city; It's quite and beautiful, in it's own way. I was quite upset, once I had reached the northern end of the lake, at the thought of having to turn around and head back into the chaos. Before heading into said chaos I stopped for an early lunch; the time ... noon.

By the time I'd got back to 'Uncle Ho's' mausoleum the crowds had dispersed and most of the Vietnamese police had left. The mausoleum is only open until 11:30am and so this allowed me to take a couple of photos before, once more, trying to find Ho Chi's house. I followed my guidebooks instructions to the letter and I still couldn't find the damn place. I must have walked around the same block more times than I can count. Just like the Jade pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City I decided to leave the house … I reckon I probably saw it on my walk anyway.

It was now 1pm and I had achieved, bar going into the mausoleum, everything I had planned for the day. I still found myself hating Hanoi and so, to complete the sights as soon as possible, I headed to the military museum. 20,000 dong later I found myself in front of an information board indicating that there were six rooms, plus two open-air exhibits. The rooms were labeled S1 to S6 and so I started with S1. The usual bias displays were spread throughout this room, detailing the Vietnamese victorious war against the French colonialist. It didn't take me long to move my way through this room, due to the fact I was fed up with all the bias statements. It got worse as I moved onto S2, the American War. 'Puppet regime' littered the placards indicating what each photo was showing. With so much bias it wasn't even worth reading the information present; I mean, how can you trust anything that was being displayed? I breezed through the rest of the museum and, to cut my tour even shorter, I found S4 to S6 closed. Overall the museum had been terrible. It's strange how no museum, within Vietnam, has detailed the successful French campaign to colonize Vietnam in the first place; the museum felt as though the North Vietnamese were still angry over the two wars. The only interesting items on display were all outside. A collection of shot-down French and American planes, an anti-aircraft rocket launcher (the rocket was huge), tanks and airplanes littered the courtyard. I took quite a few photos before I found the best exhibit of all. A European woman, with a short skirt and great legs, who inspecting a 'puppet regime' armored car at the time.

Moving on I left the 'bias museum' and headed to the final site that I wanted to see, within Hanoi. 'The Temple of Literature' was your standard Vietnamese temple. Located behind brick walls, within the center of town, was a rectangle shaped plot of land. The main buildings ran up the middle of the rectangle with grounds on either side. As I purchased my ticket I glanced at a sign to my left:

'No souvenirs to be bought, or sold, within this sight'.

The relief, of at least for thirty minutes, not having anyone trying to sell me anything was displayed all over my face for all to see. I stepped through the stone outer-gate to, believe it or not, be confronted by a guy trying to sell me a book. I pointed to the sign to which he just laughed, and said he was 'allowed' to sell things. I said no thank you and pressed on. I went past the 'well of heavenly clarity' (a walled pond) before making it to the main wooden temple. Past the wooden temple I found a huge bronze bell, erected within a wooden pagoda, on the left-hand side of the complex and a huge wooden drum, within a similar wooden pagoda, erected on the right. It was lovely just to be able to walk around with a moderation of peace. On the other side of the outer-brick wall beeping horns, shouting and the general city chaos could be herd but on this side of he wall, on this side, peace prevailed.

A Vietnamese guy was taking photos of his beautiful girlfriend within the entrance to the main temple. I went past and inside the temple, one last time, before heading out of the site. The time was 3:30pm and so I decided to head back to my hostel, but not before stopping for a slice of cake and a drink. I went into a 'Highlands coffee' restaurant chain where I sat down for 'afternoon tea'. I was already sat down when I was handed a menu; the prices were extortionate. I breathed in and order a white hot chocolate (not seen this before … thought I would give it a try) and a slice of 'opera cake' for 100,000 dong (£3). I would say that both items were enjoyable, but overall a little disappointing for the cost. It didn't take me long to finish either of these items and soon I found myself, within my hostel common room, surfing the internet.

So, apart from seeing 'Uncle Ho' I have completed all of the 'touristy' things that I wanted to do here in Hanoi. Tomorrow shall be spent in 'Ha Long bay'; the day after I'll try to visit Ho Chi Minh, again, before working out my next move. As my 'Ha Long Bay' tour starts at 8am tomorrow (and I've been informed that I need to change rooms) I need an early night. I therefore decided to spend the evening within the common room – watching Sherlock Homes – before heading for a shower and a early night around 10pm. As my tour tomorrow starts at 8am and finished at 7pm I'm not sure I'll be online. One thing is for certain; as it's my birthday no expense shall be spared if I want anything.

Toodle Pip!

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