Saturday was our day to explore Hanoi. We slept in and enjoyed the last of the comforts of the 5 star hotel and it's massive buffet breakfast. We went directly to our local hotel (the Bao Khanh Hotel) for the next few nights and dropped our bags. Whilst a distinct step downwards, everything we needed was there. It was basic but clean and tidy accommodation.
The food here in Vietnam has been great. Here the locals prefer fresh ingredients rather than dressings and oils to get good flavours. For example, my bowl of soup noodles for lunch on Saturday was made up of rice noodles and flavoured with spring and white onion and coriander, along with a number of other things. I'm no whiz in the kitchen but this tasted great. Vietnam also has a great range of seafood, since it has a relatively long coastline. All the food we've eaten here has tasted great. The same can't be said for the water, which we've been repeatedly advised not to drink, not to even brush your teeth with it without boiling it first! 1.5L bottles of water for between 6,000 and 10,000 Dong have been our mainstay.
After lunch we set out to explore some more of the city. After a little while browsing shops and looking for bargains we got ourselves a Cyclo and headed for Ho Chi Min's Mausoleum. The Cyclo is a cool way to see the city. It's basically a 3-wheeled bike where you sit on a 2-person (just!) padded chair up front whilst your host pedals from behind.
Unfortunately we'd missed the official opening hours for the Mausoleum but the nearby museum was still fair game. Here they'd spent quite a bit of money commemorating their former leader. Nearby were the buildings that Ho Chi Minh had used during his times as president, all beautifully restored. Adjacent to the museum was the One Pillar Pagoda, which was built in 1049 (destroyed at the end of the French colonial era in 1954 and rebuilt in 1955) and it's single central pillar is said to resemble the stem of a lotus leaf and have healing powers.
Nearby is Ho Chi Minh's original house on stilts, where he lived simply but tastefully. The interior of the house is all polished wood and it's been beautifully preserved and/or restored. Initially he refused to live in the French-designed presidential palace but lived in a small cottage on the presidential grounds instead. In 1958 he built and moved into the "house on stilts", just across the small lake, which represented a common living style for the people of the time. I can't imagine any of our politicians settling for a 3 bedroom house in the suburbs somewhere.
At this point I realised that I still had the hotel keys from the Melia Hanoi in my pocket, so we taxi'd it back. Gail continued on back to our new hotel whilst I decided to give the local motor-bike men a go. The bargaining for the taxi bike went something like this: "How much? Where to? Bao Khanh hotel. 50,000 dong. 50,000 dong? Too much. How about 15,000. No, 20,000 dom. No, 15,000. OK." Clearly I could have bargained harder We zipped around the city and he had me back at our new hotel in double-quick time. It was an adrenaline-charged few minutes, I assure you. If you're planning to come to Vietnam it's probably worth checking to see if you're covered by insurance if you take a motorbike taxi ride because I'm guessing that most insurance companies probably don't cover this sort of thing.
After a nap and a shower we headed out for the evening. Gail mentioned the Water Puppet Theatre show, which sounded kinda cool. Apparently it's world famous, but I'd never heard of it before. After walking straight past the entry way the first time (missed the sign) we made our way in, a minute after the show started. This was quite an amazing show. Imagine puppetry, where the actors stand behind a screen, but they're also standing waist-deep in water and the puppets are on long green poles that go under the screen and the puppets are at the water's surface.
They went through about 16 or so loosely-related themes which represented different things about Vietnam. They even had indoor fireworks and a magic turtle that had smoke coming from it's rear, even when it was under water. I was just amazed at the amount of control that they had over the puppets from such a long distance away and with the resistance of the water. This short little video (403 kB) doesn't really do the performance justice, but you'll hopefully get the idea. If you're ever in Hanoi, Vietnam, this is a 'must see'.
Click the picture above to get a video of 3 short clips I took of the motorbikes on the street. The first one shows the proper technique for crossing the road - just start walking slowly in a straight line and don't change pace!
Following the Water Puppet Theatre show we made our way to a place called the City View cafe. We sat outside on the balcony on the 5th floor of this building, overlooking one of Hanoi's lakes and soaked up the atmosphere. We also had a great view of the chaos of motorbikes in the streets below. Up this high the refreshing breeze cooled our sticky sweatiness from the humid weather. It also gave me an opportunity to try the local Tiger beer. The Vietnamese like a good beer, so it seems. Think of a Carlton Draught that gets marginally worse as the glass empties and you have the idea.
As we wandered the streets during the warm evening it was impossible not to get swept up in the frenetic hustle and bustle of the city, full of narrow streets, scooters, cycos and people. Full of anticipation of our transfer to the Junk for a sail on Halong bay, we eagerly awaited the next day.