Taking a cyclo tour of Hanoi....

Hue’s train station was fairly calm. Our group leader got us our tickets and we were broken into groups of 4, and assigned our sleeping cabins. We shared with Alan and Cynthia. It was a small cabin with two berths on either side and a small table in the middle. It was very basic, quite a distance from the Orient Express-like fantasy I’d conjured in my mind. Alan said it was like stepping back in time a hundred years. We settled in and he told us some interesting tales of traveling across Australia, by train, as a jackeroo in the ‘70’s.

Fortunately, we’d packed a picnic of pizzas, chocolate, fruit, beer, as the food cart that visited had some unappetizing bits of grilled meat on it.

We settled in for a very nice evening with our cabin mates. Our younger travel-mates were having some laughs too, drinking and playing cards in their cabins next door. At one point, twenty-something Adrian walked by to say hello, saw our pile and of empty beer cans and said, “Bloody ‘ell, the oldies are doin’ orlright,” surprised by our beery abilities, apparently. Foolish young whippersnapper.

We settled in early, probably drifting off around 9:30. Slept mostly through the night. Woke sluggishly as we pulled into Hanoi at 5:00 AM, the area around the station already bustling. Our bags were piled on a cart and we walked the two blocks to our hotel, where we were able to rest for a couple of hours.
Unfortunately I did not catch the pricing of the overnight train, it being included in the price of our tour, but if I had to guess, I might say about $40 per person.

At 7 AM we were taken to KOTO for breakfast. This non-profit group (whose name stands for Know One Teach One) trains impoverished children to speak English and preps them for a life in the growing restaurant and hotel industries. It was pretty wonderful, and the young staff were eager, smiling, and efficient. Though a traditional western breakfast was on offer, I asked for and got a more local bowl of Pho, the national dish, a soup with noodles and small bits of meat.

The group broke up after breakfast. We went to see Ho Chi Minh lie in state in his mausoleum, a clunky, Stalinist-style grey block. Despite his wishes to be cremated, his ashes spread around a unified Vietnam, others thought their needs would be better served by having his corpse on view. He looked peaceful enough, in simple black pajamas, inside a clear coffin, surround by armed soldiers of the people’s revolutionary army. Very hushed, and definitely no pictures. All cameras had been handed over prior to the visit.

Within the grounds of the mausoleum is Ho’s very simple, spare, two-roomed house, on stilts, consisting of a bedroom and a study, both resting atop an open dining area. It was quite beautiful, made of wood, with shutters and blinds to raise or lower according to the light and weather. He had some books in many languages (he was a polyglot), a radio, and a phone. We also saw his Peugeot.

After looking at the lotus-like, tiny One Pillar Pagoda, we walked to the Temple of Literature, a peaceful complex of temples within Hanoi’s hustle, dating from the 11th century. Here the works of academics is recorded on artfully carved stone stelae.

Lunch was a gyro (or doner kebab, depending on your provenance), though the Vietnamese use pork instead of lamb. At 3:00 pm we gathered for a one-hour cyclo tour of the old city. Frankly, I’m not enamored of cyclos, which are slower than walking. Though it is neat to be in the midst of such traffic madness. At around 4 we again split up. Susan and finally did a bit of shopping, getting ourselves silk pajamas and elaborately embroidered silk robes. We stopped for a couple of beers, then had a pricy-by-local-standards but damn fine French dinner: foie gras, charcouterie, duck… and a glass or two of grape juice, mais oui.

At nine we met up with the group to watch one of Hanoi’s famous “water puppet” theatre shows, a popular stop on the tourist circuit. This dates back a couple of centuries. The puppets, which are in a pool of water, are operated from behind a curtain. It was technologically very good, and I liked the traditional music which was performed by a real band.

No comments: