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Hanoi on a Million Dong a Day

Dispatches from the Old Quarter

rain 24 °C

Hanoi traffic. The sign probably says "Wear a helmet only if it makes you happy, and ignore all traffic lights!"

September 20th


Well, we finally left our beautiful Central Plaza Holiday Inn behind and took a taxi to the Beijing West Railway Station for our 40 hour train ride to Hanoi, Vietnam. Our trip to the station was uneventful and we found the soft seat waiting lounge without much fuss. The waiting lounge is one of the perks of buying a soft seat or soft sleeper ticket. It comes with comfortable chairs, private bathrooms, its own cafe and store, and best of all, its own check-in line and early boarding privileges. Contrast this with the hard seats, squat toilets and roof-raising noise of the regular lounges and you can see why it's such a bonus.

Having put one overnight train journey under our belts, we felt much more prepared for this one, until the conductor started arguing with us that we had only purchased two berths (the adult tickets were at the front with Anica's at the back). I showed him again and again where her ticket was but it took several tries and several more minutes for him to finally pay attention. That resolved, we were freaked out again by his taking our tickets (the whole thing) and not giving us anything in return. On our first trip, and we'd read this was the way it was supposed to be, the conductor had taken our tickets and given us these metal tags in return, as a sort of receipt.

Of course, as we usually do in this sort of situation, which happens a lot, we tried to ask (to no avail) whether we were supposed to get or keep part of the ticket, then sat down and hoped for the best. Having an Australian couple turn up next door and confirm that they too were now ticketless also helped :)

Since our train left shortly after four, we spent the first few hours watching the world pass by and were able to convince Anica that we should wait until it got dark before breaking out the cards and games. We counted gas stations, private cars (there aren't many of them on the non-city highways), animals, two bridges where the water had dried up underneath, countless bicycles, mopeds and motorcycles and lots of fires - brush, refuse? - burning.

We spent lots of time talking to the Australians in the next cabin. A married couple (Jane and Ben), they'd travelled for several months last year, worked in London for six, and are now taking four months to make it home, using rail to do as much of it as they can.

Thanks to a huge buffet breakfast in the morning, muffins and donuts before we left the hotel and KFC at the station, we only raided the stores of food we'd brought for snacks last night. The dining car was (reportedly) insanely busy and the food very spicy so we're thankful once again for the research which led us to bring noodle cups and crackers.

Our soft sleeper cabin has four berths, each with its own pad, comforter, 2 pillows and nightlight. This time we've lucked out and so far no one's been put in the extra upper berth.

Looking out the window has proved to be my favourite past time. Watching the landscape change as we've moved further and further south is really cool. Right now, as I continue this entry, we're back in Guilin, land of the amazing karsts. Earlier on, close to Beijing, ignoring the Chinese signs and lack of private cars, you could have easily believed we were in Canada since the foliage really didn't look that different.

Anica had one of her first formal lessons this morning. Rob used a deck of cards to explain the concept of multiplication. She's keeping a daily journal, seeing (and taking in) a lot, and is reading books far above her grade level so our only concern is math and science where's she's at or above grade level but where it would be easy for her to fall behind. We have two "game" math and science DVDs installed on the laptop and one multiplication/division program, but we need to teach her the basics before she can use the last and they had only just started with multiplication at the end of last school year (grade 2).


Continuing on with the train ride, we knew the second night would be more...lively. First, an employee came to show us a card explaining that we' be stopping for an hour around 8PM. Hey, handy cards explaining things in Engish! What a great idea, and why didn't they have more of these, as there were so many English speakers on the international cars? The stop allowed us to stretch our legs, within reason. We were actually locked in a departure lounge. It didn't say "you will be prisoners, but comfortable" on that card! Now our train was down to just three cars. Then came the Chinese customs stop at midnight. They come on the train. "Knock, knock. Passport? We'll just take that away, thank-you. Anything to declare?" "No," I said. Luckily, it was true, because it's impossible to lie in your bed and fool a Chinese customs officer. "Your baby?" she asked, pointing to the lump on the top bunk. "Yes." "Can I see?" So I pulled the covers back and proppred Anica up. She nodded, and I let go. She fell, literally, back to sleep. After about an hour, our passports were returned, and away we went.

A little more sleep, then came the stop in Vietnam. This time we all got off (and we took ALL our luggage, no mistaking that), and we went through Vietnam entry, which includes getting your temperature taken. So, it's 3AM, and we're about to get on a not quite as nice Vietnamese train. Some "express" ticket this was! At least we knew about these stops from reading the incredibly informative website Seat61 in advance of the trip. We knew, then, that the next stop was the final one: Hanoi. As a bonus, we were in an hour earlier time-zone, which meant an extra hour's sleep!

Sep 22


Waking up on the train in Vietnam was unexpectedly delightful. They gave us plenty of notice that we were coming into Hanoi. We threw open the curtains, and immediately could tell we weren't in China anymore. The outskirts of Hanoi featured French-colonial style, albeit crumbling, houses painted in bright colours. Some were the "tube" style we'd read about: very narrow across, but long (to avoid the taxation done by street frontage). These looked especially strange when the houses on either side were no longer standing. The remaining tube houses looked like dominoes on their sides.

A typical tube house

Oh, I also got served coffee on the train. What a boost! It was probably the most expensive coffee in all of Vietnam to come in a paper cup, but worth every dong.

We continued to chat and visit with Jane and Ben, then said our goodbyes and hopped into our respective taxis (and promptly got ripped off by another crooked meter, but it didn't matter, it was only for pennies).

Hong Ngoc Hotel turned out to be a very attractive choice, right in the heart of the Old Quarter, and we bargained hard to bring it in under our budget. The room is so pretty, with dark wood, a wardrobe and a print of old Hanoi over one of the beds. For $40 in Canada, you'd be lucky to get any kind of sleazebag motel at all!

After much-needed showers, we set out on the streets of the Old Quarter. At first we thought there were no stoplights at all in this city of several million. There are, but it took us several hours to spot them. The traffic here is the craziest we've seen, but, somehow, is a lot of fun. It might be that the streets aren't wide, like KL, Chengdu and Beijing, but we've been enjoying winding and picking our way around. It's 99% motorbikes, and the rest are "cylos" (a kind of rickshaw). Cars come through the Old Quarter only rarely.

Eating a vegetarian lunch, and hearing American '70s pop classics on their stereo, I had another one of those surreal moments. This was Hanoi. "North" Vietnam. Some of the songs were from Vietnam war movie soundtracks. And here we were as tourists! Growing up, I'd heard a lot about Vietnam - but it was all about the American war experience here. Plus, the recovery, economically, only really took off from about 1993. The Old Quarter certainly does seem older, and poorer, than the Chinese cities we'd visited, but also far more fun and atmospheric. We even ran into Jane and Ben again as we explored the area.

"The Lake of the Restored Sword," or "Hoam Kiem Lake," however, is a quieter, gentler walking place that's usually described as the soul of old Hanoi. We walked around the lake, stopping for ice cream, looking at the three-tiered monument in the lake's middle,

The Tortoise Tower

and then visiting the ancient (Confucian-Buddhist-Taoist-etc.) temple across the red bridge to a little island. It commemorates a Vietnamese general who warded off the Mongols in 1288, and also the giant turtle who stole a famous sword on the lake about 500 years. So, it's your all-in-one temple, really.

Men playing a traditional checkers-like game outside Den Ngoc Son temple

We ate baguette sandwiches for dinner. This is authentically Vietnamese, right? Well, actually, it is. It's a holdover from the French colonial days. The restaurant was wedge-shaped, and the traffic looked like it was coming through the front window until it veered off to either side at the last second.

Braving the streets, now with night fully-fallen, we realized that each street had a specialization of store. We only looking for a "convenience store," but apparently these are few. Instead, we inched our way along "silk street," "religious shrine street," etc. (these are our names for them). Our hotel, appropriately enough, seems to be on "toy street."

Luong Van Can, just down from our hotel. Or, as we dubbed it "Toy Street"
Sep 23


Today we started walking on the street. I had just bought somthing when we saw the family Ben had ended up slepping with (i.e. sharing a train berth with -Rob). started talking with the kids and diseded to go have ice cream at Fannys together. then we said lets go walk around the lake and buy water puppet ticket for 3 kids and 3 Adults. Me, Mommy, Daddy, their mom, Julia and Jacklen. went to Mama Rosas Italian food for lunch. Me, Julia, Jacklene shared Spagithi Carbonara with egg and bacon and their mom and my Dad, Mom shared pizza. We walked down toy street and to the covered market, brought them to our hotel, played nitendo fairly. walked to their hotel and watched them play nitendo. watched water puppets. neat. had dinner. good night.


Today was one of those wonderful days where the plans go out the window and something much better happens! We were just heading out to do some souvenir shopping when we ran into three people from the train: Sherry and her two adopted daughters, Julia and Jaclyn, from Washington (state). There trip was to China, where Julia was born, and Vietnam, where Jaclyn was born.

We started talking and realized how well Anica and the girls were getting along, and all of us decided to spend more time together. Before long, the girls were begging us to spend the whole day together! The "grownups" agreed, and we had a great time. It was even harder and yet more fun to cross the streets as a unit of six people, for instance. We had ice cream, walked around the lake again, had Italian food for lunch, browsed the Old Quarter and the (awful) covered market.

The girls took turns showing each other their hotels, then it was off to the water puppet theatre. Water puppetry is a unique Vietnam dramatic art, and was very endearing. Basically, the puppeteers stand behind a screen in hipwaders, and manipulate the puppets using poles that are hidden by the water. So the puppets swim, skip and thrash about on the surface of the water. The themes and stories are fairly universal, so it's easy enough to follow.

After the theatre, we shared some more traditionally Vietnamese food at a restaurant just on the other side of the lake. We had exchanged emails and fully intend to stay in touch. All day the three girls got along great. It was also pretty special to be part of their trip, as it was an emotional journey for them.

Anica with new friends in Hanoi

Sep 24


we walked around the shops, walking in and out of shops, looking for clothes or paintings when we finally found a shop and bought a picture at last. walked by the lake and got some money from the ATM and sended home painting. took taxi to a place called Koto and how cute. there a charity for poor people, bring them to their place and tech them how to cook and give them a house & bike. walked to Ho Chi mins musem but it was closed. walked to a little area and stared talking with a Autralian faimly and they told us they were going to go to Halong bay with Handspan but didnent because of tiefoon and ours was cancelled too. ate at little Haoni. good night :)


Anica always writes her journal independently of mine, and I'm amazed how similar they sound today! But if you want to hear more, read on!

Finally, the weather caught up with us! We were talking with an Australian family outside the Ho Chi Minh museum and they mentioned their Halong Bay trip had been cancelled due to a coming typhoon. They were with Handspan Travel for that, same as us. We were set to leave tomorrow morning at 8AM. It turned out to be a good thing we booked with Handspan, because they had already contacted our hotel, and when we did see them, they gave us a 100% refund, no questions asked. We were able to get the hotel here in Hanoi for the 25th, the night we would have been on the boat.

Other than that today, we did some shopping in the Old Quarter, where we bought a small framed artwork (I would say "painting", but it's done in the medium of coloured fallen leaves, a scene of Hanoi streets). Then we headed for the international post office, where we filled out many forms, and sent it away, hoping for the best.

Lunch was at a unique venue: "Koto" is a not-for-profit restaurant staffed by former Vietnamese street/disadvantaged kids. We heard about it originally from Jane and Ben, because it was started by Australians. The food was great and the place quite stylish. I had "Chao Tom," where, like Peking Duck (or fajitas for that matter), some assembly is required. I even bought a t-shirt from the restaurant because it's a place and cause I don't mind promoting.

Anica had a fun time with the Australian kids today, especially the nine-year old girl because they looked so much alike. As Jenn and I talked with the parents, we realized a photo session was breaking out. Two little curly-haired blonde girls! We even took a picture of them on a bench with two young Vietnamese women. She didn't get to play for long, though, because we had to go over to Handspan travel.

The area of Ho Chi Minh's museum, house and the "One-pillar Pagoda," with its wide-open public squares and wide avenues, was quite a contrast to the Old Quarter. We didn't stay long, but enjoyed walking past the old embassies and mansions.

Sep 25


Today we walked around to the French qurter and saw the musem of Vietnamese woman but only two exibts that we could see. Ok we said. after (the great) musem we had lunch at a famus mexican, westran and ribs place. Mommy and Daddy got nachos and tacos (ha ha) and I got Hot Dogs kids meal wich came with a toy, french freies, and salad ad ice cream. when I reached in [to the loot box -ed.] I touched somthing and pulled it out. it was a crown with pom pom thing, a giant Butterfly on the front and silver on the side.

Anica's kids-meal crown. Perfect for Moon Festival!

Got to our hotel and realized we were going to have dinner with Julia, Jaclyn and their mom at another little Hanoi. Went on a fun rickhaw ride for an hour. had ice cream at fanny with Julia and Jacklyn.


The French Quarter seemed somewhat...French. The Musuem of Vietnamese Women was next to a French-language school, with the children dressed in tri-colour uniforms. Streets in this part of Hanoi are laid out on a grid, and the trees are broader, with many Banyans, dripping with vines. The Women's Museum had a floor devoted to the war, showing all that women did. There was a lot of rhetoric about American aggression and American puppets. The third floor was devoted to contemporary stories of mothers who overcame disadvantages to provide education for their children. Inspiring, more in a Horatio Alger way, than that of a socialist "the state will be provider" way. A large, ex-pat place around the corner provided a very North American lunch, complete with kids meal and colouring.

Our extra time in Hanoi gave us a chance to see Sherry and her girls again. Eerybody got along just as well today. We ate Vietnamese at a second-floor restaurant (up very steep stairs!) called Little Hanoi (no relation to the one we'd been to before). The rain had come as we winded through the streets back to the Lake. We had ice cream at Fanny's and watched the motorbike traffic go by. Apparently, with the Moon Festival coming, it was the night to dress up. The young people had devil's horns, witches and wizard hats, or masks on as they circled the lake on their motorbikes. The occasional firecracker exploded, and sporadically a small group would parade by with drums and dragons. Anica and the girls cheered and waved them on.

The motorbike promenade, even as the rain came, complete with devil horn costumes

On the way back to the hotel, it rained even harder, and we took refuge under an awning. The storm that kept us off Halong Bay eventually was classified as a tropical depression, but even that was enough to bring the rain inland to Hanoi. We said a soggy goodbye to our new friends from Washington.

Tomorrow will be the typical packing, eating, errands and then catching an (overnight) train day. Our next stop is Hue (pronounced in one syllable as "hway"). Of course you never know what might come up...

Check this entry in a week or so for photos!

Posted by jennrob 21:36 Archived in Vietnam

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Hi guys. My husband, 8 month-old son and I have been peeking in on your journey with great interest. In 2005 / 2006, my husband and I (before baby) took a career break and travelled for six months. I'm sure you have a ton of blogs for research but we did the north to south route through Vietnam and captured a lot of places to stay / eat and things to do in our blog: http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog/kristymatt/tokyo2cairo/tpod.html

We will definitely be watching your blog with great interest going forward as we would love to take another break when our son is out of diapers!

by kristymatt

Hello Jen, Rob and Anica
Wow Vietnam sounds so amazing, you seem to be settling down into a travelling vibe now! Really great blog, I am checking in every few days to see if theres any more installments! you sure a re writing plenty which is great. Keep up the good work. Happy travels Liz x

by bizzylizzy

Hi Jenn, Rob & Anica,
Once again your daily accounts have made your destination come alive. Loved Anica's journal entries; they're so lively. It's so wonderful to have those unexpected special moments to share, also. Great fun!
Love & Hugs,
N&G, H&D, M&D xxxooo

by hdbutters

Hi guys,
We have finally made it to Mumbai! It's fab reading all about the bit we're going to next, we'll make sure we write just as much about India for you guys to read up on!
Take care
Rachel xx


To Kristy & Matt: thanks for reading our blog! We've had a look at your blog since you posted your comment here, so thanks for the tips. To Rachel: I can't believe you're in India. It's still a month off for us, but maybe we'll see there! Hang in there - Rob

by jennrob

I echo the sentiment of H and D. Your entries make the trip come alive! How nice to have people to share time with. Anica, Will was wondering if you were homeschooling yet. Can't wait for the next installment and some pictures! JBWL xoxo

by JBRobinson

Will - nothing too much for home schooling, just my diary and some mathemtics. -Anica

by jennrob

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