Hanoi Part One: the hotel crawl, markets and museums

3-5 September 2011

The start of my three-week trip around Asia was an early one. I was up at 3.30am to be precise. By 4am, I was in the car on the way to Heathrow’s Terminal 4, which was somewhat tricky to find due to an apparent lack of signage. Thankfully, I managed to check in with bags of time to spare. Today’s flight was with Jet Airways, with a brief stop-off in Mumbai – my one and only trip to India (but hopefully not my last – I didn’t have time to make it out the airport) – before changing in Bangkok and on to Hanoi.

The first leg took about 9 hours, due to an extra hour of circling over Mumbai airport, thanks to to runway closures. Thankfully, I had plenty of movies and sitcoms to keep me entertained. Mumbai Airport sadly wasn’t as fun-filled and my next flight was delayed for 1.5 hours, as it sat on the runway. The TV in the airport lounge had explained the situation: bad weather. According to the news, the runway had been so slippery that a plane had skidded off onto the grass. From what I could tell, the broadcast was talking about the very airport I was currently sitting in. Great, that was comforting.

In Bangkok, passport control seemed to take forever – it seems that I have a talent for picking the slowest moving queue. I swear, I was almost in tears. I mean, being a Brit, I do like a good queue but this one was beyond me – I had another flight to catch. I got through it in the end and, about 24 hours after I’d left, after another connecting flight with Vietnam Airlines, I was finally in my room at the Hanoi Astoria Hotel. The room was a little grimy but I had a private bathroom and a huge double bed so I was still happy. I only spotted one little cockroach during my stay.

I emerged from the air-conditioned freshness that was my room and wandered around the streets of Hanoi looking for a nearby market that was marked on my map. Needless to say, thanks to my navigational skills, I didn’t find it. However, I did at least manage to find a lovely restaurant called Quan An Ngon.

It was styled like a food court, with the kitchens arranged around the (I think) communal tables (sorry, bad memory), with a big tree trunk in the middle and lanterns covering the ceiling. The restaurant was busy, with a buzzy, laid-back atmosphere. It was certainly one of my best finds in Vietnam and the perfect place for my first night in Hanoi. Since it was my first day, I decided to go for a dish I recognised, just to ease myself in: grilled pork balls and noodles. When it arrived, I didn’t recognise it as much as I thought. The meat was in strips and not particularly meaty- I’m still not entirely sure what the “balls” on the menu referred to. Still, the food was good and the Tiger beer was flowing. If you’re in the area then you should probably try this restaurant – this was not my only visit.

When I awoke the next morning, I had no idea what time it was. My room had no windows so I couldn’t even make an educated guess. Obviously I just went back to sleep. Thankfully, I just about made it downstairs in time for the breakfast, which consisted of green tea, fried eggs and warm bread with butter and jam.

Once eaten, it was time for me to check-out and move into hotel number two. As part of my upcoming tour to Ha Long Bay, I had a stay in another Hanoi hotel included for the night before I was due to set off. I hadn’t been told the name of my hotel but it was written on my tour voucher: the Nam Hai Hotel on Duong Thanh Street. I checked in just before the monsoon rain hit. I was settling into a relatively luxurious room that came complete with a computer, when I got a call from reception to say I was at the wrong hotel. It turned out there were three Nam Hai Hotels and my booking was at a different branch. The staff were lovely and let me stay in the room long enough to freshen up and then paid for my taxi to the hotel I was actually meant to be at. I have to say, I was disappointed to be leaving but I couldn’t be annoyed at the service!

Hotel number three was the Hanoi Style Hotel on Ma May Street. It wasn’t at quite the same standard as the Nam Hai but, even so, I liked it. It was cosy and in a great location for a tourist like me. Finally settled in, I headed out for lunch. After getting forced into buying pineapple chunks by a lady in the street, who popped her conical hat on my head and her baskets over my shoulder (at least I got a decent tourist photo out of it), I found a restaurant called Mam, where I had some delicious fried rice and chicken.

The first place I wanted to go to in Hanoi was the Revolution Museum. On my previous trip to Vietnam, I went to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City and whilst reading about the details of the Vietnam War and seeing images depicting the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population was harrowing and heavy-going, it was certainly important to understand the history of the country I was visiting. For this same reason, I thought I should go to this war museum, which focused more on the country overcoming its enemies.

Before heading back to my hotel, I decided to pay a visit to Dong Xian market, which I had failed to find the day before. En route, I passed an accident as a car hit one of the many, many, many bikes that covered the streets. The bike driver was obviously delivering drinks, as crates of bottles spilled all over the floor. Thankfully no one was hurt. It was the first time I had seen an accident in Vietnam which perhaps was a bit surprising, considering how manic the traffic is in Vietnam. I’ve never seen anything like it. When crossing a road, you pretty much have to check for cars and hope the bikes – which are used for everything from carrying entire families to delivering goods – dodge around you. Stepping out into the sea of bikes is probably one of the biggest adrenaline rushes I have ever had – and I’ve been bungee jumping!

The market turned out to be in a totally different place to where my map said (or perhaps I just couldn’t read my map – which i’ll admit was a possibility). Whilst it wasn’t a bad market at all, I decided I should probably leave my souvenir shopping until the end of my trip, which finished in Bangkok, so that I didn’t have to carry it around.

For dinner, I headed to Lake Hoan Kiem and went for a little bit for a walk before settling down at a place on the waterfront. The restaurant turned out to be Thai, so I ordered… a burger. Not the most cultural option on my second night in Asia, but I really wanted one. Sadly it wasn’t as good as I’d hoped – it seemed that burgers weren’t their specialty – which is probably fair enough.

As my second night drew to a close, I went back via the St Joseph Cathedral for some quick photo-taking, as I assumed it would be all lit up at night. It wasn’t but I still got some snaps before going back to my hotel, with only a quick stop off at a convenience store for snacks and Lipton Peach Tea.

Read about the rest of my trip:

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