MEKONG BLOG 03

Monday March 10, 2014

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I’m not totally sure what happened to yesterday. It’s a bit of a blur: waking up and breakfasting on the Bhaya Classic No.3 … then anchoring-up and cruising to Sung Sot Island, where we joined a zillion other tourists climbing a zillion uphill steps to the entrance of some colourfully-lit limestone caves … then motoring slowly back to port past many of Halong Bay’s 3000 islands … before hitting the road again for the long return-drive to Hanoi.

We stopped mid-route at a huge arts-&-crafts centre that employs hundreds of talented young people who are variously afflicted/disabled/deformed thanks to their parents’ wartime exposure to toxic Agent Orange. (We’ve already had other sober reminders this trip of what’s referred to here as ‘The American War’ – and there are more to come, for sure. Watch this space …)

Today (another grey, misty, wettish one) gave us a chance to ‘do’ Hanoi properly. So we started by ticking-off some biggies: the city’s tallest pagoda (where we happened upon a bright, noisy, once-a-year Buddhist parade) … the city’s smallest: the One Pillar Pagoda (an important symbol built by Hanoi’s founder, King Ly Thai To in 1049, then blown-to-bits in U.S. bombing raids, and later rebuilt) … the garish-yellow Presidential Palace (and the nearby much-humbler home of the country’s late great hero, Ho Chi Minh) … the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and its vast parade ground (where we witnessed the Changing of the White-Uniformed Guard) … and the Temple of Literature (where we got a glimpse into Vietnam’s past).

At some point (I’ve forgotten when), we broke for lunch at the popular Koto restaurant, where former street-kids are taught skills which enable them to find employment in the hospitality industry. (We Mad Midlife Kiwis all chipped in to buy a ‘brick’ in the wall – our US$150 going to support this uniquely good project.)

But wait, there’s more. To really feel the beating heart of Hanoi you’ve gotta ride a ‘CYCLO’ through the renowned Old Quarter – which is what we did this afternoon. And, oh boy, what fun that turned out to be!

It’s hard to describe the experience in a sentence or two: the fleet of cycle-rickshaws lined up at the kerb … the (mostly) silent men who pedalled us slowly through this maze of small back-alleys … the commercial precinct previously known as ‘36 Streets’ (with each street specialising in a different product: ‘Silk Street’, ‘Gold Street’, ‘Coffin Street’, etc) … the gushing, rushing traffic that flowed like a river around us: pedestrians, motorbikes, cars and trucks going in all directions at once, horns blaring … stalls stacked with flowers and fruit and clothes and shoes and bags and souvenirs, vendors cooking up hot mysteries on gas-or-charcoal burners in their rickety two-wheel carts, locals squatting on their heels on the sidewalk, yacking with their neighbours, snacking from tiny bowls with chopsticks. To us, the chaos seemed overwhelming – but to these swarms of people, young and old, this was just a normal Monday at the office.

We wrapped up this memorable day at a theatre somewhere – with a traditional Water-Puppet Show (accompanied by loud Vietnamese opera-type wailing, ouch!) – and then dined out at Hanoi’s ‘5-Spice’ restaurant. I tell you, this authentic Vietnamese food is something else! You wanna hear our menu? Kebad Rice Noodles … followed by Home-Made Spring Rolls … followed by Hanoi Grilled Fish ‘Cha Ca’ … followed by Roasted Duck with Orange Sauce … followed by Grilled Egg-Plant with Oil & Shallots … followed by Mixed Fried Rice … topped off by a Fresh Fruit Dessert.

(Is your mouth watering yet?)

PEOPLE NEWS: Another hotly-sought-after Yellow Duck found a new home today:

  • The ‘Armed & Dangerous Award’ was claimed by Wendy – who accidently crossed the forbidden yellow line outside Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, causing one of the very stern bodyguards to blow his whistle loudly and threaten to shoot her. (Nah, just kidding about the shooting …)
  • The ‘Knocked Over By Buddhism Award’ was easily won by Barbara – who was sitting on the doorstep outside that big pagoda, listening to our guide’s explanation, and leaning back against the (by now) closed wooded doors, when those same wooden doors suddenly burst open and she tumbled backwards into the pagoda. We looked around, startled by the loud crash, and there was Barbara – flat on her back with her legs in the air (unharmed, fortunately, and giggling).

TOMORROW: We fly south (like the birds) to the charming old riverside town of Hoi An – a UNESCO World Heritage Site: once a major Asian trading port, now a bustling tourist hotspot. So don’t change channels …

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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