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Hanoi, Vietnam

We left Chiang Mai, Thailand for Hanoi Vietnam on the 10th. The tour desk at our Chiang Mai hotel, Chiang Mai Thai House, had made the Vietnam visa process painless. We gave them some money and our passports when we arrived and before we left our passports magically had visas for Vietnam.

We arrived in Hanoi at night and by the time we got situated in our hotel it was around 9:30 p.m.. The first thing that struck me about Hanoi is the lack of the neon low-glow so present in Bangkok and Hong Kong. Most of the city seemed to shutdown much earlier than we'd come accustomed to. Many shops where already closed when we drove in. We had seen some food stalls though, and since we hadn't eaten, and our hotel didn't have a restaurant, we decided to hit the streets. We headed for a relatively close place recommended by my guide book. It was called Thit bit tet. Bit tet is Vietnamese for beef steak, but it's paper thin beef bits rather than an actual steak.

We walked a few blocks and found the address easily enough, but the restaurant wasn't there. However in Vietnam it's not uncommon for multiple places to have the same address, so We tried to walk around block to look for it. Walking around a block should be a simple affair; in our case I expected that if we kept turning right we would end up back where we started. However the streets in Hanoi are anything but straight and we ended up getting lost. It's also worth noting that the same street regularly changes name and this can happen as often as every block.

As the stress level rose we also noticed that we hadn't seen a single other tourist and most shops on the street where closed. We were clearly outside of the familiar tourist carnival. Around this time many of the street lights started turning off as well. Apparently they are only on for a few hours in the evening?

Now it wasn't completely deserted and we kept passing small clusters of locals eating from sidewalk kitchens and tiny restaurants that were clearly not marketed to tourists. I recognized 'bit tet' on one of the menus and decided to give it a shot; it seemed that this was going to be our only option at this point. They where happy enough to serve us, but they wouldn't allow us to sit with the rest of the locals. Instead they ushered us upstairs to an empty dining room. Dining room doesn't accurately describe the space. It was a tiny room crammed with benches and trash all over the floor from earlier customers. We were the only people in the room and when I decided that we were going to sit down stairs, they strongly insisted with limited english that we had to sit where we were. At this point, out of my element and hungry, we gave in.

This place does basically one meal, they bring a hot plate at the table and a plate full of raw paper thin beef, onions, chilies, and other tid bits, as well as two french baguettes. I think locals cook for themselves, but our captor cooked it all for us. It was surprisingly good. In fact it ended up being the best beef I had in all of Vietnam. In general meat quality in Vietnam was poor, but this beef had clearly been marinaded for an extensive period and it was quite good. After our meal and couple beers, we relaxed, got our bearings and found our way back to the hotel.

The next day we realized that our hotel was on the edge of the main tourist district in 'the old quarter' and weren't as isolated as it had seemed the night before. We also got to experience the insane traffic situation. There don't seem to be any rules of the road in Hanoi, it's just a complete free for all. Cars and motorcycles drive on any side of the road they please, regularly weaving through oncoming traffic. In the few places where there are traffic lights or crosswalks they are completely ignored. In order to cross the street, you just step out into traffic, walk slowly, and watch the motorcycles and cars weave around you - it's not for the faint of heart. Don't believe me? Take a look:

There are basically two things to do in Hanoi, book a trip to Halong Bay or check out the museums. We decided to skip Halong bay for a couple reasons. First of all we knew we'd be going to Phuket, Thailand, which has similar scenery. Second and more importantly, there are a million Halong bay tour operators in Hanoi and my research shows that the vast majority are scammers, providing you with an overpriced shitty experience. In fact the whole tourism vibe in Hanoi stinks; just about everyone(except for the great staff at our hotel) is trying to rip you off and the street vendors are the most aggressive we've ever seen. They literally grab onto your arm as you try to walk away and you have to forcibly extricate yourself.

In between being tortured by salesmen we hit up the Ho Chi Minh museum, the temple of learning, the war remnants museum, and the infamous Hanoi Hilton (Hanoi prison). With the exception of the Hanoi Hilton, the museums where of surprisingly poor quality. They seemed very slapped together. In fact much of the city felt this way - very unimpressive for a national capitol.

The Hanoi Hilton prison was pretty cool though. Every exhibit had written information in Vietnamese, French, and English, so we could understand what we were looking at. The prison was originally run by the French when Vietnam was part of a French colony, and then used by the North Vietnamese to imprison captured American pilots during the Vietnam war (known as the American war in Vietnam). The central theme is an indictment of the French and Americans. When it comes to the Vietnamese treatment of American prisoners, the propaganda is over the top. The American prisoner photo shoots look like a brochure for a resort, grinning American prisoners decorating a Christmas tree and playing basketball.

The war remnants museum is basically a trophy room of captured American military equipment and airplane wreckage. Overall Hanoi was interesting, but if we could do it again, we would skip it for more time elsewhere.


American airplane wreckage:

John McCain's flight suite:

Bottle used by French Colonials to torture female political prisoners:

permalink written by  soloshell3 on January 12, 2009 from Hanoi, Vietnam
from the travel blog: Solomon and Michelle's Southeast Asian escape
tagged HanoiVietnam

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