One of the perks of my job is the four week holiday during Chinese New Year. Last year my friend and I were talking about traveling. I did the usual "you could come traveling with me" comment, but instead of the usual "I wish" response, she thought we could make it work.
Trying to make travel arrements when the people involved are 15 hours apart was a lot harder than expected, especially when looking at online deals. I did have a super helpful travel agent book some of the flights for me, which was brilliant as I didn't have to do all of the research and his fee was very minor. In the end we had our flights to Hanoi, hotel in Hanoi, and train toeee HCMC booked before Sarah arrived in Dalian. Once we were together we booked the h
otel for HCMC and flight to Cambodia. We are continuing to book as we go. 4 weeks is long enough that I'm glad we have some flexibility.
We left Dalian on Jan. 21st at 3 in the afternoon. It was nice not leaving until later after a super busy week as it gave me time to do things and get organized while fully awake Saturday morning. We ended up flying to, and waiting in Ghangzhou with Rachel and Sui Ki who were going to Australia. While I'm sure we could have navigated the Dalian airport well enough, as usual things went smoother (ie our bags got routed to Vietnam and we got seats together) because we had a Mandarin speaking person on hand.
Due to a 1 hour delay we arrived in Hanoi at about 1:30am. I was super happy to have the hotel pick up waiting for us. Definitely worth the $15, especially given the distance from the airport to the hotel. While I am all for finding my own way around places, I'm starting to really like the idea of airport pick up service. You know the price ahead of time, the driver knows where to go, and you can get a sense of a place before trying to navigate. In the 3 days we have been here we have walked everywhere and I feel like I know the Old Quarter reasonably well.
Our time in Hanoi has overlapped with Chinese New Year. It has been cool to experience the holiday here, especially since a I was in China for it last year. There was a big gathering down at the lake with street food, performers on a stage in the main intersection and fireworks at midnight. Our hotel also hosted a party with traditional food for the guests to try where we met a woman from South Korea with whom we spent the next day with. The downside of visiting during the holiday is that almost everything is closed. Some of the shops opened in the afternoon in Monday, but most things remained closed and will reopen the day we leave. So we have spent our 3 days here wandering and shopping in whatever little places have been open. I really wanted to see the Women's Museum and Temple of Literature, but alas...closed for the holidays.
We were able to get tickets to see a traditional water puppet show. They didn't have second class tickets for the show we wanted so we "splurged" on first class tickets. Which I'm really glad happened because while the theatre wasn't that big I could see much more detail. The live music was just as good as the puppetry. The stories were simple and gave a sense of what life was like on the rice paddies. I can easily picture some guy creating the first puppet and using it to startle his buddy (I have nothing historical to base that on, it's just what I imagine).
We spent most of our time in the Old Quarter, which is a maze of tiny side streets. There is an amazing mix of run down shacks, French colonial buildings and new construction with street vendors thrown in for good measure. There are a million tiny shops and restaurants- you can get silks, antiques, modern electronics, pho, pizza and cappuccino, and visit a temple all on the same block. Near our hotel was St. Joseph's Cathedral. It was huge, beautiful, and a very helpful landmark. We did manage to go inside after mass, and it was gorgeous. The main hall was full of niches that reminded me of Buddhist alters, but featured a saint. The pews looked old, uncomfortable, yet inviting. And the blossoming tree beside the altar was a reminder that we weren't in Europe.
We also visited the temple on an island in the middle of the little lake. It was beautiful and very, very busy. Maybe not such a good idea to try and see it on new years day.
What I loved most about the city s how green it was. There were trees and potted plants everywhere, and I realized how much I miss that about Vancouver. As much as I loved the huge palm trees, my favorite had to be the gnarled, willow like trees that hung over the edge of the lake.
Another thing I noticed was how happy everyone, especially the kids were. The streets were always full of laughter and dancing children. Not something I see enough off in China, or back home. This is definitely a city I would come back too.