Someone was rapping on the locked door, barking orders at us like a prison guard.
It was 5 a.m and our night train was pulling into Hanoi. Sleepy people were dragging themselves out of bunks, queuing for the toilet and a chance to brush teeth at the shared carriage sink.
Last time we’d hit this busy city, its crazy night life had been in full swing. Now, Hanoi was dark. Scooters, usually screaming past, were purring now, some without lights, emerging panther-like from the darkness. We’d missed the revellers staggering home, and peaked too soon for a hotel breakfast. We didn’t even have a hotel. In an uncharacteristically freestyle move, we’d assumed we could persuade a night manager to lend us a room for a sleep, a shower and some bag storage before our next night train. But after two refusals, we were beginning to feel like Mary and Joseph. We dragged our trolley bags another half mile or so through the darkness in the already humid heat, melting a little…..until one of the smartest hotels in the city shone its lights towards us like an usherette’s torch.
The receptionist had no room at this inn, either, sadly, but we brokered a deal to leave our bags and return later for a shower in the hotel gym. Sorted. We left the hotel at first light, and started walking…..with no idea of how we would fill the 12 hours before our next night train.
Tip: If you’re planning your own trip, don’t underestimate the need for rest and a shower along the way. If you’re arriving at dawn in a new town, like we did, book ahead for a day rate at a hotel. Or negotiate hard for what you actually need. We couldn’t find a room to dump our stuff and freshen up, but we negotiated free wifi in the lobby; a shower in the hotel gym, and free storage of our trolley bags while we spent a day exploring.
So: how did we fill our time? In Hanoi, we needn’t have worried too much.
At 6.30 a.m we headed towards the city’s Hoan Kiem lake, and realised that people in this part of town were up and at it. All of them, apparently…all ages, joining exercise classes, dancing to music, jogging, playing badminton….or just gyrating.One of the main classes took place in a square across the road from us–a real, full-on session, with freeloaders squinting to follow the leader through the now thundering traffic on our side of the road. A few metres on, an elderly woman was boogying gently to Boney M’s “Gotta Go Home”, until an elderly man grabbed her and started moving along to the beat, too, holding her a little closer when the tune switched to a rumba . A bit further round the lake, two dozen ladies of all ages were waltzing in sequence, solo, in hold position, to, bizarrely, Dana’s “All Kinds of Everything.”
Hanoi was putting on the best kind of show, without us having to move a muscle.
We lingered over a big pot of tea at a lakeside restaurant with the sun gaining strength; Hanoi was getting into its stride all around us.
Tip: Sometimes it’s just great to stop, and watch the world go by. Hanoi had a whole range of fitness activities going on, but it’s easy in most places to grab a coffee and watch the runners, the dog walkers, the workers on their way to the office. Watch, learn and be grateful you’re on holiday!
After a stroll to collect train tickets, we came across St Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral and decided to pop in; where we found scores of Vietnamese women in all their tunic-and-silky-pants finery, men in fresh, smart shirts, filing out of the building to join a major parade-led by a lively brass band. None of the tourists around us knew exactly what was happening, but our collective best guess was that they were celebrating a Saint’s Day or festival. Anyway; for onlookers like us, it was yet another free show as around a thousand people paraded past of us; some of them catching sight of Nigel, camera round his neck. They grinned, and waved–and some even paused to take his picture. The church, by the way, is quite beautiful, and well worth a visit, Saint’s Day or not.
Tip: Places of worship can provide a fascinating slice of history in most places you visit: and often, a welcome, cool respite from the heat. Usually there’s no charge, but donations are welcome.
It was hitting 30 degrees celsius now and luckily, bars, restaurants and coffee shops were everywhere. We ordered Jasmine tea and a wifi password at a cafe not far from the church, and stayed cool in air conditioned comfort.
Next, it was a stroll to marvel at Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum; white uniformed soldiers in an impressive, pace-changing march routine in front of us; one of them dashing over to urge tourists not to get too close….urging them back behind a marker line on the square.
Close by is the impressive garden around Ho Chi Minh’s presidential palace; egg yolk yellow; and a great place to meander around, with behind-glass peeks at selected rooms and three of the revered leader’s grand presidential cars, for the equivalent of around a fiver in entrance fees for the two of us.
We were wilting in the midday heat now; but hungry. A side street packed, like so many of them, with tiny restaurants dishing up hot, fresh food from the griddle provided spicy rice and chicken and iced drinks…for around £3 a head.
Tip: Take a glance at the street food on offer in places like Hanoi. It’s often being cooked to order: fresh, local and sizzling on the griddle just for you. See who’s eating there–if it’s packed full of locals, they must be doing something right!
In much of Vietnam, taxis are cheap and prolific. In now searing heat and with scooters swarming like angry mosquitoes around us, we used a couple for short, air conditioned trips for around £1 a shot. Well worth it to save your feet and cool down, we reasoned.
Our last stop was a visit to the excellent Vietnamese Women’s Museum. It traces the role of women in this country’s troubled military history, the traditions of women as young girls, wives and mothers, with detailed displays of handicrafts and tribal and village fashions over the years. Housed in a cool, contemporary, air conditioned building with entrance fees at a little over £1 a person, this was well worth a visit.
The city boasts many more museums: The Citadel, and its display of military hardware, a Fine Arts Museum, and the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, about 8 km out of the city.
Tip: In Vietnam, entrance to museums is very cheap, and the quality of exhibits, we found, was high. It’s a great way to help you understand the culture and history of the place you’re visiting and if, like us, you’ve been travelling at a frenetic pace, it’s a great way to force yourself to slow down for an hour or two.
At five, it was time to blag those free showers in the hotel gym, and re-pack our stuff for the night train to Hue.
Landed somewhere with time to kill? What’s the best way, do you reckon, to fill a day or so if you’re between planes, or trains? Are you happy to leave the airport and catch a bus to the nearest town, or would you rather stay put and, say, splash out on an executive lounge to buy yourself some peace…..and a drink or two? We’d love your feedback.