Apologies for the last email; I hit some random key on the keyboard, and before you know it, well…
I arrived in Hanoi this morning on the night bus–it turns out not to be too bad, only 12 hours between Hue and Hanoi (not bad for some 800 km). Some of the roads are good Cambodian roads (which is to say dirt with lots of small potholes, around which the bus carefully navigates–but no elephant-sized potholes and no axle-breakers), but on the whole it’s a nice flat paved road. So I got into Hanoi at 6:30am.
I’ve decided there’s one nice thing about being a solo female traveler: you can attach yourself to any group you like, simply by asking if you can tag along. So since looking for a hotel on your own is a real pain, I attached myself to a group of four Canadian/Cambodian women (Canadian, but living in Cambodia). They had a flier for a hotel, so we got a taxi there, but upon getting there found out it was full.
We huddled under the awning for awhile discussing options, then sent out a few scouts to try finding travel agencies nearby. Eventually we located a traveler’s cafe a block away; they thought they might have a room, and we waited an hour for people to check out, but at the end, they didn’t have anything. So they called their sister hotel, and that hotel had a room, so we dispatched a delegate by motorbike to check it out (the rest of us stayed behind with the bags). She said it was fine, so we all loaded up onto motorbikes with our bags, and checked in. (This is why finding a hotel by yourself sucks: you have to tramp everywhere with your bags. With more than one person, you can send out scouting parties.)
This particular hotel rates about a 7 on the Tien Hotel Scale: which is to say, the bed has a sleepable mattress (not too damp, springs not poking through, etc.), it has hot water and electrical outlets, and it’s been painted at least once since WWI. That said, a lot of the furnishings are rusty, the electrical wiring looks dubious, and it’s unheated–which, considering it’s about 50 degrees ambient, is something of a downer. On the other hand, it does have a hot shower–I’ll forgive a great deal for a hot shower. And the toilets are clean and actually have toilet paper–not bad for $7/night.
In the cafe, I ordered breakfast (boiled egg, two Vietnamese baguettes, one-egg omelet with onions, hot lemonade, $0.75) and settled in to look at their tour options. (Every hotel offers tours, it’s where they make most of their money (I think).) In general tours are a mixed blessing–you get a set itinerary and don’t have to think about it, but you’re also carted around in groups of 8-40, which makes it difficult to get any meaningful experience. (Imagine 40 camera-wielding tourists pouring over a hilltribe village or temple–you get the idea). I generally prefer either to explore on my own or put together a small group of 3-4 people, it’s much better.
At any rate, I was sitting there arguing between a tour of Halong Bay (cool limestone caves, karst scenery, kayaking) and a hilltribe trekking tour in Sapa. Both sound great in the summer, but it’s currently cold and rainy in Halong Bay, and it’s 38 degrees and foggy in Sapa. Ick. Then a Japanese guy approached me and asked if I was going to Bat Trang (the potterymaking village)–after some discussion we agreed to get a taxi and go to both Bat Trang and the silkweaving village, which would cost us $17 apiece for car and guide. (This kind of serendipitous meeting is pretty much par for the course in traveling–in fact I more or less depend on them. If I don’t have a chance meeting, then I wind up hiring a private guide, which is fun, but expensive.) So that’s where we’re headed. Tonight I’ll go to the water puppet theater–this is one of the unique performing arts of Vietnam. The puppeteers do their work over the water (some of them actually have to swim around with their puppets) and it’s supposed to be quite spectacular.
I’m staying in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, right next to the market section. It’s a fairly standard Asian market–bustling, with lots of goods in plastic bags, flat round bamboo pans filled with strange vegetables, basket cages with ten or twelve live ducks, stalls piled with dead chickens, yellow feet sticking up, pig hearts and floppy piles of intestines on a wooden box, next to chunks of raw beef (yes, and flies too), moto drivers clustered everywhere, dried fish in heaps under awnings, etc. (Lots of etc.) It doesn’t seem to be a tourist area, though–I had to walk for nearly twenty minutes before finding an Internet cafe, which is unusual–normally where there’s one tourist there’s at least four Internet cafes.
Anyway, I have to run out the door to catch our mini-tour–it starts at 11am and I have to hustle back. But later I’ll write a bit more, both about the villages and about Hanoi generally. Interesting place, if a bit chilly.