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ASIA > Vietnam > Hanoi

Hanoi: The Jewel in the Crown

Christopher Loughnan

Article & Pictures © 2006 Christopher Loughnan

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For three days we will be a family of pirates cruising the Gulf Of Tonkin on a Chinese junk.

Cave view - Halong Bay - click to enlargeThe Reunification Express is a big beast when it rolls into town, especially when you are eyeballing its wheels at ground level. Instinctively we shuffle our packs back from the tracks even though we are well clear. The S1 Express from Hue to Hanoi awaits and the kids are beaming in anticipation. The parents have come through with first class, soft sleeper/aircon tickets which I proudly present to the conductor. No rushing the gates for our cabin and the best seats for this trip, as we board with dignified grace. The children road test the advertised soft sleeper bunks for performance and nod to each other in approval. The white cotton headrests are a nice touch. Four roomy berths are all ours for the next 14 hours.

Under a grey afternoon sky the children soon turn away from the flat and barren landscape to the colouring books and card games of our snug little carriage. Here the train runs true to the adjacent elevated Highway 1. A simple vista of rice paddies and road. Dusty old pill boxes begin to appear at regular intervals marking canals and crossings. We are entering the tired and still dangerous DMZ zone which used to separate the Republic of South Vietnam from Ho Chi Minhs Communist government in the North. Unexploded ordnance helps it maintain its legacy as a No Man's Land. In the 1970s the TV news would often begin with graphic footage filmed in this area, like the siege at Khe Sanh or the battle for Hamburger Hill.

As dusk falls we investigate the dinning arrangements and devour large quantities of steaming rice, chicken and vegetables. Under Joe and Amy’s instruction we retire for some extra chocolate treats on our beds. Our bloated bodies are straining under the pressure and soon a symphony of quiet snores accompanies the humming diesel engine.

We cannot fault Vietnamese trains for family travel except for one minor detail that has us arriving at Hanoi Central Station at 4am in the morning. The station forecourt is abuzz with taxi hawkers but the commotion and action diminishes rapidly as we head into the old quarter. Here the streets are dark and threatening with an occasional dim street light. It feels like we have been taken back in time to Victorian London in a Jack the Ripper movie. Our destination, which turns out to be a broken down boarding house, looks like a perfect setting for a murder. One look at the room and I’m asking the sleepy doorman to call another taxi. He scowls but makes the call and we bundle the drowsy and confused kids back in the car. How has it come to this, lost and confused with two little children on a black night in Hanoi? The travelling pathway often has great highs but sometimes it leads to some challenging dead ends.

Sitting in a taxi on the road to nowhere we desperately need some inspiration. My brain is freewheeling out of gear but like a good tag team, Marg’s kicks into action.

“To the Lake Café.” Brilliant! An open space to regroup, to raise morale with a few croissants and a base for the family while I bail up yawning receptions for a room.

The famous Hoan Kiem Lake appears like a surreal dream. Steam is rising from its surface in the predawn light. The scene is so still and quiet and peaceful it drains our tension away. The only movement comes from three octogenarians gracefully moving as one through their Ti Chi routine. I break myself away from this idyllic setting to return to the manic role of the good hunter gatherer. I rush through the side streets past reception desks, up stairways and down corridors. I negotiate like a storm trooper; this is not me, it’s the adrenalin kicking in. I feel strangely very powerful; no doubt I’ll start crying in a minute. An hour and ten Hotels later I hit pay dirt. I have had a win at the Win Hotel. The young manager gives me a bemused smile when we conclude our deal. He obviously thinks he is dealing with a madman. As the week proceeds he sees my calmer side but is always trying to assure me that everything will be OK. I return to the family with the satisfaction a warrior must feel after a successful battle. A man has done what a man must do, and my prize is none other than a balcony room just near the lake.

Hanoi has turned on an instant from a nightmare to an enchanting wonderland. This phenomenon has occurred before but never so dramatically. Often when we arrive in a new place we feel uneasy and a little threatened, especially around transport hubs. In a day or two the same environment looks charming and welcoming. The timing and your state of mind is very important. Its a wonder how perceptions can change the more you get to know someone or something.

Late August and it is very hot in Hanoi. We explore the old city in two hour bursts returning to our cool room or the kids favourite “Kangaroo” Café. This friendly little haven is run by an expat Aussie with an obvious affinity with the locals. The entrance proclaims no half serves and no boof heads. This is a combination I can relate to. Joe’s face is aglow when he sees the hamburgers and chips. Amy loves the muesli and fruit breakfast. We dine here so often they begin to have the meals on the table before we sit down.

The quarter offers a fascinating range of shops and street theatre as the Vietnamese roll up the shutters for another industrious but entertaining day. A range of narrow themed streets reveal themselves at every turn. There is a street to cater for all tastes. Shoes, herbs, hats, leather, towels, jewellery, to tin boxes and mirrors. The flower and toy precincts are enchanting at night. In other eclectic streets we wander into shops with the elegance and wares of Paris or London. Next door you can buy a $2 DVD of the latest movie or the silk pyjamas you always wanted. If you have a tendency toward the tight-fisted (no names mentioned) throw-away, your calculator and take a deep breath. Nothing here is overpriced and if it’s expensive it’s gorgeous.

Buy a coke, sit on a step and watch the people and shop keepers in their daily rituals. Retire to the lake for an afternoon gelati with the family. Embrace the exotic atmosphere and count your blessings.

A junk lunch in Halong Bay - click to enlargeNothing lasts forever and somewhat reluctantly we begin our planning for the boat trip to Halong Bay. This World Heritage site is famous for its clear emerald waters, towering limestone islands and caves. For three days we will be a family of pirates cruising the Gulf Of Tonkin on a Chinese junk. The boat looks really cool and when I see it I feel like singing, “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum.” Well not quite, but for a moment I picture myself on the high seas as Captain Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean. Old habits die hard and the family rushes to check the cabin. Thankfully it passes the pre-cruise test. We later realize the process is irrelevant at this time of year. It is so warm at night everyone sleeps on deck under the stars. After a few hours cruising we begin to motor through a maze of soaring rocky outcrops protecting the flanks of Cat Ba Island. We anchor for the night with a posse of classical junks in a sheltered cove below the caves of the Bo Nau Grotto. In this magnificent setting we look like the fleet of a Chinese Emperor. The modern world seems to have disappeared.

Night closes in and after a gourmet banquet on deck our tour group begins to relax and starts to connect. We are drawn like a magnet to the only other family and are soon swapping anecdotes and travel hints only parents would understand. After a month in Vietnam we have finally come across another travelling family and they live in Melbourne, an hour's drive from us! As time passes we have great fun discussing the vanities and foibles of Australian politicians as well as some of the more ludicrous aspects of our respective career paths.

Our other companions are an interesting mix of young professionals with that glorious optimism of youth. They showed great maturity with their open and friendly attitude to the children and the baby boomers in their midst. Surprisingly I found myself sharing a few very late beers with some of the English and Irish lads. I morphed back into a young man in my twenties, which is not hard because this is often how I feel and sometimes how I act. It was like the old backpacker days except that these boys seemed much less confused than I was at their age.

Marg had a chuckle in the morning when I told her about my night out and asked what pearls of wisdom I offered the group. A perceptive comment but a little cutting. For the next few days we all travelled happily together laughing, swimming and exploring. It was refreshing for our family to open up to a wider group for this period. I am not an organized tour type of person but I fondly remember our smiling group photo on the docks at Cat Ba.

Haircut in Hanoi - click to enlargeAfter such a fabulous boat trip you would think our return to Hanoi would be with some regret. In fact we welcomed a few more days in Hanoi because this is a city with character and layers of substance that would always be of interest. Our remaining days were full of entertainment taking the children to see the unique Vietnamese water puppets and watching the gymnasts, jugglers and contortionists of the Central Circus which would give Cirque de Soleil a run for its money. Too quickly our last day approached so, in a bonding and farewell gesture, I decided to take Joe to the local barber. Like in a ritual tea ceremony we both sat quietly, a father and son looking at each other in the mirror while our smiling barbers delivered identical short back and sides. We left hand in hand, an aging marine with his midget mate.

That night we toasted our departure with our Melbourne friends; they were beginning their adventure while ours was heading to the airport. Vietnam had shown us the capacity to continually offer something refreshing and exciting. Our children were the same but different from the experience. Our sheltered babies had swam in the phosphorous night waters of the South China Sea, ridden pillion on motorbikes through the back streets of Hanoi and eaten croissants the length and breadth of the country. They had experienced the excitement and shocks of a new culture and come out laughing and confidant. They had crossed a new threshold and we had experienced a memorable holiday as a family. I think even in my dotage we will all have fond recollections of this trip.

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