After a few days in relatively quiet Hoi An, Hanoi felt particularly loud and busy. The narrow streets of the old quarter were packed with motorbikes throughout the day, though the area became more walkable at night. Each shop front or hotel seems to be about 15 ft wide, and each building may be several stories taller or shorter than its attached neighbours, lending a sort of haphazard atmosphere to the neighbourhood.
One of the most popular tourist activities in Hanoi is to see a water puppet performance. We caught one our first night and were very impressed by the complex movement of the puppets and the musicians playing traditional instruments such as the dan bau (a Vietnamese monochord). All dialogue and narration was in Vietnamese so we could not follow the subtleties of the plot, but could discern that there was a village that was quite bad at catching fish. (We do not have photos to share as we thought it impolite to take photos during a live performance. The older generations sitting around us did not show the same restraint.)
The next day we visited the Temple of Literature, a beautiful green space in the middle of the city. Within are 82 stone monuments sitting atop tortoises listing the names of those who successfully completed Confucian examinations between the 15th and 18th centuries. Today, students will come to the Temple of Literature to pray for good grades.
Next we visited the Hoa Lo Prison Museum, known by American POWs as the “Hanoi Hilton”. Most of the exhibits were devoted to the French occupation of the country and how the Vietnamese prisoners here maintained their revolutionary spirit despite their poor treatment – the prison was overcrowded, diseases spread frequently, and food was limited and poor quality. The portion of the museum dedicated to the American prisoners painted a much sunnier picture of prison life, quite different from the testimonials provided in the recent Ken Burns documentary about the war.
Next we ventured out to Cat Ba Island and Lan Ha Bay, right next to the UNESCO World Heritage site of Ha Long Bay. Coming from Hanoi, Cat Ba Town was shockingly quiet – it seemed the town had far more hotel rooms and restaurants than necessary to accommodate the number of visitors. It could simply be a quiet time of year, but we thoroughly enjoyed the breathing room and lack of motorbike horns. For our one full day in the area, we caught a boat ride out into the bay and then spent the morning and afternoon kayaking between the giant limestone karsts, swimming in the lagoons, and paddling past the floating homes and fishing vessels.
Our last night in Vietnam was spent at an airport hotel and we visited a nearby restaurant hoping to enjoy one last Vietnamese dinner. Wendy ordered fried noodles and veggies and was warned “no spaghetti in Vietnam”. Dan tried to order pho and then fresh rolls from the menu but was denied, and then ended up with a stir fry served with french fries instead of rice. We deduced that this restaurant has had some weird interactions with Westerners.