Thursday, November 13, 2014

Hanoi Sunday and on to Hoi An

We hated to leave our honeymoon suite with balcony, but we had only one day to explore Hanoi.  We were given a partial refund because of the non-working outlets and door lock, and the staff found places to charge my iphone and iPad. Unfortunately, I forgot to put a new battery in the camera, so I missed some wonderful opportunities for photos that morning.

View from balcony, Hanoi Guesthouse, umbrellas covering terrace below

At the suggestion of the hotel staff, we took a taxi to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which turned out to be closed.  We toured the Ho Chi Minh Museum instead, which, largely funded by the Soviet Union, heavily emphasized Ho Chi Minh's and Vietnam's close ties to the Soviet Union. Nevertheless, it contained some fascinating history.  

We lunched near the Temple of Literature, where graduates with robes, ao dai traditional dresses, diplomas, and flowers were having pictures taken with their families.  We walked toward our neighborhood north Hoan Kiem Lake, and on a street along the lake found an optical shop. I had discovered that my prescription glasses had become so scratched that I could hardly see with them. I wondered why my photos where looking so hazy.  It seems that whatever protective coating was on the glass just started to go.  At first I thought they were dirty.  We never saw a store like a Walgreens or Walmart where you could buy off the rack reading glasses, and the small antiseptic-looking pharmacies didn't carry them.  A very nice young man looked at the lenses, insisted on doing a quick check of my eyes, and one hour and $35  I had new glass in my current frames.  So, now I can see again, at least up close--I miss the graduated lenses, although I didn't wear them while out walking, but stuffed them in my waist pack, or under my hat, which I'm sure wasn't good for them.  I now have a small envelope case for them, despite the extra room and bother.

We happened upon St. Joseph Catholic cathedral, also near the lake, in a neighborhood of old buildings, narrow streets, and some fancy small shops, reminiscent of an older, shabbier, poorer, Paris.  Hemingway and Gertrude Stein would have felt at home in the little cafe (with awful service, however) where we had coffee and pastries.  When we left the cafe, I was astonished to find a crowd of people sitting on plastic stools and standing at the big door of the church.  They were attending mass from the outside, as the church was totally full.  I've never seen that anywhere except on Christmas or Easter!  The priest preached while walking in the aisle in the center of the church.  It was heartwarming to see this church, which had been neglected and even closed for many years, showing such enthusiastic signs of life.

Students at Hoan Kiem Lake who wanted to practice their English

After a final meal at what had become our favorite New Day cafe, and a brief visit with an Australian couple we were seated beside, we were taken to the train station by taxi, accompanied by one of the employees from the hotel on his motorcycle.  Sorry, we didn't get to ride the motr cycle!  At the station he insisted on grabbing our bags, leading us through the station, which had none of the security we experienced in China, and got us settled in our compartment, shared with a Polish Couple traveling with a group of friends.  The service we received from the friendly Hanoi Guesthouse was truly extraordinary.

The train was not in as good a shape as those in China, although there was toilet paper (!) in the toilet -- a surprise as the hotel had even offered us an entire roll as we left, but we still have quite a bit of the roll we brought from home. The ride was rough, with lots of clutnks and bangs and sudden stops, not conducive to a good night's sleep.  In the morning the pillows and quilts were folded up and tucked away on the seats just as we had found them.  I could see in the morning light that my quilt, which had felt quite comfy, was quite stained.  Ugh.  I wonder how often these things are washed?  The train was well-over an hour behind schedule when we arrived in Da Nang, happy to find the driver from our hotel waiting for us..  The best part of the 13-15 hour journey, though, was between Hue and Danang where the train passed through a mountain range along the coast, with stunning views of both the mountains and the sea.  I was able to open a window in the corridor, a good thing, since the windows were very dirty.
Our romance with train travel in Vietnam was short-lived.  We will fly from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on Saturday, for only slightly more expense than the train, but in a little over an hour, rather than 18-20 hours.

We have taken a bit of vacation from our vacation here in small and relatively peaceful Hoi An, where we've been rather dismayed at the number of shops and tourists, but have enjoyed our stay at the lovely little Orchid Gardens Homestay, and extended our time from three nights to five, although it looks like our last two-three days are going to be stormy.

We've had time to get some laundry done and plan some of the rest of our trip. I got a much-needed haircut and pedicure, and we had one glorious morning splashing in the warm waves at the beach, to which we went by bicycle.  Unfortunately we both got a bit too much sun, especially Kent. Until yesterday (Thursday) when it rained most of the morning, we have had sunshine interspersed with occasional downpours.  Yesterday afternoon, despite a fierce wind and lowering sky, we explored back roads by not very good bicycles, through rice paddies and past homes, ending up at the beach where the waves were high and wild, and people were picking up plastic bottles and other trash,  I saw an entire glass lantern intact on the beach.  No  one picked that up.  I gave a couple of bottles to an old woman whose smile revealed a totally betel stained mouth with missing front teeth.  We had drinks of tonic water at the little place where we had parked our bikes previously, although the former calm, sunny scene was much changed, and there was only one other customer -- a man in Tilley hat who sat down with a beer and a book and proceeded to read in the howling wind!

At night the town is full of colored lanterns, and the restaurants (at least some of them) full of people.

We weren't sure we wanted to visit Saigon, but I've booked a room there for 4 nights, and then we will continue to Phnom Penh and then to Siem Reap and Angkor Wat, probably booking a Mekong trip with Handspan, the same people with whom we toured Halong Bay.

You would think I'd have had time to write blog entries during this quiet week, but there's been no urgency to get anything done.  Although now that we are leaving  tomorrow night, our quiet time here is coming to an end, as we head off on the last month of adventures, not all planned yet.

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