Hanoi is a city of scams warn guidebooks, other travelers and even the hotel staff at the Hanoi Elegance. So when we went to firm up our Ha Long Bay trip at what I thought was the booking agency for Black Pearl Cruises I was a bit leery that the sign on the door said Kim Travel Agency. The fact that I had read a couple of complaints on Tripadvisor where the traveler had booked a Black Pearl Cruise and then was put on a lesser quality vessel – the old bait and switch – didn’t help. In rereading these complaints we discovered that they had booked the cruise with the Kim Travel Agency. On to plan B. Since we had been impressed with the quality of service at the hotel we booked a cruise through them. We’re paying more for an upgraded vessel as the agent at Hanoi Elegance said that the Black Pearl Cruises were not up to their standards. We’ll see if it measures up to ours.
I hesitate to mention this for fear that my mother will worry, but then we should be safely to our next destination by the time I post this. This morning’s local paper reported an accident in Ha Long Bay in which one of the poorer quality vessels sank killing 12 people. Another reason not to take a cheaper boat.
Sitting in the restaurant/bar of the Hanoi Elegance high above the hubbub of this crazy city, I can take a moment to relax and reflect. From here we have a view of Hoan Kiem Lake with a few high rises behind. The sky is a misty gray which, just as it did in Hue, gives the setting a certain dreariness.
After we sorted out the Ha Long Bay tour we head back out in the streets of the Old Quarter, packed with shops, motorbikes, cars, pedestrians, street vendors, makeshift kitchens, and the ubiquitous honking of horns and vroom of motorbikes. You will be run over if you don’t learn to cross the street Vietnamese-style, that is to weave through the oncoming traffic without stopping. Slow down, speed up but don’t ever stop; it just confuses the drivers. The canopy of trees is the only relief from the assault on the senses. After about an hour, hungry and my nerves raw, we stop into the small Café Five for lunch.
The café is quiet and simply decorated, a break from the chaos outside, with a menu of both Vietnamese and international dishes. We ordered the Vietnamese street food platter; a chicken, pumpkin and chickpea salad; and falafel wrap. We didn’t realize until we had eaten most of the street food platter that it was really meant to be a make-your-own-roll dish (the fried fish patties and greens rolled-up in the steamed rice sheets). Made flavorful with the addition of the accompanying plum chili sauce and dipping sauce, the fish cakes were well done and cooked to order. While the falafel was unremarkable the pumpkin salad hit the spot. A generous portion of pumpkin chunks, a few chickpeas, slices of chicken and greens in a slightly sweet vinaigrette. Although we did not try their desserts they have a tempting case of cakes and pastries. A nice lunch place when you’ve had your fill of Vietnamese and are looking for something a little different.
Bellies full we’re ready to cope with the streets again. We head to the Dong Xuan Market, on the northern edge of the Old Quarter. Like the market in Saigon there are sections for every taste. We first enter the through the dried foods stalls with everything from fruits and nuts to mushrooms, herbs and various kinds of fish and other sea creatures. The aisles are narrow with barely enough room to pass between the large sacks of goods. We exit and come across the loading area where heavy sacks are unloaded onto small motorbikes, with the size of the load often dwarfing the driver.
We continued on past the market to other sections of the Old Quarter, each street with a specific specialty – shoes, wrapping paper and ribbons, books, bamboo poles and flowers to name a few. Street vendors are of the aggressive insistent variety. Unauthorized guide books are the latest hot item. We looked at one of these bootlegged copies of Lonely Planet Vietnam in the hotel with the pages not printed straight, faded maps and a publication date of July 2011. Nearing Hoan Kiem Lake the streets widen and traffic becomes a little more manageable. The lake with its pleasant walkways and garden beds would be calm respite from the hectic city if it weren’t for the continual blare from the motorbikes.
Not far from the south end of the lake is the French Quarter, including the Opera House modeled after the one in Paris. The streets are wide with large French colonial buildings, high-end stores and small manicured parks. We stop in one of the parks to watch the locals playing Vietnamese hacky sack. A birdie is batted over a volley ball type net using only the feet. The players are limber enough to pop the birdie in the air with one foot and then tap it over the net, at head level, with the other. Younger kids are skateboarding. They don’t have much to work with as they take turns jumping over two boards turned on edge horizontally, one on top of the other. Skateboarding must be new here as only one kid successfully manages the jump. Far from the crowded streets of the Old Quarter, it’s pleasant way to enjoy the afternoon and experience a different side of Vietnamese culture.