Last weekend the four of us set off for a long weekend in Hanoi. We felt this was going to be our first real culture shock trip in the 2 years since we’ve living in Hong Kong and we weren’t wrong. Let’s face it, living in an expat bubble in Hong Kong and so far venturing mainly to luxury holiday resorts and partaking in international football tournaments hasn’t really left us struggling to maintain our Western ways too much.
I assumed we would need to hire a guide to take us safely around the city but friends assured us that Hanoi was small enough and safe enough that we could do it on our own, even with the kids. So between me studying the guide book and Dan using our hotel concierge as his personal assistant we did just fine!
The reason we decided to go to Hanoi in the first place was because thanks to the ridiculous amount of business travel Dan has been doing, we had some free Marriott nights that had to be used up by the end of March. So we decided to pick a destination that was close to Hong Kong for a short break. The flight is less than 2 hours. Plus with all the Air Miles Dan has also clocked up, the flights were practically free too! In fact Dan thoroughly enjoyed showing us all the advantages his frequent business travel now gets him – we got to go in to the Lounges at both airports, had a room on the Executive floor of the hotel and enjoyed the Executive Lounge facilities there too. All it took was a flash of the coveted Gold Cards that business men around the world strive to be able to dangle from their travel bags, and a world of privilege apparently opened up to us. Although, dare it be said that unless your flight is hugely delayed and you can then enjoy waiting out the time in the comfort of an Executive Lounge, I still don’t see the attraction myself. I would much rather mooch round the shops and let my kids stretch their legs before a flight rather than having to force them to sit still and be quiet in a Lounge whilst everyone around them quietly stuffs their faces with the free food that they feel they must eat just because it’s there and it’s free.
The airport queue jumping was good though. Having a husband with good airport status plus kids in tow means you can get through an airport in record time. Pros and cons though – we might be able to check in super fast, whizz down the family channel at passport control and board the place first but all that time saving is cancelled out at the other end when we have to watch every single other passenger on the plane overtake us whilst we wait for the buggy to be delivered to us at the plane door. And then we’re at the back of the passport queue that never has a family channel at the arrivals end, only the departures end. Why is that? If I had to choose one I’d rather have it at arrivals thanks, when my patience is at the end of its tether, not at the start when it has barely been tested yet!
Anyway, back to Hanoi and Day 1. It had been brought to our attention the night before by our driver from the airport that this was International Women’s Day. We didn’t think anything of it, it normally passes us by so we assumed it would again this year. We couldn’t have been more wrong. This day was apparently a HUGE deal. I had a small bunch of flowers delivered to our room from the hotel, in honour of me simply being female. And as we drove the distance from our hotel to the Old Quarter of Hanoi for our first day of sightseeing, the floral arrangements that we saw along the way were really a sight to behold. The extravagant displays that we saw for sale on every street corner, each one more spectacular than the one before, were just amazing. And the huge deliveries people were making on their small scooters defied gravity! It was all totally beautiful. And all for International Women’s Day? Really? Apparently so.
So we were dropped off at the edge of Hanoi’s Old Quarter ready for a morning of street exploring. Such a shame that the weather was drizzly, but we had to just get on with it. The only good thing about the weather was that I had to put the rain cover down on Eden’s buggy which meant that the prodding, poking, pointing, cheek stroking and anything else that the Vietnamese felt they had a right to do to her was significantly reduced while she was boxed away! Eden doesn’t use her buggy that much any more but in a place like Hanoi where the traffic and driving is extremely dangerous and you generally feel that you need to hold your children’s hands that little bit tighter when walking the streets, the buggy was the best place for her. It still wasn’t any safer though. All the pavements were parked up with scooters which meant that whilst a person could just about zig zag their way around them, if you were trying to navigate a buggy, you had no choice but to push it in the busy street where scooters and cars were swerving around each other, honking their horns. A peaceful and relaxing morning of exploring it was not. But eye opening it was. We saw fabulous art galleries, street food that we didn’t dare buy but much of looked and smelled delicious. The rest of it looked simply revolting and all of it was clearly cooked in the most unhygienic way, in pots that probably hadn’t been cleaned in years, or lifted off the street. These people must have stomachs of iron to be able to digest this stuff and it not kill them.
Soon our feet were aching and we felt that our luck in not yet being hit by a car or scooter would surely run out soon, so we opted for an hour’s ride on a ‘cyclo’. These are bicycles where one or two passengers sit in a carriage in the front of the cyclist. Despite the kids begging to be allowed to ride together, we knew that if we allowed that, we would simply never see them again, so we paired up the more sensible way, got wrapped in some filthy plastic that I tried but failed to not have any part of it actually touch my skin. It was meant to keep us dry from the drizzle but to be honest, I think I would have rather just got rained on!
Travelling those dangerous streets was like being on a fairground ride. We came millimetres from collisions every few minutes and when you are in a carriage in the front, not at the back, you can see the collision about to happen but can’t do anything to stop it! But we stayed somehow safe once again. Apparently the general rule for drivers, scooter riders and pedestrians alike is to just join the flow with confidence. Don’t start crossing a road and stop, just keep going and apparently everyone will smoothly weave in and out of each other as long as they are not taken by surprise and the flow can continue. We were told that everyone is trying to flow with everyone else and no one actually wants to crash. The fact that they don’t observe red lights, have any lane discipline or in some cases they don’t even travel the right way down a road really doesn’t help. But it’s all fun!
That night, we had a reservation at a restaurant called Bobby Chinn’s that had been recommended to us by Hong Kong friends so we were really looking forward to it. However, when we arrived we were presented with the International Women’s Day Set Menu (jeez, enough already) so we weren’t going to be able to try all the dishes our friends had told us to try. There was no other alternative apart from thankfully the children’s menu for the kids.
Being the amazing woman that I apparently am, I got a free cocktail with my meal. I also noticed that on the menu it said that I would be told how beautiful I was all night. Cheesy. But the waiters weren’t really going to do it were they? Oh yes they were, sigh. Every time I had a drink, a dish, anything at all put in front of me, my poor waiter had to follow it up with, “You are beautiful.” Dan was peeing himself laughing whilst I was slowly dying and wondering how much I would have to pay the poor guy to please just stop. However, as the restaurant filled up and I could see every other table going through the same awkwardly cheesy process, it became slightly more bearable, but not much. After that experience, plus Dan knocking his beer spectacularly off the table and Eden kicking one of the little Buddha statues outside the restaurant just to see what would happen (it smashed), I’m not sure we’ll be returning anytime soon!!
Day 2 was the day the kids had been waiting for – indoor water park time! Not on the agenda of visitors without kids I wouldn’t imagine but we had a fabulous time. We were told it was the biggest indoor water park in Asia, friends who had taken their kids recently all said how amazing it was and it was in the basement of a gigantic shopping mall apparently.
We were one of the first visitors of the day and had the whole place practically to ourselves for at least the first hour which made things even better. Dan whizzed round the adult rides whilst there were no queues and after having creating a small tsunami on some vertical drop or other, he returned to us, took Josh on the one adult ride he agreed to go on and the rest of the time we all did our best to keep Eden alive. As far as she was concerned, the faster the ride the better. She exercises no caution whatsoever, doesn’t simply sit down at the top of a ride and let herself go but launches herself head first down them instead, keeping us all on our toes. Another relaxing morning!
I did finally get a bit of chill-out ‘me time’ the next morning when I went for a lovely massage at the hotel whilst Dan took the kids to the hotel pool.
Later that third day we went back to the Old Quarter to buy art. I was so tempted by the lovely galleries we’d seen on the first day and knowing that friends had also bought art in Hanoi, I knew I’d regret it if we didn’t go back.
Art shopping became that little bit more appealing to Joshua after a stupid conversation that went something along the lines of him asking what we were doing that afternoon, me replying that we were going to buy art, Dan butting in helpfully saying ‘fart’, Joshua collapsing in a fit of giggles imagining everyone saying to us, “Hello, would you like to buy my fart?” Well, it kept him amused for hours anyway and he actually got really quite into the (f)art shopping, helped us make our choices, wanted to look in all the galleries and we ended up coming away with 3 beautiful canvases that I can’t wait to get framed and Josh even got 2 small ones for himself.
Not to be left out, Eden, who was clearly not interested in the art, got treated to a pair of heart shaped pink sunglasses in a Hello Kitty shop that she was delighted to walk past. She sat in the buggy wearing them for the rest of the day and for some reason singing at the top of her voice all the Hebrew songs she knows from her rather large repertoire. I’m not sure why she chose that weekend to daven at the top of her voice at every opportunity when she never normally does it but I don’t think the people of Hanoi have ever heard anything like it, nor are they likely to again!
And all too quickly it was time to go ‘home’. Whilst we had a lovely, eye-opening, interesting time, this was our first trip from Hong Kong that left me actually quite relieved to be heading back. This, despite the fact that the Malaysian Airlines plane from Kuala Lumpar to Beijing went missing on the first morning we were there and we then had to fly over that exact airspace a few days later. We felt a little uneasy to say the least and were extra glad to touch down safely in HK again.
Where to next….?