We landed in Hanoi at 12:05 p.m. A man in militaristic garb was holding a sign with our names on it as we exited the gangway.
He led us to the visa counter and got us to the head of the line. We had to fill out paperwork and provide two passsport-sized photos each and our letter of invitation, along with $45 apiece. He then led us over to immigration and led us through the crew and diplomat line. Our passports were stamped and our escort motioned us over to baggage claim and then waved goodbye.
This was clearly a service that Toni had purchased on our behalf, and we were very grateful for it. Many of the other foreigners seemed unsure of where to go or which queue to join. We were happy that we had someone to help us navigate the system.
After waiting just a few minutes at the baggage carousel, Craig's bag showed up. We went through customs and then exited the airport to find a smiling young man named Nguyen waiting for us. Cuong, who would be our guide for the duration of the trip, was just finishing up his last trip today, and so he wasn't available to pick us up.
Nguyen led us to a Toyota Innova (the same comfortable car in which we had traveled through Rajasthan) where we met Mr. Giang (pronounced "Zang"), who would be our driver for the next two weeks. There was a bottle of water awaiting each of us in the back seat, and it was very refreshing. We started our drive toward Hanoi. Nguyen pointed out the construction on the new international airport (the current one will be demoted to domestic travel). We were reminded that we were in Vietnam as some rice paddies cane into view near the airport.
There was a lot of traffic due to a fire, so Mr. Giang was taking some shortcuts to avoid the worst of it. We turned down some side streets and saw a lot of interesting sights, including a colorful fruit stall selling the infamous durian, and a bicycle with a basket of bright fresh-cut flowers. Houses were narrow and tall.
We crossed a bridge over the Red River. In the past, for 350 miles there had only been a single bridge over the Red River built by the French in 1902. Now we were told that there were 6 bridges in Hanoi alone.
We passed The Hanoi Ceramic Road, a mosaic mural covering 4 km of dyke walls along the Red River. Different segments were designed and implemented by various artists and organizations as part of a millennial celebration of Hanoi in 2010. The ceramic pieces came from the village of Bat Trang, which specializes in ceramics, and which we would visit during the course of the trip. When the wall was completed, it was awarded a Guinness World Record as the world's longest ceramic picture. We passed a particularly stunning section of the mosaic which depicted two dragons on a colorful backdrop facing one another next to the dates 1010 - 2010. Boston, one of the oldest cities in the USA, is less than 400 years old. A thousand year old city is hard for us to fathom.
Nguyen asked what we wanted to do do tonight. We told him that we were meeting our friend Binh's brother for dinner after we got settled at the hotel. He asked whether we wanted Mr. Giang to drive us somewhere in the evening. We had no idea what to expect for our evening with Loi. Maybe we'd walk to wherever we were going, or maybe we'd take a cab. "If you want, Mr. Giang could drive you to a restaurant and then you could get a cab home." We gave Nguyen Loi's phone number, and Nguyen tried to call him. He wasn't able to reach him. We didn't want Mr. Giang to have to make himself available to us, since we didn't even know when or where we would be going. We told him that we would figure it out, and that he could go home for the evening.
So Mr. Giang dropped us off in front of the older of the Sofitel Metropole Hotel's two lobbies. It was a grandoise white structure with black wooden shutters on the windows. Nguyen entered with us. The Metropole is an historic French colonial gem recommended to us by Toni. From the moment we stepped into the air conditioned lobby, we were swept away by the elegance of the place. The marble floors, the dark wood check-in desk, employees in attractive uniforms always ready with a smile and a "Bon jour Madame/Sir." We passsed a large vase of fresh flowers and some lovely framed paintings and were led to seats in the registation area. I handed the woman our passports, which she accepted with both hands and a slight bow. We signed the paperwork and rode up in the petite elevator #2 to the third floor. Inside the elevator was a poster advertising daily free historic hotel tours, which include the recently unearthed bomb shelters that saved guests including Joan Baez during the war. That certainly sounded interesting, and we hoped that we would have time to take such a tour over the next couple of days
We were staying in the historic wing of the hotel, which dates back to 1901. We were in room #308. The room was gorgeous. It was a little small, as was the convention at the time, but it was plenty of room for the two of us. It had dark wood furniture and floors, with a desk, mini-bar, armoire with glass doors, and a flatscreen TV which was playing a short loop of programming about the hotel. We had two nice windows with shutters, overlooking tree-lined streets. Crown molding decorated the tops of the walls. The bed had a fluffy white duvet. There was even a printed menu of pillows; in case the ones already on the bed were not plush enough, there were various extras available in the closet.
We could dial in any temperature we wanted to on the air conditioner. I flopped down on the bed, stretching my body which had been confined into coach plane seats for far too long. I gazed up at the ceiling fan above me. Sure, it was a lot fancier than the one in Apocalypse Now, which now resides above the bar in Francis Ford Coppolla's Belizean resort. And sure, that scene took place in Saigon rather than Hanoi. But I couldn't help saying the line anyway, "I wanted a mission, and for my sins, they gave me one."
Craig headed into the nice, modern bathroom to enjoy a shower. There were small ceramic jars on the vanity filled with various amenities. There was ample hot water and pressure. While Craig was in there, the phone rang. It was Loi, the brother of our friend Binh. He said that he would pick us up in the lobby between 5 and 5:30. I thanked him and said that we were looking forward to meeting him. After Craig's shower, I took one as well. It was quite refreshing. We were glad that we had plans with Loi tonight. Left on our own, we would probably go to bed too early. We wanted to quickly get onto a Vietnamese schedule to minimize jet-lag as much as possible.
We weren't sure if we were to meet him in the older lobby or the newer lobby, but we figured he would eventually find us. We took the elevator down to the old lobby and took a seat on a small sofa. Employees immediately asked us if we were waiting for the 5 o'clock historical tour of the hotel. There was a group of around 10 people who were waiting for this tour, and we again made a mental note that it was something that we wanted to try to do.
It was fun people-watching in the lobby. We had seen a picture of Loi, so we knew what he looked like.As each person entered the lobby, we looked up expectantly. He arrived at 5:30. He was incredibly friendly and immediately shook our hands and welcomed us to Hanoi. He said that he wanted to take us for a a traditional Vietnamese fish dinner. We followed him outside and around the block to where he had parked his car.When we got to the car, he presented us with a bag that contained some Vietnamese food goodies. He drove us through the streets of Hanoi which were decorasted for Tet, the recent New Year celebration. Loi pointed out the school that his brother "Mr. Binh" had attended before he left Vietnam.
Loi pulled up next to a restaurant and we got out of the car. He told us that he just needed to find a place to park, and he would be right back. He drove around the corner and we waited in front of the restaurant for him. It was a busy neighborhood, with motorbikes parked along both sides of the street. Electrical poles were made of concrete, and we couldn't believe the tangle of electrical wires draped over the street. There was a teakettle on a metal cylindrical bucket of coals sitting on the sidewalk. People sped by on motorbikes and bicycles. A man walked by shouldering a pole with a basket hanging from each end. It was twilight and there was a choreographed chaos to the scene as the yellow streetlights came on.
A few minutes later, Loi returned and led us inside and up a flight of stairs. This "oldest restaurant in Vietnam" was called Cha Ca La Vong, named after its signature "Vietnamese special dish" which it has been serving since 1871. We entered one of several small dining rooms, and sat on vinyl-padded metal folding chairs at white tableclothed tables. Craig and Loi each got a Ha Noi beer. Loi placed our order and an employee lit a metal sterno burner on the table. Bowls of noodles, greens, peanuts, and chili peppers were brought to the table. Then an employee appeared with a frying pan containing cubed boneless fish and oil. He set it onto the flaming sterno, and various greens and herbs (including dill) were mixed in. The fish sizzled in the oil, and occasionally a splatter of hot oil would hit us. We used chopsticks to grab fish and greens from the pan, and then ate them over our small bowls of noodles. Fish is not usually one of my favorite foods, but I absolutely loved this dish. The complementary flavors and textures were exquisite. Before I had ever eaten Vietnamese food, the very idea of fermented fish sauce did not sound appetizing to me. But it turned out that I liked it very much. I dipped my fish into it tonight, and Craig tried an even more spicy dipping sauce.
I am not very accomplished with chopsticks, but for some reason tonight Craig and I were both rocking them. We effortlessly ate our delicious meal while enjoying interesting conversation with Loi. More and more locals arrived at the restaurant, and they each had the special sizzling away on their respective tables. As soon as we finished the fish in the pan, Loi ordered a second round, and the pan was refilled with fish cubes and more greens. He loaded up our little bowls with fish until we couldn't eat any more. We had a cup of tea and then left the restaurant. Loi hopped on the back of a staffer's motorbike and the guy gave him a lift to where he had parked the car. We waited out front and a few minutes later he appeared with the car.
We appreciated Loi taking the time to meet us. This was a weeknight, so we would have definitely understood if he had simply taken us back to the hotel after the fabulous meal. But Loi wanted to give us a preview of Hanoi, and he drove us around pointing out sites. We passed a park containing several helicopters and a tank from the war. We drove around West Lake, and saw the beautiful 7-story Tran Quoc Pagoda which dates back to the 6th century. Hanoi's cafe culture was on display as people sat at outdoor tables by the lake, eating food purchased on the street. Some folks were standing in the water, fishing with flashlights.
Loi wanted to take us out for ice cream, and we went to Baooanh Bar and Coffee. We got into a little elevator in the building lobby and went up to the bar level. We were told by the waitress that it was too cold to sit outside on the roofdeck (though the temperature seemed lovely to us - we were having snow at home), so we were seated inside by a window overlooking the lake. I asked Loi what I should order and he recommended the special.
Soon both he and I were delivered a coconut filled with vanilla ice cream and topped with yellow raisins and nuts. It was delicious, and I scraped the fresh coconut from the inside. Craig was too full from dinner, but he enjoyed a fresh orange juice. We enjoyed chatting with Loi and looking out the window at everyone out and about, cruising the strip by the lake on their motorbikes and cars. More and more customers piled into Baooanh, and everyone was ordering the ice cream special. People were spending money and enjoying themselves; not what we had expected from a communist economy on a Monday night.
As Loi was driving us back toward the hotel, he pointed out the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, with its large, blocky, Soviet-inspired architecture. It was lit up red in the darkness, and a large number of people had congregated to watch the nightly lowering of the Vietnamese flag at 9 p.m.
Loi stopped in front of his family house and called up to his children, who came outside to meet us. His son Hieu and daughter Thao were lovely, and they presented us with a very thoughtful gift: a book called "Vietnam On the Move." We enjoyed chatting with them, and were very happy that Loi had brought us here. (When we would get home and show his brother Binh the pictures that we took with the kids, Binh was ecstatis to see his family home in the background). The kids had school tomorrow, so we said our goodnights and headed back to the hotel.
We passed an ice cream store and there were crowds of people on their motorbikes, enjoying an ice cream cones. Hanoi sure is a vibrant city. We are very grateful to Loi and his family for giving us such a wonderful welcome to his city and country. After such a long flight it was wonderful to sit down with a new friend and start learning about life in this fascinating country.
Loi dropped us off at the new lobby of the Metropole, the entrance to the "Opera House Wing" which overlooks the grogeous French colonial opera house. We walked down the corridor past a Vietnamese restaurant called Spices Garden, and out into a courtyard between the two wings. The hotel was beautifully lit at night. We entered the old lobby through the back door and took the small elevator up to our room.
Our room had been turned down for the night. Mats had been put on either side of the bed, each with a pair of "MH" monogrammed slippers. Our shutters had been drawn, and the curtains were shut. The wood and rice paper lanterns on each side of the bed were giving the room a cozy glow. Two little pink macarons (merengue and cream French pastries) awaited us in a little cellophane wrapper with a black bow tied around the top.
We settled in for our first real sleep in two days. The bed was amazingly plush. I wrote in the journal for a while, and it was lights-out at 10:20 p.m.
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Flowers and bicycle on the outskirts of Hanoi
Mosaic comemmorating 1000 years of Hanoi
1920's Metropole Hotel label by Dan Sweeney
Room 308, Metropole Hotel Hanoi
Hanoi at dusk
Steph, Loi, and Craig at Cha Ca La Vong
Cha Ca La Vong at the restuarant of the same name
The ice cream special at Baooanh
Baooanh Bar and Coffee
Nightly lowering of the flag at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Craig, Hieu, Thao, and Steph