22.02.2012 - 24.02.2012 19 °C
As the capital of Vietnam, it's even more busy and crowded than Saigon. I can't believe I'm saying it, but Saigon actually had a more relaxed vibe. Our collective first thought was this city needs a big power wash and fresh coat of paint. The smog is so thick, it covers the city in an intoxicating gray veil. But the big difference is: you really get the feel that big brother is watching. Uniformed officers are found on every street. Some are seen searching people's cars and motorbikes. Their eyes follow you as you cross in front. We avoided taking pictures of them in fear of having our cameras confiscated. Even facebook and BBC are banned. Who knows what they could do, but you're best to avoid any interaction with local police/military here.
The corruption is more evident too. Normally you don't see people in a socialist country driving bentley's, Rolls Royce, Range Rovers, Porsche, or Aston Martin, but we saw plenty of them here. Foreign cars are taxed at 300%! And most people pay in cash. How? Almost everything is traded on the black market. It's the only way for people to make an income worth living for. Teachers charge students' parents extra fees if they want their kids to pass, even though school is "free."
There were a couple of - as Rachel put it best: "cultural" things we did in Hanoi, that I probably could have done without.
1. The Water-Puppet Show
The theater wreaked of cigarettes. The whole show was in Vietnamese, so you had no idea what the background story was. The puppets weren't impressive and their movements were not well coordinated with the beat of the music. The best part was that it was only an hour long.
2. Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum
The amount of police and military ordering you around makes you feel a bit violated. You have to park a half mile away, then you're marched through the complex in a two by two line with officers stopping you at every intersection with a firm look and hand out, until they deem it right for you to move again. Inside the mausoleum, you continue through in a single line, briskly walking, no stopping, no talking, no hands in your pockets (which I violated; twice), right past his glass coffin while staring at the wax-like figure inside. You get at most 20seconds to try and figure out if that's real or just a puppet. My guess is someone at Madame Tousaud's got paid a little extra for this craftsmanship.
My favorite part of Hanoi was a perfect little oasis in the middle of the city: The Sofitel Metropole Hotel. We stumbled on it from a friend's recommendation for an afternoon snack & drinks. In the middle of the old French quarter stands a beautiful white building in classical French style. Walking past the lobby you step into a dining room, filled with a chocolate and dessert buffet bar. The other option is high tea with delicious finger foods and cucumber sandwiches. Sitting in the plush teak chairs on the veranda by the pool, all of a sudden you notice: the air is cleaner, it's easier to breathe, there's no noise pollution, and everything is clean and neat. Best of all, the waiters understand you. We missed this, so so much!