For the most part, this adventure has been pretty well served by the idea of flexibility. Only a couple times have we been misled and, without necessarily regretting anything, wished to have a couple more days here or a couple less days there. Cat Ba Island, with its laid back quiet beauty, had us wondering if going for any more than a couple days to the melee we'd heard Hanoi to be would end up just more overwhelming, hectic and challenging than our kayak relaxed brains could handle. Wrong!
Well...sort of wrong. Hanoi IS a melee. It is a heaving mass of people and goods, motos and cars, foreigners, locals and everything in between all moving in every and any direction at once. But inside all of this beautiful madness, we arrived on Dec. 28th to find a city that nestles itself right in the crack between some of the other wonderful places we've been lucky enough to explore in Southeast Asia. It's the grit (metaphorically and literally) and anything goes opportunity of Kathmandu but with a little more of the development - smooth roads, good ice cream, etc. - of, say, Bangkok or Chiang Mai. By the end of day one we were aleady re-evaluating our thoughts of leaving before New Year's Eve.
(Before I get going too much, I have to preface with the fact that everything we did in this city was surrounded on either side by food. Amazing, exciting, exhilarating food adventures [with nary a large insect in sight!]. I'm not even going to start about it here, though, as anything less than a full post dedicated exclusively would miss the mark entirely. Stay tuned.)
After being whisked off to a hotel on the back of a motorbike, we spent the remaining days of the year wandering the supremely walkable Old Quarter. From as far north as Westlake to as far south as the French Quarter, several markets, endless back streets and side alleys and more museums than we've been to since Europe (three) filled in the times between sleeping and eating. Two of the museums - something that, I think many people would agree, is a little easy to burn out on - ended up being surprisingly worthwhile.
First stop was the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum - a collection of pieces that other art museums around the world will no longer borrow from due to the fact that the pieces within aren't verifiably original. Strange. Reason being is that years of corruption in the state run museum meant originals were sold off without much in the way of record-keeping, copies (though quite good ones) taking their place. It's strangely fitting to wander slack jawed in awe at some of the beautiful woodcut prints and silk paintings while questioning the authenticity and, getting a little meta, questioning what that even means in the context of art. For the admission price of just under one US dollar each, it was easily the best art museum to cost ratio I've ever experienced, save for the free nights at the MFA in Boston.
Next up was the Vietnamese Women's Museum; a truly beautiful collection displayed with the elegance and modern touches of something you might expect in Manhattan. Covering everything from women's domestic roles to wartime roles to some of the insanely intricate and fantastic fabrics of the minority tribes, it was another bargain at about USD $1.50.
As the first couple days whizzed by we realized we were subconsciously extending our stay further and further. By the 30th we knew we wouldn't be on a bus towards the Laos border until, unfortunately, Casey's birthday (January 4) so we decided to utilize the evening to celebrate a little early - avoiding the NYE crowds and prices in the process. Living on a pretty tight budget these past months has made the few meal splurges we've taken seem even more exciting and special and this one proved no different, despite the best efforts of a waitress who refused us the happy hour benefits and a group of six at the table over from us who thought watching youtube videos featuring lots of explosions and gunfire would be a fun way to spend the evening. We'll pretend they were fireworks in celebration of Casey's birthday and instead focus on the fact that, while it was fairly low-key, the food was delicious and the birthday sentiment was there. Even the cold weather checked in, catching us a bit off-guard as we had left our warmest layers in Bangkok, not really taking into consideration how much further north Hanoi is.
A few days later we went out for a birthday coffee at Cong Cafe - one of our better finds in the city - complete with gift unwrapping to make it seem like a real birthday before heading back to the hotel for our departure from this magnificent city. Two motos took us on the 20 minute drive through the most ridiculous and up close traffic I've ever been a part of to catch our overnight sleeper bus to Dien Bien Phu - the last stop town ten or so hours west of Hanoi on the way to the border. It's pretty hard to know which given place might strike one's fancy. I don't need to harp on the expectations idea again, but I can speak for us both when I say I couldn't be happier that we had the flexibility, this time, to stretch our time in Hanoi a little further. Pushing our schedule back a bit was all worth it for the smiles we received, the sights and smells we took in, and the food...oh, the food...