Wonders of Vietnam: Final Glimpses

Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam.

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Although in Vietnam for merely a week, my husband, Bishara, and I had managed to sample the exotic cuisines and districts of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, cruise picturesque Halong Bay, bike on lush Cat Ba Island, climb Sapa’s impressive Dragon’s Jaw, and visit the intriguing Hmong village of Ta Van in the Hoang Lien Son mountain range.  Our itinerary now included a highly anticipated return to the Old Quarter of Hanoi on an overnight train from Lao Cai, an hour’s drive outside of Sapa.

While initially apathetic over the prospect of visiting Vietnam, Bishara’s avidity for experiencing this unconventional vacation destination, in conjunction with a plethora of affirmative anecdotes from friends regarding this Indochinese nation, ultimately persuaded me to assent to the trip.

From the moment we entered the outskirts of Hanoi a week earlier, I became captivated by this delightful dizzying city – the tall narrow French colonial-style buildings, ubiquitous scooters, and an almost tangible buzz and spirit on the streets.

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Hanoi Street

While the original plan was for Hanoi to be our primary domicile and launching point for convenient expeditions to Halong Bay to the east and Sapa in northwest Vietnam, the frenetic metropolis had become much more than a “home base.”  Bishara and I felt strangely invigorated, yet relaxed, in this raucous city despite normally being partial to holiday locations with appealing natural settings – white sandy beaches framed by banyan trees or pristine mountains flush with pines, evergreens, and clean fresh air.

Although feeling somber about leaving the splendor of Sapa and the surrounding mountain-scape, we were keen on wedging in several more indulgent hours before departing for the train station in the late afternoon.  In this spirit, we patronized the dynamic Sapa marketplace where Bishara purchased a florid dress and “earthy” toned Hmong skirt he insisted were “me,” and strolled to the lake, replete with paddle boats, on the far side of town.  Lunch ensued at the Sapa Nature View restaurant where open windows allowed us remarkable views of the “Tolkinese Alps,” positioned along the fringe of the Himalaya Mountains.  Fresh mountain breezes swept throughout the room complementing our meals of shrimp and chicken soup, sweet and sour shrimp, and grilled chicken with noodles.  Leg, shoulder and upper back massages on the second floor of the restaurant building enriched our delectable lunch outing yielding more incredible mountain glimpses.  Yearning to linger in this charming town, we rambled down the road to an open air café and relished sips of fragrant Vietnamese milk coffee and stunning foliate terraces in the distance.

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Sapa Market

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Street food at Sapa Market.

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Sapa Lake

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Sapa Nature View Restaurant

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Open-air cafe view. (Sapa)

Open-air cafe view. (Sapa)

Towards dusk, we reluctantly left Sapa by private van travelling through the undulating mountain ridges and late afternoon light.  Reaching Lai Cao, an hour later, we lugged our suitcases through town and joined hordes of other tourists, and nationals alike, dining at casual outdoor cafes or otherwise passing the time as they waited for their trains to depart.  Following our hurried meal of Vietnamese noodle dishes, Bishara and I felt somewhat debilitated after the representative at the train ticket booth told us in severely fractured English that we needed to “go over there, to that hotel” and speak with ‘so-and-so’ to confirm our tickets.  As we squeezed by, and slammed into, other train travelers trying to make our way to “that hotel,” good fortune shone down, as we unwittingly bumped into the ‘so-and-so’ representative.  “Oh, I’m sorry,” I tendered, as I collided with a professionally dressed and coiffed woman holding a clipboard.  I took the offhanded chance that this official looking person amidst the multitudes of faceless strangers might be able to assist us.  Showing the matron our paperwork, a glint of recognition showed in her eyes.  “Ah, yes” she submitted, as she signed and stamped our documents and pointed in the direction of the waiting area.

Bishara and I stood, crammed up next to other commuters, near the sliding glass doors adjacent to the train tracks, as we did not want to miss any communication signaling our train was ready for boarding.  Of course, this resulted in some missteps with Bishara and I jostling, along with everyone else, to get onto the train platform when the glass panes opened.  After one announcement, Bishara and I propelled forward, stumbling through the doors, only to knock over a snack kiosk as we turned back when we realized it was not our train; the kiosk vendors were not pleased.  Our discomfiture continued once beside the train tracks, when Bishara hoisted our suitcases up onto the train carriage convinced a certain train line was ours, before becoming aware of a nearby railroad worker speaking an incongruent blend of terse Vietnamese with bits of English asserting that the train number did not match the information on our documents.  This train employee charitably helped us unload our luggage and assisted in locating the correct train line and carriage.

Safely in our diminutive, though comfortable and familiar, train cabin, I could finally exhale and look forward to all the creaks and grinds of our upcoming train ride, while basking in the singular awareness of this exotic trip.  Exiting Lai Cao station at 8:50 PM, our train ride to Hanoi was nearly as fanciful as our inceptive ride two days prior.  While Bishara slept rather well based on the depth of his snoring, I fell into the same erratic sleep as during our earlier train trip, vacillating between fatigue and wonder.

Close to 6:00 AM, as rain lightly pelted our cabin window, Vietnamese music permeated our compartment, and a brusque emphatic message in monosyllabic Vietnamese carried over the loudspeaker.  We assumed this signaled a couple hour’s wait before we arrived in Hanoi, as this was the sequence of events that transpired as we approached Lao Cai (from Hanoi) a couple of days earlier.  A short time later, however, a train employee rapped on our door and announced we were in Hanoi.  I scurried to the restroom, and Bishara, still not believing we would disembark anytime soon, ordered milk coffee from the genial young train woman who, hours ago, cheerfully revealed she could make us noodles, coffee, and tea at any time during our overnight journey if we wished.  Shortly after returning from the washroom, to our collective surprise and relief, the porter from the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel scrambled into our train cabin with blue plastic ponchos stuffed under his arms.  In short order, the young man politely welcomed us back to Hanoi, affirmed it was raining outside, and nimbly and attentively placed a poncho over my head, and a few fluid moments later, arranged the second poncho over Bishara’s head.  Lurching for our luggage, the benevolent porter let out a wide lucent smile when Bishara asked if he could assist, declaring, “No, it’s fine.  I’m Superman!” – a moniker bound to our congenial porter for the rest of our stay in Hanoi.  Within short order, we were all in a waiting taxi, on our way to the Elegance Ruby Hotel, our “home away from home,” once again.

Hanoi train station.

Hanoi train station.

Hanoi was an eerie urban desert in the early morning, with nary a scooter or car in sight.  As we crossed through the metropolis, the cityscape made way for the narrow, tree-lined streets of the Old Quarter.  Arriving at the side street perpendicular to the mottled alleyway of the Elegance Ruby Hotel, our young porter vaulted from the taxi, seized our luggage from the trunk, and bounded down the alley for the boutique hotel.  Staff lavishly welcomed us with broad grins, inquiries about our time in Sapa, and an offer of an upgrade at their proximate “sister hotel,” the Hanoi Elegance Diamond Hotel, adjacent to Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  While waiting to be transported from the Elegance Ruby Hotel to the Elegance Diamond Hotel we were afforded fresh plump towels and shower facilities to freshen up after our overnight train ride.  We ultimately decided, however, given the choice between a luxury room at the plush Elegance Diamond Hotel and an adequate sized room at the Elegance Ruby Hotel, we preferred the personalized consideration of the smaller boutique hotel.  The Elegance Ruby Hotel staff was clearly appreciative.

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Mottled alleyway of Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel.

After our protracted and fitful train ride we were primed for our traditional Elegance Ruby Hotel breakfast feast of two omelets with ham, mushroom, onion, and cheese; two pancakes with pineapple, banana, honey, and lemon; French toast with syrup; and beef noodle soup.  And our meal was not complete without our Vietnamese milk coffee and fresh carrot juice.

Satiated and energized, we ventured onto the frantic and appealing streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  Sauntering through the historic city we maneuvered past shops and markets brimming with people, souvenirs, crafts, clothing, shoes, herbs, fruit and vegetable stands, raw meat, an improbable fusion of smells, and tiny cafes with plastic chairs arranged haphazardly on the adjoining pavement.  While dodging motor scooters filling the streets and sidewalks, as well as pedestrians, pole vendors, bicyclists, and shopkeepers, crisp memories flooded back of our first two recent sojourns to Hanoi; the first our inaugural visit at the outset of our trip to the capital city, and the second sandwiched in between our excursions to Halong Bay and Sapa.

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Frenetic Hanoi.

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Never know what you're going to run into in Hanoi's Old Quarter.

Never know what you’re going to find in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

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Our favorite

Our favorite “hole in the wall” Hanoi restaurant.

Our initial visit to Hanoi, only days before, had Bishara clenching my hand and plucking me from the path of scooters and mini-trucks careening alongside us on the slender bustling roads.  By our second and third Hanoi trips, however, Bishara seemed to gradually discern Vietnamese drivers’ impeccable sense of timing and clearance with his grip on my hand diminishing.  The newfound confidence gained by our middle trip to Hanoi found us seeking out a hair salon where we both had our hair done and accepting Hanoi beer and flavorful oversized sweet potatoes from our hair stylist who had her assistant run out and purchase the goodies from a street vendor.  We also had the fortuity of encountering other affable globetrotters with whom we shared travel stories, as well as a meal in the fanciful French Quarter.

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Dinner in

Dinner in “French Quarter” with newfound friends.

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Exploration of Hanoi’s Old Quarter widened the following day with visits to the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Temple) containing multiple arrays of edible and vibrant floral Buddhist offerings, and trips to the History Museum, Hanoi prison (Maison Centrale), and Women’s Museum all via the colorful and unorthodox, yet popular, three-wheeled cyclo powered by a wrinkled Vietnamese man providing commentary on significant sights.  Travel by cyclo, part bicycle and part extended sideways seat for passengers, an experience in and of itself, afforded us an up close and personal view of traffic pandemonium and the constant near misses of vehicles, scooters, bicycles, and pedestrians, as well as an expanded view of life in the Old Quarter.  When leaving the Women’s Musuem in the late afternoon, we spied our cyclo driver with a middle-aged Vietnamese man puffing on a bamboo water pipe, and, moments later, handing the pipe over to our driver who stuffed the apparatus in a side pocket of the cyclo.  Evidently, the smoking of water pipes is a rather significant element of Hanoi social life for some, as our cyclo ride allowed us several sightings of men enjoying the effects of water-based tobacco outside of shops and residences.  One in fact, with pipe uplifted, attempted to wave us over to his sidewalk vantage point, presumably to join him in the pleasurable pursuit of water pipe smoking.  Although having indulged in “hubbly bubbly” countless times while living in the Arab Gulf, we erred on the side of caution and declined.

Cyclo adventure!

Cyclo adventure!

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Ngoc Temple

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Hoàn Kiếm Lake

Hanoi's History Museum

Hanoi’s History Museum

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Hanoi Prison (Maison Centrale)

Hanoi Prison (Maison Centrale)

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John McCain's flight suit in which he was captured.

John McCain’s flight suit.

Women's Museum (Hanoi)

Women’s Museum (Hanoi)

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Wedding ritual.

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Playing dress-up at the Women's Museum.

Playing dress-up at Hanoi’s Women’s Museum. (Wedding attire.)

By our final full day in Hanoi, we felt like seasoned guests of this enigmatic city, and comfortably criss-crossed the Old Quarter on foot, taking in massages at a traditional Vietnamese spa; Bishara enjoyed an aromatherapy massage and I opted for a warm stone massage.  Relaxing beyond expectations, we both went limp with any vestiges of tension and strains drifting away.  We left the spa floating, and incognizant of the bustling crowds around us, as we wandered through the humming markets and roadside shops where vendors approached us and we succumbed several times buying t-shirts for Bishara and embroidered paintings depicting Vietnamese life for me.  Our last night in Hanoi was filled with traditional music and singing; an enchanting evening.

Feel refreshed and relaxed after our massages.

Feeling refreshed and relaxed after our massages.

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Enjoying an evening of folkloric Catru music.

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In the hours before making our way to the Hanoi airport on our last day in Vietnam, the Elegance Ruby Hotel staff encouraged us to make the time to visit the Ethnology Museum, as it was apparent we had treasured the time spent among the Hmong people of the Sapa region.  Although we had to rush our packing and showers, and arrange for a fast-moving cab ride, we were pleased we took the time to see the Museum, as it was fascinating and enlightening to view artifacts, crafts, and scenes focusing on the lifestyle and traditions of the various Vietnamese ethnic groups.

Ethnology Museum (Hanoi)

Ethnology Museum (Hanoi)

See the bicycle under all those baskets?

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Burial scene.

Burial scene.

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Precious children at Ethnology Museum. (Hanoi)

Precious children at Ethnology Museum. (Hanoi)

Before we knew it, we were bidding farewell to the exceptional staff of the Elegance Ruby Hotel and in a taxi for the airport.  Our first night home in Doha, I had a continuous and vivid dream that I was in Vietnam living in a hut on the side of the road! . . . Vietnam certainly seemed to touch our souls; we look forward to returning to this irresistible land.

Saying

Saying “goodbye” to wonderful staff of Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel.

Wonders of Vietnam: Hanoi

Living and working in the Arab Gulf has afforded my husband and me some remarkable travel opportunities, including a visit to the incredible Vietnam.

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“You’ve got to be kidding,” I responded, incredulously.  “Why would you want to go to Vietnam for vacation?”  My husband, Bishara, and I were having breakfast, a time often reserved for airing a variety of issues, planning for upcoming activities, and such.  Not to say that the idea of vacationing in Vietnam had not been broached before by my husband.  For the last several years, Bishara has, on occasion, garnered the courage to advance the notion, which I have always, not so indelicately, struck down.  Living in the Arab Gulf, Saudi Arabia in the early 2000’s, and Qatar for the last nine and a half years, has afforded us some remarkable travel opportunities, which we have taken full advantage of.  We have particularly appreciated the relative convenience of visiting Southeast Asia, and have had the good fortune of travelling to Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.  Our time in each of these countries has been nothing short of wondrous and life enriching.

Vietnam, in my mind, however, was a different story.  America had fought a contentious war there, and had lost.  Etched in memories of my 1960’s childhood were the nightly airings of the frontline battles on our family TV, against a backdrop of lush tropical settings, ubiquitous rice paddies, and the fallen being transported by comrades to waiting medical helicopters.  This was definitely not a favored vacation destination.  Bishara, who had been watching the same images on TV as a child halfway around the world in Jordan, had a more visceral reaction to the scenes.  Having experienced warfare, first-hand, in Jordan and later in Lebanon’s civil war, Bishara felt more empathy for, and a personal connectedness to, the war weary on both sides of the conflict.

My resolve began to dissolve several months ago when I began hearing reports from expatriate friends who had visited Vietnam and revealed that this country on the Indochina Peninsula was a captivating place with magnificent scenery, a rich history, and sumptuous food.  So maybe there was something to Bishara’s penchant for vacationing in Vietnam.  I began doing the research and determined that while there were many travel plan options when in the country, the north had the mountains, diverse ethnic groups, and an intriguing history.  A plan was developing, and we eventually settled on a 10-day trip in early April with Hanoi as home base, and side trips to include a cruise on Halong Bay (to the east of Hanoi) and Sapa, a picturesque mountain town in the northeast of the country.

Bishara divulged when we were back in Qatar about having prayed on the plane ride to Hanoi that expectations would be met on this trip, as he had not wanted to haul me to Vietnam under false pretenses.  Although the tread on the luggage carousel broke, and we had to wait over an hour for our bags to arrive at the Hanoi Airport, our luck definitely improved after leaving baggage claim.  The driver who would take us to the hotel was just outside, placard in hand with our names prominently displayed.  The young man swiftly brought our luggage, which practically swallowed up his slight frame, to a waiting van, and though he spoke virtually no English, afforded us wonderful views of the bustling city of Hanoi and its outskirts as he drove us to our hotel in the heart of the “Old Quarter.”

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Motor scooters of Hanoi.

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Many tall, narrow buildings in Hanoi.

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Blurs of small trucks, scooters, and women wearing conical straw hats working the rice paddies off the highway began crystalizing into alluring tall, narrow buildings hinting of French colonialism with flowered balconies and wrought iron railings, more scooters, and quaint tree-lined streets, as we entered Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  We were already enamored.

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Alleyway of our hotel.

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Within an hour we arrived at our accommodations, the Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel, located in a lovely and active alleyway in the middle of the Old Quarter.  A porter and several representatives of the hotel came outside, warmly welcomed us, and all helped to expedite the movement of our luggage from the car into the boutique hotel.  Once inside, we were offered wet cloth towels to freshen ourselves, fruit juice, and suggestions on sites of interest and dining options in Hanoi.  Before we knew it, the porter nabbed our luggage and began running up five flights of stairs, while we rode the diminutive elevator with a hotel receptionist.  When Bishara expressed concern over the porter carrying our unwieldy luggage up all those stairs, the receptionist casually predicted that the porter would beat us to the fifth floor; and he was right.

Our room was designated “VIP,” however, in style and design, only.  Cost was merely average by American standards.  Spacious, with hardwood floors, beautiful finishings and furnishings in the Vietnamese style, red flower petals scattered on the bed, a balcony, and complimentary bottle of wine, the room was exceedingly comfortable.

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VIP Room at Hanoi Elegance Ruby Hotel

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Complimentary wine.

 

View from balcony.

View from balcony.

After settling in, Bishara and I headed downstairs, anxious to sample Vietnamese cuisine and Hanoi’s Old Quarter.  The Old Quarter’s patchwork of roads and alleyways (originally 36 streets) are nearly 1,000 years old, and emerged from a series of working villages, each plying a specific trade.  Some streets harbor the same trades as centuries ago, like sheet-metal and tin materials; others have changed to focus on items like bamboo or electrical merchandise; and still others are a hodgepodge of different offerings, from t-shirts and dessert sweets, to hair salons and spas.  These days, motor scooters are everywhere, in the streets and rows upon rows parked on the sidewalks, oftentimes limiting the space for walking, but somehow lending to the chaotic charm of the place.

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Scooters everywhere!

The reception desk had recommended Quan An Ngon restaurant for a traditional Vietnamese meal, and since it was not an easy walk, a taxi service was called.  Two hotel business cards were handed to us with the receptionist stressing that the card would come in handy when returning to the hotel.  Slipping into the waiting taxi, I told the driver we were going to the Quan An Ngon restaurant.  Dead silence.  Again, Bishara this time; “We are going to Quan An Ngon restaurant.”  Not a sound.  Fifteen minutes later, the driver stopped and pointed, unceremoniously, to the right.  “Ah, this must be the restaurant,” I remarked.  It would become apparent that Hanoi taxi drivers rarely spoke English; evidently, the hotel had spoken with the driver, or taxi service, about where we would be dining.  Looking out for our welfare and that of other hotel guests was an enduring priority; always carried out, though, in a most understated and unpretentious manner.

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Quan An Ngon restaurant.

 

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Two of our cheery servers at Quan An Ngon restaurant.

Two of our cheery servers at Quan An Ngon restaurant.

Entering through the open wrought iron gates of Quan An Ngon restaurant was like being transported to a festive fusion of one part open air garden, one part bustling marketplace.  I hesitated over sitting at a communal table preferring, instead, a private table, however, there were no private tables available, so we sat alongside Europeans at a long public table.  In time, a single lady from the Netherlands joined us, and the camaraderie that ensued certainly enhanced our evening.

A happy spirit and wonderful ambience permeated Quan An Ngon.  Several smiling and amiable servers approached our table and patiently deciphered meal items from the menu.  The suggested choices included Vietnamese fried pancakes (bánh xèo), pork soup with noodles (Bánh canh Trảng Bàng), and barbecue pork (thịt nướng).  We must have looked a bit hapless, since a couple of servers, pulling plastic gloves over their hands, came bounding over when we received our food, and proceeded to show us how those “in the know” eat traditional Vietnamese meals.  And there is definitely an apropos technique for most entrees, which involves combining repast elements using chopsticks, of course.  The bánh xèo was the most complicated to assemble; the process beginning with the server placing mixed greens (fresh mint, parsley, spinach, lettuce, and cilantro) on a thin rice patty.  Next, a crispy rice patty is folded up and positioned over the greens, and bits of pork and shrimp are arranged on top.  The server then showed us how to roll up the original rice patty with the mixings and dip it into special Vietnamese fish sauce.

Bishara and I practiced several times, and eventually became semi-proficient at assembling the various elements of bánh xèo, however, we were much more accomplished at consuming the final product, a flavorful and crunchy mix that was absolutely delectable.  The Bánh canh Trảng Bàng (pork noodle soup) was equally as savory, although the necessary prerequisites for “chowing down” were much simpler; a side bowl of mixed greens are occasionally pilfered and nudged into the soup for a refreshing and tangy taste.  We also enjoyed an order of fresh spring rolls wrapped in lettuce leaves and thịt nướng (grilled barbecue pork), however, the latter was a bit too spicy for me.  We topped our meal off with a highly palatable plate of fried bananas in coconut milk.  We had been told by Canadian expatriate friends who had visited the country the previous year that the American dollar ruled in Vietnam, however, we were still taken aback when our bill was 190,000 Vietnamese dong, or just under 9 U.S. dollars.  Our meals in Vietnam rarely exceeded five U.S. dollars.

The hotel business card did, indeed, come in handy on our ride home.  Once again, the taxi driver spoke not a word of English, but nodded enthusiastically when he read the name of our hotel on the card.  We weaved through streets filled with scooters, cyclos, pedestrians, and Hundai cars all miraculously avoiding collisions, a low din of honking filling the air.  As soon as he spotted us, the hotel porter rushed out to open our car door, and graciously walked with us to a nearby market stall when he heard we needed to purchase bottles of water; we are water fiends, especially when on vacation.

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Shoulder pole vendor in Hanoi.

On the way back to the hotel, a woman with a shoulder pole selling a variety of household wares and trinkets, motioned to me and inquired with hand signals if I was interested in a hair clip.  I, naively, sampled a sparkly hair clip, and the lady immediately said “one million dong.”  My jaw dropped.  I couldn’t quite get used to carrying millions in our pockets and we had not paid nearly so much for anything, so far.  Although one million dong equates to a mere $ 49, this was only a plastic hair clip.  Sensing my hesitation, the lady retorted, “five-hundred thousand.”  In normal circumstances, a 50 percent drop in price would seem reasonable, however, even the porter was perturbed by the vendor’s nerve.  Some clipped words were exchanged between porter and vendor, and the porter motioned for us to follow him to the hotel.

Hanoi, dripping with buoyant rhythm and a joyful soul, easily exceeded expectations.  We looked forward to boarding the Paradise cruise ship for a three day/two night journey on Halong Bay the next day, and returning to Hanoi in the next few days.