Saturday, April 18, 2009

Dien Bien Phu to Hanoi

After crossing the boarder and enjoying some more mountains roads, bright green rice patties welcomed us at the bottom, lined with water buffaloes and field workers in their traditional pointy/round straw heads. Before we even got to the the bus station, we stopped and another bus tried to get people on theirs, to go to Hanoi - I considered, but being by myself in a new country I opted for the official transaction at the bus terminal.

Once I arrived in Dien Bien Phu the cultural difference and behaviour of the Vietnamese - more aggressive - unfolded. 20-30 men were waiting for the bus to arrive and since there were only two white women getting off the bus, we were ideal targets to get money from ... for taxi rides, motorbike rides, bus tickets, but all while grabbing your arm and yelling loudly! ... when I told them that I didn't even have their currency yet, they offered to take me to the ATM :)
(BTW - Dien Bien Phu was the city were the crucial/deciding battle between the French and the Vietnamese took place in 1953 ->the French battalions, trying to tempt the Viet Mihn into the open ... after 59 days of bitter fighting, the Viet Mihn forced the French to surrender)

Thankfully the french women was on the same track and actually was able to tell me where the nearest ATM was (since none of the people understood my poor attempts speaking Vietnamese, nor English) when I asked for a "cash machine".

Not after long I was in possession of my first two million Vietnamese Dong (the exchange rate is 17 500 VD = $1 these days), got a night bus ticket that left only an hour later and was able to tell the restaurant owner across the street that I was Vegetarian ...great success :)

After a quick clean up in the parking lot I made my way into the local night bus - which has been the nicest one in Southeast Asia for me yet. Plush, clean seats, big TV in the front, blankets for everyone, free water and hand towel ... you even had to take your shoes off when you got in. It was a sitting bus, but the seats reclined very far ... in fact a bit too far for my taste. I know most of you consider me "small", but for their standards my legs were very long, and the front seat hitting my knees became increasingly uncomfortable during the 16 hour ride. The TV playing Vietnamese Love songs all night didn't really help either, but I still felt pretty good among 50 Vietnamese or so (3 women and the rest men). Especially the beginning of the trip was very scenic. Cnce we hit a construction road for about 3 hours my patience and enthusiasm for this country was depleting fast ... the rest of the roads were decent (one of the only things the French can be thanked for here) ... and before I knew it we arrived in Hanoi at 7am.

Most of the locals seemed to be commuters, but one Vietnamese was travelling himself and approached me while we were getting out bags. Together we took a local bus, but unfortunately were misinformed were the bus would be leading ... once we got out he tried to catch another bus, but told me he could not trust the locals either ... so we walked about 3 km to the old town of Hanoi, across extremely busy roads, without traffic lights - good thing he was leading the way ...

I found myself a guest house for $3 a night dorm rooms close to the lake (and he joined a bit later, after only finding more expensive places around).

I was quiet surprised to see how westernized Hanoi was - many retail stores, motorbikes and cars on the road (which used to be bikes not so long ago), Kentucky Fired Chicken ... and tons of fake DVDs.

The old quarter - the ancient merchants quarter - is located right above the beautiful Hoam Kiem Lake. Its full of thousand of small stalls, stores and street-restaurants, some streets decorated with bright banners and all of them filled with heaps of motorbikes.

To the south I explored the french quarter, now housing the most expensive stores and hotels in town ... in front of the Hilton Hotel I found myself in front of BMWs, Mercedes and even a Bentley!!

The only church in town is a leftover from the French as well - St. Joseph's Cathedral - only special because there are so hard to find around here ... the temple seem mediocre compared what I have seen in Thailand and Laos ...The Museum of Vietnamese Revolution (covering the anti-french movement to the late nineteenth century) was not as vivid and informative as I was hoping for either ( especially compared to the Hiroshima and Holocaust museum this one is very disappointing - mostly photographs, some with propaganda titles such as "the puppet army of the south")

So after a bit of exploring I decided to just enjoy the atmosphere of the city and book a trip to Ha Long Bay soon :) After an encounter with a Netherlands girl, who lead me to her travel agent, I decided to also book Sapa, before I enjoyed a wander around the night market that unfolds when the streets are being blocked off once sun goes down ...

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