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Hanoi: Motorbikes in the charming old Quarter

From the first step into the streets, the Hanoi motorbikes are honking their horns at us, trying to find their way through the city. Every citizen of Hanoi owns one, and when it is not in use, it is parked on the sideway. Pedestrians have the choice to either struggle between the parked motorbikes on the sideway, or to get honked at every 10 seconds on the street. The Hanoi motorbikes make the charming old quarter of Hanoi difficult to navigate.

Waterpuppet theatre in Hanoi, Vietnam

Early arrival

On the train from Lao Cai to Hanoi we are bugged by some annoying vendors and shoe polishers. That, and the fact that hard sleepers in Vietnam are really hard, makes it a tough night on the train. Upon arrival at 4.30 AM, we are pretty tired, which is not good for our arrival stress.

Taxi's are already waiting for us at the train station, but we choose a cyclo to bring us to a hotel. We negotiate a fair price, and the boy works himself in sweat to navigate the cyclo with two big white people and to heavy backpacks through the quiet streets of Hanoi. Suddenly, we are passed by a boy on a motorbike, who offers us a room in a different hotel. As we decline, he starts talking to our driver who, all of a sudden, requires a higher price for his service. They make a big scene, and in the end, we give in to get rid of them. This is why we hate early arrivals.

Sabine in front of a pagoda Hanoi, VietnamOur hotel is still closed, but opens its doors for us. There is no room for us yet, but we are told there will become one available soon. The waiting takes a long time, but in the end, we get a nice room for little money.

Exploring the city

After resting, we go out to explore the city and take care of some necessities. Our hotel is situated in the old quarter of Hanoi, close to the Hoan Liem lake. This is one of the artificial lakes in the city. Along the lake is a sidewalk, where we can walk quietly, without having to watch out for the Hanoi motorbikes.

After visiting the bank (for money), the Cambodian embassy (for a visa), and the pharmacist (for malaria tablets), we notice St. Joseph cathedral. As we prepare to make a picture, disaster hits us: we both think the other one holds the digital camera and bang, it hits the floor. We freak out when we cannot seem to repair it ourselves, and allow a shopkeeper to rip us off ($20 for repairing it). The camera is worth too much for us, so we pray he will be able to repair it.

Perfume Pagoda

We have booked a tour for the next day to the Perfume Pagoda. A bus takes us in two hours to a village, where rowing boats are waiting to bring us via the river to the Perfume Pagoda. The lady rowers use a strange technique, pushing the oars instead of pulling. It enables them to look forward, but we think it limits the strength they can use. Slowly, we float from the village into the beautiful karst mountain scenery, on our way to the pagoda.

Rowing through the scenery to the perfume pagoda

After stopping at a small temple, we move on through the mountains and the rice fields. The population is busy planting rice, which is delivered by boat. Apparently, rice is harvested here twice per year, as opposed to Sapa. The rice is planted in the water, in fact the rice fields are part of the river, separated by small embankments in the water.

After more than an hour of rowing, we arrive at the base of the mountain where the perfume pagoda is situated. But we have to climb for one and a half hour more to reach it. The climb is steep since our guide keeps a pace, we hardly have time to look around. Luckily, there is nothing much to look at, until we reach the pagoda after three stops.

The Perfume Pagoda appears to be a cave, with a huge stalagmite at the entrance. Since the stalagmite resembles a Buddha, people think this place was selected by the gods as the location of a temple. It is a sanctuary for many Vietnamese, often visited during Tet, the Vietnamese new year. They pray and worship the numerous Buddha's in the cave. They also come to touch the golden tree, another stalagmite with a yellow color. It guarantees that a lot of money will be earned the coming year.

After the descent, a lunch is waiting for us, and we are given the opportunity to visit some other temples. These are actually better than the Perfume Pagoda itself. The boat trip back is very relaxing and completes a nice tour. It is a pity that the rowing lady begs for a tip before we are back. She would have gotten more if she didn't do that.

Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh memorial building in Hanoi, VietnamThe longer we stay in Hanoi, the worse the weather becomes. When we pick up our camera (repaired!!), it pours. Luckily, it stops after breakfast, so we can go out to visit Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. We could have made a tour of communist leaders, but in Moscow we didn't have the opportunity to visit Lenin (wrong day), and in Beijing Mao was out for his yearly restoration. But Ho Chin Minh is a good alternative.

We have to leave our luggage and camera behind, and wait for an escort into the building. A soldier brings us to the red carpet leading along the glass coffin with Ho Chi Minh in it. We have to keep moving on slowly, stopping is prohibited. He looks remarkably well, especially for someone who died over 30 years ago. As we stand outside again, we are pretty impressed. By Ho Chi Minh, but especially by the military discipline we had to follow.


Catholic church in Hanoi, VietnamOn our way back, after picking up our passports at the Cambodian embassy, we pass the Cathedral again. This time, we succeed in taking a picture, and take a look inside. Strange, a catholic church in a Buddhist country. Most remarkable is outside though: a statue of Maria with a deceased Jesus in her arms.


In the evening, we decide to visit the water puppet theatre. This kind of entertainment is a tradition in Vietnam, practiced for centuries in the rice fields. We enjoy how the players show "normal life" by means of the puppets. We agree that the watter puppet theatre is a "must see" when you're in Hanoi.

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