It was a full day's journey to get from Sapa to Hanoi - the first hour on the back of a motorbike and another 12 sitting on a bench on a very slow train. The carriage was near empty for most of the journey, so I was free to stretch out, read books and listen to Adam & Joe podcasts. Later a number of people got on, slept under the desks and took surreptitious photos of me with their phones.
Why I should have been such a novelty is something of a mystery, as Hanoi was very much set up for tourists, having as it does the only hostel in the country, down this little alley in the old town.
As far as hostels go, it had moreorless everything right - free breakfast, clean, social dorms, a dvd room and a decent bar - and by rights I should've had a great time there, but somehow it was only ok. Getting off the backpacker trail a little had been exactly what I'd needed, perhaps because I'm a little too old for places like this now. Everyone was between 18 and 22 and every night everyone went out to a small club with rubbish trance music and an Irish bar. I had fun, but I could've been anywhere, and the people I met might as well have been in Rome or Madrid. Nothing against them, I just felt very little in common, and If I ever for some reason really want to hang out with Australian teenagers at an Irish bar I can do that in the UK.
To be fair the Irish bar did charm me by playing the whole of Pulp's "Different Class", and then starting on "Freaks". Now that's something I never expected to hear in Vietnam.
The biggest night out was when a lot of us went out to watch the football. There were another ten or so Liverpool supporters there, so it was a good environment to watch the action, though even worse than it would've been when they lost. One American guy got a bit carried away - he was shouting "Lampard's a fucking twat!" at the TV from the start of the match, probably because he'd somehow got the idea that this was the correct thing to do.
After the game I walked the block or two back to the hostel and was ambushed by a couple of ladies of the night on a motorbike. They ran up behind me shouting "You wanna come lady bar?" and it was a second or so before I realised that they were putting their hands in my pockets. It only took a second to fight them off, but when I got back I found that my locker key was missing, went downstairs, woke up the reception staff to get another copy, then found I'd left the original in the lock before I'd gone out in the first place.
Anyhow, in the few daytimes I managed to get around the city, especially the old town, which all looked a bit like this.
The hostel was near to this very un-Asian and not very inspiring cathedral. How it survived the war I don't know.
Close was a famous lake where locals go to sell photocopied books to tourists. I bought "The Sorrow of War" and had a look around the small temple on the island. It was rammed full of tourists, but inexpensive and pretty.
I didn't bother going to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum - I've seen enough preserved communist leaders' bodies now - and instead went way out of town to the 'Ethnography Museum', which turned out to be something of a anthropology & linguistics treat and just up my alley. Besides a decent-sized museum there were authentic replica houses from a selection of the hill tribes that live in te country. All were good, but this Cham community house has to take the prize.
Under the house teams of Vietnamese and Chinese played tug-of-war.
The only other thing to note about Hanoi is how completely apeshit insane the traffic is. Everyone has a motorbike and there are no rules about how you drive them.
Crossing the road can be a bit of a challenge - the secret is just to walk across slowly, watching the bikes move out of your way. If they were cars this would be a terrible idea, but bikes are more manouverable and you can be sure all the drivers have their wits about them.