My Pacific airlines flight from HCMC was uneventful. My Phanlan guesthouse booked me a taxi to the airport. The domestic airport is smaller, darker, and the personnel hardly smart a welcoming smile. There were lots of scowling faces. My local fare included the departure tax so I didn't have to pay more. There was a small snack bar at the waiting area - just before the pre-departure area - and the waiting took "forever".
I was impatient, a little worn out from the constant move for the past 3 days or so. I also noticed more locals traveling. Boy! Jeans isn't "in". Ako lang ang naka maong! The trip took 2 hours to Noi Bai Airport which was smaller than Siem Reap's airport. I was (as usual) nervous, as I wasn't sure if my taxi booking (when I booked for my accommodation, they offered me a taxi pick up - and when I inquired at travelfish, there were complaints about the reliability of the taxi pick-up from this guesthouse) would show up.
To my relief, paglabas ko, my name was waved on a white board. Embarassing. What was more surprising was that it was a huge car - almost like a limo service. Comfy airconditioning. All these for US$12 - and no haggling! Tried to strike a conversation with my driver but it was obvious we were not communicating at all! Sayang lang that I didn't know about Pacific Air's free bus ride to the city center. Oh well! $12 lang naman. Better safe than sorry - especially that this was a long ride to the city center - and on to my guesthouse.
I liked Hanoi right away. The tree-lined roads are a lot wider than Saigon's congested streets. There are more cars than motorcycles than in Saigon which meant less noise.
My guesthouse (Tung Trang Hotel, 13 Tam Thuong St. Hoan Kiem District, Ha Noi) was located in a quiet neighborhood, after some blocks of small eskinitas of walking. It was also a few walks from a main city street that has rows of shops - and ultimately leads to Hoan Kiem Lake (which literally means "returned sword"). My guesthouse was run by a very friendly and accommodating family. The "concierge"was the owner's daughter, a charming Vietnamese lass named Luongthong. Spoke good english too. And always willing to help. I've had a few correspondence with her prior to this. (Had to make sure my reservation was good.) Directly facing Tung Trang was a Temple. Five strides from my entrance and I was with the gods. Nice.
My first object of the day, after checking in, was to look for a money changer. After checking out my room - and depositing my luggage, I asked where I could change my dollar to dong. She just pointed me to the main street. I left but not before she gave me a little calling card with sketched directions to the guesthouse.
This was going to be tricky and I was a little wary I might not find my way back. The streets were small, tortuous, labyrinthine, and the directions from the card were inaccurate (much like their maps- the steets were unnumbered, misnamed, etc.). I walked like 5 blocks until I found a Western Union shop that I wasn't sure would change my dollars. They did! Traced my way back and found an elegant little confectionaire that had sumptuous looking donuts ! Eeeek! Expensive, but it was alright. I was a millionaire after exchanging $70 - almost 1.5 million dong! Haha. It was a gift to myself for not getting lost so far! PhP 200 worth - 2 donuts and a coke in can.
Successfully found my way back to Tung Trang, and took a 2 hour rest, just reading Lonely Planet and my web infos. I decided to get a "tour package" (booked by my guesthouse) instead of traveling on my own to Halong Bay.
I realized that if I were to go at it on my own, the money saved is very minimal, something like $5 or even less. And all the hassle of finding your way to the train or bus, etc... wow, i would pay a LOT more to get to Halong than just a measly $20 - and this was inclusive of a van, some "new" acquaintances (my van seatmate was a 20 year old park ranger from Adelaide; my boat seatmate was an English guy who now works in Perth but moving soon to Hanoi and a Thai-looking Japanese scuba diver); Halong Bay cruise; lunch while on the boat... that is one cheap deal!
After my needed rest (I haven't slept much since my 11PM arrival from Cambodia last night - then my early morning flight to Hanoi), I wanted to see the famed Hoan Kiem Lake. I took my map with me and approached some motorcycle taxis. If they refused my 10,000 dong, it's a no-go! That was the asking price in HCMC. Whew. That took forever. They were asking for 15,000. Finally, on the 6th try, I said yes to 15,000 - only to find out that Hoan Kiem Lake is just straight ahead from where I was. Far but walkable! Like 10-15 blocks far!
I was amazed how adept Hanoians were riding at the back of the motorcycle. I'd see them reading a book, sitting upright without touching their driver, etc. I was embarassed to hold on to the shoulders of my driver but I didnt wanna die falling off a moving vehicle.
On my way to the lake, we encountered a vehicular accident between a car and a motorcycle - in the middle of a very busy intersection. And witnessed a very violent argument. Fists were flying off. The guy from the car threw the first punch, but when Mr. Motorcycle Man retaliated, car man realized he was outclassed. He took a very nasty 2-inch lacerated wound over his left eyebrow. Blood was profusely dripping down his cheeks! We were directly at the back of Mr. Motorcycle, so there was a cause for concern. My driver was cursing, probably saying "Get out of the way!" Traffic was on gridlock and we were in the middle of what may soon escalate into a full rumble! My heart was pounding! But mr. car man who threw the first punch started to calm down, probably coz he realized he wouldn't win in a fisticuff; and mr. motorcycle guy was already punching the other guy next to him for reasons I couldn't understand. Scary! What a warm welcome!
To cut a long story short, I got to Hoan Kiem Lake. It had a calming effect; very serene (despite the touts trying to sell maps and Lonely Planets). An american girl exasperatingly shouted, "I do not want any of your fucking books!" Can't say I'd blame her too.
The red bridge was a poetic sight to behold; and so was the little palace in the middle of the lake - where the legendary turtle is supposed to live. I walked around the lake, bought a cup of tea from an outdoor cafe, and noticed as the street lamps started to reflect their lights from the lake.
I was alone in a strange land, and I was at peace.