I love Hanoi! But why?

 

I feel like I’m in Casablanca and it’s not even on the right continent. It’s the buildings, and the dark coffee shops, and the the dark men on the street corners drinking tea. The motorbikes and tourist tack are just a blur and can’t really rip me out of this romantic fantasy that I’m in. And I’m not working, just travelling, and everything has a different glow about it when you are not going to drudgery of your job the next day. I’m on the balcony of a 3rd story coffee shop in the Old Quarter, overlooking the  Hoan Kim lake. The traffic is noisy and so are the people – the sound scape is whirring, honking, tannoy and laughter. I think it’s hard here – I’m sure subsisting is a slog but there’s something so 1930’s about it.

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As my budget is getting really stretched now, I can’t afford anything on attractions and am doing more walking than ever.  And as always, my first day involved trying to find gluten free food. There’s plenty here, and really I don’t need to worry about it as it’s a rice based diet. So there is an immediate sense of security for me. It wasn’t until I reached here that I realised how difficult I had found China, and how I was still affected by it, as if coming out of some kind of mild trauma – which does China a disservice, because my experience there was exhilarating and  wholly momentous.

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_29ddTrying to extract the essence of this city is difficult. Where did I go in my 9 days? A lot of coffee shops, but mainly Highlands because it’s the cheapest  not because it’s Western. So we can start this exploration of my mysterious affinity with the premise that the Vietnamese welcome tourists, are friendly and global in their outlook.

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The Old Quarter is just manic – having alter egos of day and night. In the day, it is street vendors, restaurants, and souvenirs, with some quite aggressive selling approaches, but intermingled with local everyday stuff. You can see many local people just sitting on little plastic stools or beer crates eating Pho on the street corner – you know this food is good because of this. Next door to my hostel, they are queueing for 45mins to buy a ‘swan’ dish. At night the same area is just a drinking and eating orgy like no other I’ve seen. One street, you cannot get up at night if you didn’t get there early. I don’t like this – but on the back street where my hostel, the BC Family Homestay is located, the street food stall and fruit and veg vendors are just sweeping up at about at about 9pm. eCEfQ2+8QOGGouj1wVd4oQ_thumb_292fA few streets away, Hoan Kim Lake is lit up, and pedestrianised, with buskers and entertainers of various quality every 20 yards. But you love it – for a while. In the daytime, the lake area is still busy, and great thrills can be had crossing the road. My skills have been quickly honed over the week – and after all I have been to Beijing and Guangzhou. to warm. For me, I have that perfect blend of city anonymity and solitude in a crowd here, and socialising if I want. (My hosts are very amiable).

JymSSxu%RYCxJCvzAcZHLQ_thumb_29ffWest Lake was worth a visit. It’s distinctly ex-pat – so it felt a bit weird. Is it that obvious I’m a tourist? You’ll find many of the comforts of home there, and the housing looks a bit Benidorm. I’m sure I wouldn’t want to live there because I might as well be at home, but I’m sure I would frequent it quite a bit. The West Lake is very big and I like that section   where you walk through the middle of it, and you could be in Canada, and there’s the beautiful wind- beaten tall, slender Pagoda on it’s little promontory.

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And I kove ask the ‘fixer-uppers’. The buildings are so beautiful, yellow,haunted, brimming with clambering weeds, discoloured by smog, – and delightful. They bustle, higgledy piggledy,  teetering over the shops and restaurants underneath, or shyly recede behind years of neglect and rambling overgrowth.

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The Long Bien bridge, overarching the milky, brown, slow slurp of the Red River is just a glorious and timeless, rusty gem. When I walk over the crumbling concrete walkway, looking through the gaps at the water lapping,  thinking ‘how is this upholding me’, to the banana plantations, and the sleepy boats, it’s like I am in a David Niven movie, and feel l have been for ever.  I can’t believe it when  a train rattles through.

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And the temples here, of which there are many – are not central attractions like they are in some other Asian Countries. But they are no less splendid. You walk along the dirty bustling street, shuffling past the motorbikes parked everywhere, and you see a hole in the wall through which you can spy some statues or curves or glints of yellow and blue. And you just walk in – it’s like Indiana Jones – you expect a trapdoor, a snake, a sand burial. I love it. Have I answered my own question?

 

 

Beijing’s Disparate Charm

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Beijing has by far the most comprehensive subway system on the planet. You just can’t go wrong on it. Every station has all the stops along that line displayed near the platform and on the train. All the station names and numbers are in English and they are announced in English on the trains. The complete map is posted everywhere. It is also huge! I think I read that this is the busiest subway system in the world. It must be, because sometimes one train is almost shunting the one in front out of the way. Somewhat annoying is the distance between some of the transfers – about a kilometre, so not so good if you are dragging you’re luggage.

But the upshot of this is that it is quite easy to find your way about if you stick to the subway, because Beijing is enormous, covers an extensive area and is a real higgledy piggledy mix of the old, the new and the dreadfully dull.   I was staying in a pleasant enough hostel in the Dongdan district. I only had a week, and if you’ve read any other posts on this blog, you’ll realise I don’t like crowds and clamour. So here is my week.

I visited Longtan Park which is not anything distinctive but a place where locals go to sing, dance and do exercise, and grandparents bring their grandchildren. But it was a good, non crowded place to start. And I found the local activities interesting. The impact over the week of Beijing’s traditional treasures was somewhat affected by the quality of the sky. But the Temple of Heaven was still exceptionally striking even on a hazy day. it was also not very busy as it lies in a very spacious, rather ordinary  park and is probably not so impressive as some other attractions.

Xt9lMNxFQqaxm7VDcKihMw_thumb_2062I was so lucky the day I went to the Great Wall at Mutianyu – the perfect weather and conditions. It was an adventure – the subway to Dongzhimen, and then a 70 minute bus journey up the expressway on the 916. When I got off at Huairou, I was immediately swarmed upon by locals offering lifts to the Wall. I was adamant I was not getting one, but then  a woman offered me a ride in a minibus for 5Y. And I thought, hang on this is actually 50p. As there was a couple of other Europeans we decided to take a chance on safety in numbers. True to her word the woman dropped us right at the entrance to the visitor centre and showed us where to get the cable car ticket . I got the cable car up/toboggan down ticket doe 265Y . Worth every penny and much better value than Capilano suspension bridge which cost about the same. The scenery was breathtaking – but I was not prepared for the actual terrain of the wall. The gradient of the slopes and steps is incredible even on this well maintained section – and the stair risers are about 2 feet high in places. But this is one of this experiences that is truly once in a lifetime, and you can forgive the tacky tea/coffee/water stalls – they are quite tasteful hidden beyond the confines of the actual wall. The same woman gave me lift back to the 916 bus stop – but this time she wasn’t going lower than 10Y – maybe she got wise to my maths.


The Summer Palace is probably next on my list of unrepeatable experiences. Again the sky made a difference – there was a little haze, but it was a warm and sunny day with beautiful lake views, and although there were a lot of tourists, they tend to centre round the Hill of Longevity (which is quite a steep climb). The temple on this mount with its distinctive golden roof tiles reminded me of something from a picture of  Thailand or Malaysia ( since I haven’t been yet). Once I got to Suzhou St and around to the West Causeway there were far fewer people. And not surprising. It’s a big lake and takes about 2 hours to walk round at my pace. But it is very pleasant indeed with all the little bridges and walkways, including the Jade Belt bridge and the Seventeen Arch.

m0k2Fwz5RH2z6CPzm8ExXA_thumb_2162The 798 Artzone, although famed,  was just too big and bewildering for me, I think it was an ‘off’ day. And what do you do in these places if you can’t eat the food and you have no money to spend on art. However, I inadvertently wandered into 751, some kind of disused foundry which you can climb up and explore. This provided the best fun of the day. Reminded me of my childhood days when I used to play on abandoned quarry machinery – not something I would advocate obviously, but in the 60’s and 70’s, I don’t think Health and Safety were high on anyone’s agenda! On the way back from that rusty playground I decided to try and find a second imaginary gluten free cafe. It became a farce, of course, as on the first day when I went looking for the imaginary Marks and Spencer’s that purportedly sold GF  bread (and walked 9 miles).

However, I did discover a very spectacular, shopping centre called Parkview – which at first I thought was a modern art museum. The pictures above should explain why. I didn’t get the artwork but that’s not unusual for left-brained me. But it was worth a quick gander. I mean, coming from the North of England, we have Meadowhall and this is the largest shopping centre in the area. (There is no modern art there, but there are certainly some travesties to observe.)

jxvdN3gLRC+DdqavpjRhSA_thumb_2199I had one weird day visiting the Temple of the Sun Park. Actually there isn’t really a temple as such, but it was a very nice park. Again, one where locals go to have lunch and practise Tai Chi. I spent an hour or two snaking round its beautiful crafted stone and water gardens, and found a couple of nooks where I could practise my Sil Lim Tao.

uTQjeDWCRVqKxcvgArbgBQ_thumb_2164I had quite an enjoyable day wandering round Shichahai, an area reputed for its ”hutongs’, quaint back streets and touristy tack. You know me – I don’t like spending unless its some kind of experience you just could not get anywhere else. Getting there cost me 2Y on the public bus, about 20p. I got off somewhere north of the lake and walked down. The area near the footbridge is the most popular, but once you stray away from there, it’s just like rambling round people’s lives really.

Beijing is really big. I probably didn’t see much of it . I do a lot of wandering, and then when I get back to the hostel, I know I have really experienced something – but it’s not always easy to say what.  It seemed to me a strange mixture of super-modern shopping developments, very moving and obvious poverty, lavish cultural  heritage, political pomp and a kind of desperation to be acceptable to tourists. I found it heavily polluted and dense, but not like the South. That’s my two penn’orth for what it’s worth.

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