We would like to apologize for the long pause in our posts. We realize that we have developed a small backlog. Allow us to explain: Jordan suffers from a very special condition known colloquially as Blog Narcolepsy. Whenever we start writing a blog post, Jordan’s eyes get heavy and is overcome with fatigue. As you can imagine, this has gotten in the way once or twice, but now has become a real problem. She is seeking help. So, you see…it’s really not our fault. We blame the condition. We hope you have had some time to rest so you have energy to read the rest of our long posts.
Our train pulled into the Hanoi Railway Station right on time at 11:10am on Wednesday morning, and we were greeted by a man holding a sign with our names on it. We felt very special! Our hotel, which we had reserved the day before, had sent him to pick us up, but to our surprise, he quickly showed us to a taxi and disappeared. The taxi took us to the Hanoi Posh Hotel in the Old Quarter of town, as was the plan, and as we pulled up, the man with the sign hopped off his motorbike, paid the taxi ($2), and carried our bags inside. Very pleased with this welcome, we settled into our room ($18/night including breakfast).
Refreshed from a shower after a long journey, we set out to get lunch at Joma, a cafe we had heard about and were excited to try. Joma did not disappoint! A cut above any local establishment, we immediately felt at home, with the English-only menu, plush chairs, good background music, and excellent coffee and food. We enjoyed coffee (the way we like it), a cheese and veggie sandwich on 7-grain bread, and a warm cinnamon bun ($8.50). Expensive, but totally worth it.
We had decided to expedite our arrival to Hanoi by a few days at the invitation of the Israeli Ambassador, with whom we had a connection (thanks OG), to attend a special celebration of Israel’s Independence Day and the commemoration of 20 Years of Israel-Vietnam Diplomatic Relations on Thursday. Now that we were clean and fed, and excited to be invited to this event which tourists are not usually invited to, we walked over to the Israeli Embassy to meet Ambassador Meirav Eilon-Shahar prior to the event. It took us about 30 minutes of security checks on the sidewalk by three different guards before we were allowed into the building, but we eventually made it inside. Meirav was very welcoming and we enjoyed our 45 minute chat. She let us know they were expecting a sell-out crowd at the event, a concert featuring David D’Or, a famous Israeli singer, a guest appearance by a Vietnamese diva, the Hanoi Philharmonic and David Eaton, conductor of the NYC Symphony. The embassy staff had already given out all the tickets, but as guests of the Ambassador, we would be allowed in, and the plan was to scope out some empty seats as the show began (assuming there would be no-shows). We thanked Meirav and headed back to the Old Quarter in search of dinner, which was an unimpressive instant noodle dish and spring rolls ($5) at a place in the backpackers alley. We wandered around a little more after dinner, walked a little by the lake, and headed back to Posh for the night.
After enjoying eggs cooked to order at our hotel on Thursday morning, we attempted to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum only to discover that the gates were already closed at 10:15am. A little disappointed, we shifted gears and instead went to visit the Vietnam Women’s Museum ($2 each). There, we learned about the women’s role in the household, marriage and family life, traditional dress, and role during the war. In Vietnam, many women are the primary breadwinner for their family, often leaving their village and often their husbands and children for weeks at a time in order to peddle small wears (food, flowers, souvenirs, etc) on the streets of the big city. The exhibit gave us new appreciation for all of the street vendors and sales women with whom we interacted daily.
From there, we walked along and found a very fancy new mall, which was in the middle of its grand opening week. We enjoyed perusing the designer brand stores, snacked on mochi (Japanese-style ice cream ball wrapped in a rice dough, $3), and of course spent 15 minutes in $9000 massage chairs. Reinvigorated but still hungry, we walked over to the Opera House and parked at Highlands Coffee, which by now had become our go-to cafe, for a coconut, tofu sandwiches and a side of fries ($5). We had just enough time to go back, change clothes, and return to the Opera House for the main event of the evening.
As we arrived at the Opera House a few minutes before 7:00pm, the Embassy security chief identified us and okayed us in without a ticket as “guests of the Ambassador”. We walked in to be greeted by a reception line, and then at Meirav’s request headed up to the second floor to wait and see what seats, if any, would be left open. We watched people arrive for a while, and at about 7:30, as it looked like the show was about to begin, we ducked into open box seats, where we had one of the best views in the house! The event began with speeches by Meirav and the Vietnamese Minister of Science and Technology which focused on the strong and growing relationship between Israel and Vietnam. Finally, David D’Or took the stage and the performance began. In his operatic style and with incredible voice control he sang an interesting mix of songs, ranging from Hava Nagila to Amazing Grace, and hosted a guest performance by a Vietnamese diva (who was less than exciting). Following the performance, there was a reception with wine and appetizers (which turned out to be our dinner), and we enjoyed talking to Meirav and her family as well as meeting the celebrity guest, who was quite a character. On the way back to our hotel we stopped for dessert at THE teen hangout – Kem Than Thien – for a laugh and delicious interesting popsicles ($0.35 each). Jordan got green bean and Felix had sweet young rice. Yum!
On Friday, we spent the day researching and comparing packages for our excursion to Halong Bay the following week, as well as sorting out Friday night dinner. We stopped for lunch at Joma (coffee and tuna melt with a side salad and cinnamon roll, $10.50), where we sat with two iPhones and an iPad in an effort to resolve the Halong Bay cruise dilemma. With our first three choices and target price decided, we headed over to a restaurant we had spotted the day before, which offered an all-you-can-eat dinner buffet. The buffet concept provided a perfect solution to dining at a restaurant after Shabbat began, and thanks to the staff’s good English and willingness to help us out, we were able to pre-pay for the meal and drinks ($14 total). We then walked down the street to the supermarket, where we purchased provisions for Shabbat day and snacks for the next week ($13) and hoofed it to a French bakery that looked good to get some rolls ($2). After lighting candles in our room we walked over to dinner. The restaurant manager, Lan, greeted us warmly, and made sure to point out all the vegetarian items and even bring over some special veggie dishes. We enjoyed a nice Shabbat meal, which felt strangely appropriate, even though we were treated like celebrities, since all the staff knew our special requirements. The irony wasn’t lost on us – awesome Shabbat dinner at Pepperonis!
On Shabbat morning, after a breakfast of cornflakes, fruit and yogurt, we took a nap. Finally feeling rested, we took a leisurely stroll around the Old Quarter’s lake, enjoyed a lunch of rolls, cheese and veggies and ice cream for dessert. We played some card games and hung around. After Shabbat ended, we ventured out to the weekend night market. This market was geared mostly to locals, who crowded the walkways on both sides of the stalls, which were positioned back to back in the middle of the street for 10 blocks straight. We looked at many trinkets, clothes, jewelry, phone accessories, household goods, etc., but didn’t really find the souvenir items we were looking for. Hungry from the two hours of walking the over-crowded streets, we settled into comfy chairs at Highlands Coffee overlooking the lake and enjoyed a coconut, pomelo ice-blended and french fries ($5), before calling it a night.
After an early wake up and a quick breakfast at our hotel, we headed out on Sunday morning before 9am determined to make it to the mausoleum early enough to make it inside. We had learned our lesson on Thursday morning. The next two hours were spent in a long line that snaked along the sidewalk and into the parking lot. While there were definitely many tourists, the majority of people there were locals, especially families. We were curious to see what the hype was all about and two hours later, we made it to the entrance which was attended by numerous dress guards. We walked from the bright outdoors into a dark cavernous building and silently filed past Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body his eerily white face and hands were strikingly illuminated. Thirty seconds later, we were outside in the bright sunlight not quite knowing what to make of what we had just seen. The whole experience was strange and possibly not worth all the wait, but after all, when do you ever get to see an embalmed historical figure?
Next door to,the mausoleum, we visited the Ho Chi Minh Museum ($2 each). A strange combination of history and what some people would call art, we left an hour later slightly bewildered. Once again, not sure it was worth the time, but it was definitely an experience. Still, we were ready to rejoin the 21st century with some lunch (spring rolls and noodles -$3).
We were beginning to feel the pressure since we had not yet booked our excursion for the following morning. Our travel agent of choice was closed on Sunday, so we went back to our hotel where we proceeded to enter into an hour and a half negotiation with the cruise company and the hotel reception. After much back and forth, we finally booked the V Spirit 2 day/ 1 night cruise to Halong Bay through the hotel at our desired price of $95 per person down from $136 per person (the most expensive thing we’ve done yet).
Feeling good about our plan and confident in our negotiating skills, we set out to the streets to drop off our laundry ($3/3 kg) and buy some souvenirs from Vietnam. Once again, we walked away with the things we wanted and at the prices we wanted. We then hopped in a taxi to the mall near Meirav’s house in the ex-pat neighborhood of Tay Ho ($4.50). There, we enjoyed a sushi dinner ($8) before walking over to Merav’s house in a gated complex of western sized villas for a Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israel’s Fallen) ceremony. The half hour ceremony transported us back to Israel for its duration and it was nice to be surrounded by Hebrew speakers although Meirav and her husband were not there due to family circumstances. On the way home, we couldn’t resist and we stopped at Highland’s Coffee for a coconut and a ginormous piece of Vietnamese coffee cheesecake ($4.50). Full and still needing to pack for the next day, we hopped a taxi back to our hotel ($3.50) and organized our things for the cruise. We were looking forward to getting out of the city again and ready to be surrounded by beautiful surroundings. Too bad we slept through our alarm in the morning…