For the travellers who traipse north, Hanoi is a beckoning beacon. And invariably many go straight from Hue missing out huge sections – and some of our favourites – of this spectacular country.
We had already decided to get off the well trodden track and venture into Phong Nha, which did not disappoint. And so rather than heading straight to Hanoi, we decided to take the scenic route and travelled, briefly instead, to Ninh Binh.
Ninh Binh is easily reached on the north-south track, but still relatively few people seem to visit. It is often described as, ‘Halong Bay on land’ and so not sure if we would like Halong Bay, we thought we should have a trial run…
We crammed many things into a day and a half including a haircut and also a photo-shoot for a local paper… But I won’t bore you with these. The most breathtaking venture was a jaunt by row boat along the river. Surrounded by rice paddies in full harvest swing, dwarfed by towering limestone karsts, and on a river we had practically to ourselves. It was a spectacular way to see the countryside and spend a couple of blissful hours.
And then it was onto a train (our first since Thailand, not including the rickety Bamboo train of Battambang) and off to Hanoi. The capital. We finally made it… It’s only taken us a month! And well, I haven’t really that much to say. Why?
There isn’t really much to do in the capital! We wandered round the streets, ran errands that needed to be ran, planned (or tried to plan) the rest of our time in Vietnam and visited some of the ‘sights’… Hoa Lu prison (or the Hanoi Hilton Hotel as it was known by American POWs) probably being the highlight.
But Hanoi, compared to its big brash brother of a city, Saigon, feels a little lost. Pulled in two directions. Whilst it certainly is becoming more capitalist, a communist hand still steers the rudder. Capitalism is creeping in, but it feels slow and laboured, and as a whole it feels the city is stuck, and will remain stuck, in a twilight zone of what it is, what it wants to be, for quite some time. And this to me is the problem. The tension.
It is quaint, the food is delicious (goes without saying) and the people are like many we have met in Vietnam – amazing, friendly, genuine – but there is nothing to really hold you in the city.
It is a capital without conviction. And I’m convinced I want to leave.