Thursday, February 10, 2011

Xmas in Hanoi

Here it was, the end of my journey through Vietnam. After landing in Ho Chi Minh City 20 days earlier, I'd made my way north through this geographically narrow but culturally vast country until arriving in the capital city, Hanoi. It was the longest solo trip I've done to date, but with so much to see and so many friendly people, it never really felt like I was alone.

My time in Hanoi was pretty limited, one day before Halong Bay and another after. It was enough to hit some highlights, see a water puppet show and celebrate Xmas with drunk ex-pats in Santa suits but not much more than that.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Happily Hanging in Halong (aka Alliteration is Fun!)

I landed in Hanoi, hoping to spend one night and then catch a boat to Halong Bay. What I had not hoped for was the nasty, rainy weather that greeted me and threatened to stick around for the duration of my visit. I checked into the hostel and went to hoping for reassurance- rain for the next five days. Obviously, they were hacks and did not know what they were talking about. So I went to same answer. I tried a couple other sites, none gave me the answer I wanted. I started talking to people returning from Halong Bay trips. What did they know?

I was not sure what to do. The idea of boating, kayaking, snorkeling and hiking in the rain didn't really hold a lot of appeal. But when was the next time I was going to be this close to an almost natural world wonder? Like an idiot (because, really, there is no other word for it) I toyed with the idea of skipping Halong Bay. But, then again, rainy days amidst the hustle and bustle of Hanoi didn't sound so good either. It was one of those odd conundrums that felt very real at the time but looks pretty ridiculous in retrospect. World famous nature site vs. lively cosmopolitan city? Oh, the horrors. Particularly when there was nothing to prevent me from doing both.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

That's just the Hue it is..

Continuing North through Vietnam, the next designated stop on the Touristic HCM Trail is the ancient capital of the Nguyen dynasty, the history-filled city of Hue (pronounced hu-ay). I was chatting with my seat-mate on a Hue-bound bus when I began boasting about/ lamenting my condition as an over-planner. On the one hand, whenever I arrive into a city, I know exactly where I am going, have a good idea what I am getting (via reviews and travel boards) and sometimes even have arranged pick-ups so I can skip all the tout-related harassment. On the other hand, I know I missing out on some of that spontaneity and 'live in the moment' spirit of travel that non-planners crow about. Given the number of backpackers I have seen late at night, lugging their stuff from place to place, trying to find a bed in any place that will have them, I am generally ok with the trade-off.

But just when you think you have it all under control, the travel gods come along and sneak a whoopie cushion under our ass. Such was the case in Hue. I arrived at the highly recommended Nino hotel, with my printed months-old reservation form, and was warmly greeted into a lovely antique-filled lobby. After two cups of tea and a few furtive phone calls taking place behind the desk, it dawned on me that something was wrong. I soon learned that something was the fact that I had arrived on Dec. 17th but thanks to a drop-down menu glitch had made my reservation for Nov. 17th. The conversation I'd just had came roaring back to me. Here I was, with all my bags and nowhere to stay... precisely in the situation I work so diligently to avoid. I was so busy fuming at my mistake that I did not notice that the well-documented hospitality of the hotel staff had already kicked in. The manager had made some calls and gotten me discounted rates at some nearby hotels and then put his brother to the task of touring me around downtown Hue, showing me all my options, all the while apologizing for what was unquestionably my screw-up. It only took two stops to find a winner, the modern, airy Ideal hotel right in the center of the bar/ restaurant action. The Nino's manager had arranged a spacious $60 room with a balcony and my own private garden for way less. It was somewhere I never would have booked, based on the listed price, but now that I was there, I loved it.