Nevertheless, we landed safely in Hanoi, where the weather was blessedly cool and misty. You could tell the Saigonites from the Hanoians immediately. The former immediately started shivering as if we'd arrived in a blizzard, the latter simply shrugged and pulled out their winter coats. It was about 60 degrees.
I'd arranged to have a driver from our hotel pick us up; the Hanoi airport is a good 45 minutes from the city and the cabbies are notorious for scamming travelers (this is true in Saigon, too).
We booked a room at the Hanoi Spring II Hotel on the recommendation of a friend, who said it was conveniently located close to the cathedral in the Old Quarter. Little did we realize how close until we opened the drapes in our room!
The room also came very conveniently equipped with a laptop, which I used to research and book the latter part of our trip.
|The big bathroom had a walk-in shower and all the toiletries that seem standard in Vietnam's mid-range hotels: soap, shampoo, conditioner, ear swabs, shower cap, comb, toothbrush.|
The toilet also featured something that's fairly common in Southeast Asia and elsewhere but not seen in the United States: a bidet sprayer, a.k.a. bum sprayer. You can use it for personal cleanup instead of toilet paper, and it's handy for cleaning the toilet. It's also marketed as a diaper sprayer, for rinsing cloth diapers. It connects directly to the toilet fill hose and has pretty good pressure. In places where toilet paper is expensive, not available, or has a tendency to clog ancient plumbing, the bidet sprayer is a clever and hygienic option. We saw them in most public restrooms and even on the train.
I know it's kind of weird to talk about toilets, but it's a concern every traveler has, right? In any case, we were relieved (ahem) to find that public restrooms were readily available and reasonably clean. I was surprised not to see more squat toilets (which are the norm in China); I only saw one, at a gas station. All the rest were Western-style seat toilets (which I think are less hygienic, but whatever). (We also saw a lot of guys casually taking a whiz by the side of the road; no one seemed to mind.)
But let's get back to a more lofty subject.
The cathedral is an oasis of calm in the old quarter, and certainly a helpful landmark. The little plaza in front of it is off-limits to cars and scooters, so kids can play there. We walked around the outside and admired the elaborate Gothic architecture. Really great patina on the stone.
The inside was pretty spectacular, too.
There was a group of old parishioners all women near the front, chanting the rosary in Vietnamese. It sounded super-eerie.