Thursday, April 19, 2012

Welcome to Hanoi

After four days in Saigon, we flew to Hanoi on JetStar, a budget airline that lives up to the designation. Our two-hour flight cost $60 each (versus $120 with Vietnam Airlines), but you have to be prepared for the flight to be delayed until they can get enough passengers for a full load. Still, it beats 31 hours on the train. Our pilot might've been ex-air force; he took evasive maneuvers around a thunderstorm that pulled more G's than you'd expect in a passenger plane and made us wonder if we'd end up as a U.S news item: "Two American tourists killed in Vietnam crash."

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!
We were on the third floor, with a balcony that wrapped around around the corner of the building. Below was a one-way street that was not heavily trafficked, with shops, hotels and restaurants on one side, and the wall of the cathedral grounds on the other. Built in 1886 by French colonists, Saint Joseph's Cathedral is the center of Catholic worship in the city. Mass is still held there daily, as evidenced by the loud ringing of the bells at 5 a.m. Still, that's much nicer than the incessant honking and early morning calisthenics programs outside our hotel in Saigon!
Looking the other way, we had a view of rooftops and balconies. Even in newer buildings, there are always elements of French architecture, and potted plants everywhere. The high humidity seems to make watering them all unnecessary.Our room was nice, too, albeit somewhat crowded with two extra beds. There was some talk when we arrived about having been upgraded due to a large group booking the upper floors. I never saw the other rooms, but certainly most of them did not have our view – each floor had only one room facing the front, the building was so narrow. This seemed to be typical of many buildings in Vietnam, where property taxes are based on the amount of street frontage.

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.


  1. What a beautiful old building.

  2. JetStar sounds more like a private bus than an airline!

    "early morning calisthenics programs outside our hotel in Saigon" - hee! Neither the karaoke late into the night nor the honking bothered us. But that instructor over the loudspeaker was the worst!

    Toilet talk is always good because that's always a concern! I think you find the Nu-Nam squat toilets more when you travel by road through rural areas. Everything was surprisingly clean. I think the only bathroom with a shower curtain or a door was in our Saigon hotel.

  3. It was quite lovely, Delores.

    Manisha, you got the more "authentic" experience, which I'm jealous of. But I was glad the WCs were never a big issue, as they can be in other parts of the world.