Ah, historical Hanoi. Sure looks a lot like France transplanted into Asia. It has poured at least a couple of times now owing to the typhoon out on the coast, but no matter, that just brings in some cooler air! After returning here from Halong Bay, we joined up with our tour group that we decided to take through China at our hotel. So far, we've been going independently, but for China we decided to go for a group because the language barrier is stronger, and it will also give us a break from planning all the transportation and hotels and stuff as the group leader takes care of all of that for us.
But, try as we might, we just can't seem to become part of a real group! Let me explain. You'll remember back in Nepal that our tour group was cancelled due to the political situation, and when we arrived to meet our group last night, we couldn't find anyone (even though we were told the exact place to meet the group last night!). We we're in the right place, and over in the corner was one nearly retired westerner, and a young Vietnamese guy. It turns out that the western fellow was the rest of our "group", and the kid was our group leader! So, we are part of a guided group of three only for all of China! Us and Barry, our new Kiwi friend. This should make things go a lot more smoothly and we won't have the delays that sometimes come with the larger groups - also, we'll probably get to do a few things that larger groups are often prevented from doing, like visiting some more private temples and the like. We can also be a bit more stealth, ha, ha! So, overall, we're pretty happy, but we still really won't get a feel for what a large group will be like. We'll have to wait for the Trans Mongolian for that I guess.
So today, we did a short city tour of Hanoi, which included a small pagoda, an old prison known affectionately as the "Hanoi Hilton", the Mausoleum where Ho Chi Minh is currently resident (dead of course), and an ancient university called the temple of literature. The prison was probably the most interesting since it was first used by the French to imprison Vietnamese rebels during the conquest, and then it was used by the North Vietnamese to imprison American pilots during the Vietnam war. The presentation is once again decidedly one sided, with depictions of the "vicious" French torturing and murdering Vietnamese "patriots" and the "generous and nurturing treatment" of the American prisoners by their Vietnamese comrades. There is a tendency to believe the former but not the latter amongst the tourists visiting the site. Among the interesting facts was the story of Douglas Peterson, a captured pilot who later became the first ambassador to Vietnam after the war.
The other sights were interesting, but firmly Chinese, owing to the nearly 1000 year rule the Chinese had over the area from 100 BC onwards. Good preparation for what is to come I suppose. We leave for China tonight on the overnight train to the border at Lao Cai. From there, we board a bus up to Kunming in China as the railway in that area has long been destroyed by land slides and was never re-built. This will make for a pretty long journey, but we no know that we have a four berth aircon cabin for the train because the group is so small, so that's a bonus we were not expecting (see the small group thing is working already!). But before we go we have to try and sort out a mailing issue that we have.
When we left Australia, we forgot a few things and we were having them sent up to meet us here in Hanoi. We looked up the hotel we were staying at to start our tour and sent an E-mail to Cathy to try and send us the stuff to meet us here (actually, Kristine and Cathy are chatting about this on Skype right beside me as I type this - backpacking has surely changed over the years eh?). All of this would have been fine were it not for the loose Vietnamese copyright laws. In fact, we made arrangements with the wrong hotel because it has exactly the same name as the hotel we were supposed to be speaking with. Once we discovered this when we got to Hanoi, we switched to the correct hotel, and the one we had made arrangements with did not seem to be very happy. Unfortunately, our package was still heading for the first hotel. So, we went over to the first hotel last night to try and collect our package, but of course, they have "no idea" about it. We're going to try again today to retrieve it as it seems that Cathy sent it with plenty of time to get here for us. Problem is, maybe they are upset enough with us to hide the fact that they received it and just want to keep Kristine's skirts and shorts for themselves. Nice idea, but no one will ever be able to wear them because all the Vietnamese people are going to be volumetrically challenged compared to the contents of the package (NB - this is not a stab at Kristine at all, 'cause I know she's reading this too - just want to put that disclaimer in - it's just a physical reality around here; you should see when I try buy a T shirt!).
By the way, you probably all know that the Vietnamese eat dog, and there certainly aren't many running around here compared to the other countries in the region. Last night, Barry showed us some pictures on his camera of BBQ'ed dog that he found in one of the markets - we've not seen any. Looked just like a pig on a spit, but smaller. Not my cup of tea, however the coffee here is very good, especially the iced stuff, so we've been sticking to that and spring rolls most of the time. Some things you just have to say no to trying because they are just a little bit too far off the beaten track. That's where dog is on our list.