Two hours by train took us from Ninh Binh to Hanoi. Arrived and spent the first day sorting out our remaining time in Vietnam - including booking a splurgy cruise on Halong Bay for a few nights and a visit up to the hill town of Sapa in the far NE corner of the country near the border of China. More to come on those trips.
Our impression of Hanoi is good. The capital city has ~3.5 million people and is very charming as big cities go. People seem much more affluent here than in the South. Cell phones, fashionable clothing (including some impossibly high heels on the ladies) and busy restaurant and shopping scenes are everywhere.
On the shopping, we've noticed that there seem to be streets dedicated to every industry/category. There's a "wedding invitation street", "candy street", "paint street", "stainless steel appliance and hardware street", and so on. We were surprised to see when we returned from Sapa, that a "Santa Claus street" had popped up while we were away. In fact, we've been bombarded by Christmas music at some of the cafes. I'm not afraid to admit this was a bit of an unwelcome surprise (bah humbug, I know - but let's agree that most of this music is really, really, really bad).
After returning from side trips to Sapa and Halong Bay (see those entries for more), we are enjoying our final few days in Vietnam by relaxing and visiting a few sites. We even found a good wine shop so have enjoyed that as well.
Some of the sights we've seen here are: *Memorial House - a restored Chinese merchant's house showing how the elite lived back in the day. *Bach Ma Temple - the oldest temple in Hanoi. We arrived here just as it was opening to see many restorations underway (lots of red, black and gold paint happening!). The most interesting thing was to notice that a very popular offering was beer-aplenty stacked into a pyramid. Also, silver Christmas trees were an interesting feature. *Hoen Kiem Lake - a nice lake in the middle of the old quarter where many young Vietnamese go for dates and all ages go for exercise. *Hoa Lo Prison - Where POW pilots (including John McCain) were held during the war. Lots of propaganda here about the brutality of the French who originally built the site to house Vietnamese revolutionaries and other "baddies", and plenty about how well the POWs were treated while incarcerated (pics of them playing basketball, reading mail from home, etc). Not quite accurate, but to be expected I guess. *Temple of Literature - Site of Vietnam's first university with beautiful architecture and grounds. *Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex - a sprawling area containing the beloved Vietnamese leader's embalmed remains.
Also caught a water puppet show which is unique to Vietnam. We loved the traditional live music and singing and the funny skits with lots of splashing (water didn't make it to our 2nd row seats, however). Off to Luang Prabang, Laos on Saturday! Decided to fly vs. brave a 25+ hour train/bus trip. Budget-be-damned after agreeing we don't need a miserable trip as a "badge of courage" travel story.