Vietnam countryside, Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel, morning tai-chi and more...
There's a million things to see on the highway (and not quite highway) on the from Hanoi to Halong Bay and the eastern coast of Vietnam. It was raining when we pulled out the other day and passengers on the backs of the ever-present motorbikes (it's said there's a campaign to make Hanoi's motorbikes one of the seven modern wonders of the world, and it's not a completely crazy idea) were huddled under tarps and rainjackets, unable to see a thing while the driver whizzed on.
It's a lovely drive, past deep green rice paddies and wide, muddy rivers and occasional gravestones peeking up out of the rice plants; seemingly placed at random but almost certainly with reason. The homes along the way are hit-and-miss in terms of quality; many finished and gleaming and others in a rather sad state. Creme with brown trim is the overwhelming favourite colour scheme, although you'll spot the odd green or delft-style blue.
The homes are usually narrow and three to four stories tall in both the city (seen here) and, especially I think, the countryside. I surmise that it has something to do with property taxes; perhaps the situation being that taxes are based on the footprint, not the square footage. But my driver didn't speak English and I keep forgetting to ask anyone else. Although most of the homes are painted, it's usually just the front that gets the treatment. Most of the time the sides are bare, grey concrete in the country.
There were a few cows and water buffalo scattered along the road, although nothing like the menagerie you see in India. Both on the way to Halong and on the way back, our driver pulled into one of those money-making pit stops filled with tourists who file en masse into a giant room filled with locally-made scarves and blouses and trinkets and statuary and, of course, food and drink for sale. The country seems rather crazy about crackers, I must say. There were dozens of varieties on sale at the rest stop, and when you go to a temple you often see offerings of not only fruit but rice or wheat crackers - and the occasional cookie. Hey, the gods must know what they like, so who am I to argue?
On the way back from Halong Bay I spotted dozens of dusty roadside stops with sloping racks of dark pineapples for sale. A few minutes later, they were replaced by row upon row of tiny green or yellow bananas.
I only had the little bananas once on this trip. When I was at the Novotel in Halong Bay, a girl who was working at the breakfast buffet walked by. I saw melon and oranges and dragonfruit on the buffet but wanted, in good North American fashion, banana for my corn flakes. She looked at me, then glanced around and said "I'll go ask."
A minute later she returned, flashed a huge grin and handed me three little guys.
"It's our secret," she whispered.
Back in Hanoi, I bedded down for two nights at the stunning Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, formerly home of Jane Fonda and, not so long ago, Bill Clinton, Prince Andrew, a bevy of Saudi Arabian princes and, a few years back, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. The latter had the Graham Greene suite, named for the author who used to frequent the hotel in the glamour days (not that it's not glamourous now). They liked Jolie so much they've named the Italian restaurant in their new wing after her. It's called Angelina, not Jolie, in case you want to phone for reservations some Friday night.
The place simply reeks of money and intrigue and mystique and glory. There are uniformed door men with hats, old cars that will drive you about, enormous ceiling fans in the glassed-in Le Club Restaurant and a lovely pool where, unbidden, the staff in pith helmets and khaki shorts will deliver sorbet, chilled water, cold towels, fresh fruit and mango ice cream cones. Not bad.
Mornings are awesome in Hanoi, especially over at Hoan Kiem lake, where they do tai-chi in the cool (kind of) sunrise hours. I spotted three 14-year-old boys out for a morning constitutional, and when do you see that in Canada except after a night at the all-night bars in the Entertainment District. There were older guys with their shirts off exercising at the side of the lake, as well as groups of women exercising to music. I could here them chanting something that sound like "oh ai ya, aaack, aaack, aaack, aaack, aaack." I gotta admit it sounded a bit like the aliens in Mars Attacks or a wounded duck, but it was quite cool.
After a while they gathered in sort of a conga line and started slapping each other on the back, as if giving a brief massage. Over to one side, a woman in a crop top and tight, short pants was gyrating back and forth as if trying out for a Vegas show, thrusting out her bum and swaying her hips back and forth. That was, um, pretty good, too.
On to Hong Kong tomorrow for a quick stop before flying home on Victoria Day weekend and a date with the maddening crowds at Humber Nurseries....