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Stall along the Mekong

We spent the morning in the Laos National Museum, the former French Governor’s mansion that was built in 1925. It was quite an entertaining mix of history, religion, and political propaganda. The downstairs rooms mainly focussed exhibits about the local landscape and geography. There were displays about dinosaur remains that they have found in Laos mixed in with statues from various different temples. Here though they were Hindu and not Buddhist statues which somehow seemed strangely out of place.

Upstairs they had a very small display about some of the local tribes in Laos. Traditional costumes were pinned up, there were some musical instruments and a bit of information about the lifestyles of the local people. Considering the variety of ethnic groups in Laos it was a very small display and I think we both walked away feeling we would have liked to know more.

The focus of the museum seemed to be the rest of the displays on the second floor. These were about the development of Laos from the turn of the twentieth century through the French occupation, the various different wars they have endured and up to the modern day. It was mainly a series of different photos showing soldiers in action and some of the political rhetoric of the day. Many had captions talking about the Imperialist US forces, which had both of us chuckling.

With time still to kill before our flight we camped out in the Scandinavian Bakery for a while for a spot of lunch. It had turned into a very warm day and with all the tables in the air con section taken we were left to sit it out under the shade of the umbrellas out front. For a while we were entertained by a very unhinged Italian guy who was pretending to speak on his mobile phone. He was talking total nonsense and which ever language he heard from the people walking into the bakery he mixed into what he was babbling to himself. The people from the bakery were giving him cautious glances, a mix of “he is mad” to “he better not disturb our customers”.

We slowly ambled back to our hotel taking in our last views of the Mekong River until we are in southern Vietnam. One of the buildings had a temperature display on the outside confirming that it was 34C, not surprising that we are finding it so hot. The hotel had arranged a taxi to the airport for us and we got there very early for our flight, so early that check in had not opened. We sat and waited in the new International Departures lounge, very modern and very different to the older domestic terminal. It has a traditional pagoda temple style roof.

Check in came and went and still with time to kill we went to find the Observation Deck which for some reason was closed. Shops provided a minor diversion with Stef adding another local music CD to his collection. We have not listened to it yet but I suspect it will join the ranks of never to be played again CD’s.

On the plane we chose where we wanted to stay in Hanoi, a city that sounds like it will be full of scams, certainly when you arrive. Lonely Planet warns about taxi’s trying to make you pay toll charges which are already included in the fare. There is also a big scam with hotels who have set themselves up with similar names to popular hotels. They are in cahoots with the taxi drivers who take you not where you want to go but to the “fake” hotels where they tell you the original building is full but this is their overflow hotel.

The first place the taxi stopped was obviously one of these scam hotels and we refused to be left there. He then headed into the depths of the old quarter, a bustling hive of human activity where at night you have no chance of getting your bearings or knowing if you have been conned. We were. The second place he stopped at sounded plausible as they gave the correct address, number of rooms, everything that would make you believe they were genuine. But they were full and took us to their second hotel. It was way out of the centre, and it took a while for me to work out where we were on our map. Asking the hotel was futile as they told us we were somewhere totally different to where we actually were.

Table-top fried fish in Hanoi

We got out of the taxi here and the taxi driver then started on his scam to try and get us to pay the toll road charges. Stef did not refuse to but kept on insisting that he would only pay the toll charges if he was given the ticket for the toll fare, which obviously the taxi driver did not have. He finally realised that we were not going to give him any extra money and disappeared. It was annoying though because we had chosen the company that Lonely Planet implied did not operate this scam so it shows how times are changing.

Now totally disorientated and wanting to just check in somewhere Stef checked the room which was fine. The building smelled slightly damp but the room was quite large with a reasonably comfortable bed. The bathroom was decidedly grotty but for $30 it would do for a night. The taxi and hotel scams combined with a quick whiz about parts of the old town did not create the best impressions of Hanoi for me and I was left with the feeling that we were in a dirty, dingy city full of people out to rip us off. I was wary about leaving our stuff in the hotel to go out for dinner but hunger won the day and off we toddled.

We asked at reception where we could go to eat as there were no suggestions in Lonely Planet near by. He pointed to a couple of corner stalls where a few locals were eating, squatted down on tiny plastic chairs and slurping away at a bowl of noodles. It was very atmospheric and local but I suspect guaranteed to give us both dodgy guts so we continued on to find somewhere else.

A bit further up the street were a few eateries and in the end we opted for Cha Ca La Vong which had a big sign outside saying it was a fish restaurant. Inside we were handed a laminated card in English which said “we only do one dish, fried fish, 70,000 dong per person”. A table was wheeled out of the back and set up for us with two chairs and within minutes food arrived. A small brazier was put on the table and on top of this was a large frying pan with fried fish and some vegetable bits in it. We were given small bowls of noodles, peanuts, fish sauce, spring onions and you put a bit of everything in your bowl, top it with fish and munch away. It was simple food but very tasty and certainly did the trick. They gave us a card from the restaurant which made us chuckle – it has three different locations but they proudly declare they have no branches!