As Canadians, we could get a "Visa Upon Arrival" as long as we had a pre-approval letter in hand. This letter could be gotten from the Vietnamese Embassy in nearby Singapore in a week or so, but we were to leave in 2 days. So we chose our only option which was to get the letter overnight from an online private agency for a fee.
Our flight departure was at 06:30 from Kuala Lumpur, about 350 km north of Danga Bay, so we took a 5-hour late evening bus ride the night before. It was a nerve racking trip, not because of poor roads (it was a modern highway), but the driver was either inebriated or unstable because his driving was erratic and all over the lanes. We almost got off the bus but couldn't find a taxi.
Kuala Lumpur is a very large city so we expected its airport to be more elaborate but it was a letdown with poor services and lack of seating for persons awaiting arriving planes. People were sitting or sleeping on the floor. Decorating was extremely minimal.
Upon our arrival at the Hanoi Airport in Vietnam, we simply presented our printed paperwork, paid $90, and were handed our Visas. We then cleared Customs and Immigration with no problems. Sometimes things just work out in your favour (not like our auto-pilot!)
At one of the Airport counters, we asked for a map and were talked into signing up for a cruise of the famous Halong Bay. They also booked us a very nice hotel at $25 US a night. We were then packed on a mini bus for the 45-minute ride to Hanoi's Old Quarter where many travellers stay.
The sprawling city of Hanoi with its 7 million population is the largest city in northern Vietnam. The hectic traffic was our first indication of the busy and energetic nature of the Vietnamese people.
We soaked up the scenes that make the Old Quarter so interesting. Generally situated around a small lake, it is an interesting mix of narrow streets and very narrow tall buildings draped with a cobweb of wires.
"Which one to connect?"
Interestingly, we learned that the reason for such skinny buildings was that for decades, if not centuries, up till around 1950, taxes were based on the width of buildings. When we inquired why buildings were still being built that way, the answer was that it's what the people are familiar with.
Many building were a mere 3 metres wide (including the thickness of outside walls) with some even narrower, and anywhere from a few stories to several stories high. What they lack in width, they make up for in depth. One art gallery in the Old Quarter is just over 2 metres wide! The hotel we stayed at was about 4 metres wide and 9 stories.
A few skinnies - a mere 2.2 metres wide
A hotel - 4 metres wide, 10 stories
A traditional outdoor entertainment of the humble lives of the rice farmers was water puppetry. We attended an authentic popular reproduction of this at the indoor Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre.
Included in the repertoire of 400 of the ancient wooden puppets were human figures, dragons, frogs, a fox, ducks, fish, a unicorn, and a mythical phoenix bird. The scene was of a pagoda in a waist deep pond where, behind a screen, up to 8 puppeteers operated.
Pagoda stage with band at left (photo copied from web)
The puppets effectively did their splashing and cavorting to a storyline while attached to unseen strings and submerged control rods. We were warned that "water scooping" would happen and those in front rows could get wet, but no one did during the performance we were at. Water scooping involved the puppets splashing scoops of water with their paddles.
"Rowing" merrily (photo copied from web)
The entertainment was supported by a small band and singers who also provided the voices for the puppets. Even though it was in Vietnamese, it was still to the delight of even this modern audience (www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org).
Lots of movement (photo copied from web)