Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

Exploring Vietnam ~ Day 2: how to avoid scooters, buses, taxis, and tuk tuks

My wife and I continue to explore the city of Hanoi as part of our “inspircation”—a vacation that involves research and world-building inspiration.

In particular, I’ve come to Vietnam to gather ideas for an upcoming book in my writing schedule (part of the new Zoone series that I’m working on with HarperCollins).

The day did not disappoint, as I found plenty of inspiration . . .

We began our itinerary by venturing out into the spiderweb of streets radiating out from our hotel. Nothing makes you feel as alive as navigating the whirling, buzzing, roaring streets of Hanoi. Back home, I see people crossing the busiest of intersections with their noses firmly planted in their phones, but such habits would lead to certain injury here!

The sidewalks are a maze of people socializing, cooking, selling wares, entreating you for your custom. It’s also not uncommon to suddenly hear a scooter humming from behind you! The paving stones are often uneven and broken. At one point, a car turned into an alley and struck a block of stone fallen away from the sidewalk. The driver did not discern what was going on, so kept pressing the accelerator—only to have the wedge-shaped stone suddenly spit out across the alley like the payload of some ancient catapult. This created quite a stir amongst the onlookers!

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There is always something different to see here. At one moment, you happen upon the most derelict door . . . the next a French Colonial building, painted in bright colours and sharp trim. Then, suddenly, a beautiful tree has insinuated itself into the architecture, its roots and vines twisting upwards through electrical cables.

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The collision of past and present is very apparent here. The scooters weave in and out, but it’s not uncommon to see the riders wearing nón lá (traditional Vietnamese hats), or to suddenly espy a woman wandering along, carrying a quang ganh (two baskets on either end of a bamboo stick).

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So many sights, smells and sounds. Especially sounds. The cacophony of the traffic noise is relentless. Honking is a way of life here. I have fantasies of discovering a shop that specializes entirely in installing, enhancing, and fixing car horns.

Yet . . . these are all things I love about this city. You certainly feel alive. Some people like to go for a beach holiday, but to me, nothing makes me feel more present and clear than exploring a city like this.

In just one day, we’ve become pretty adept at crossing the streets here, drawing on our previous practice in Bangkok. The trick is timing the scooters, cars, tuk tuks, and buses—all coming straight at you at different speeds and angles, and often swerving as they approach.

I should add that most intersections don’t have lights. The ones that do are a bit more manageable, but the ones that don’t—there’s some mystery at play here as to how the drivers and riders on the different intersecting routes sort themselves out. As a pedestrian, there is no opportune moment to cross—you just have to go for it. The key, is never stop moving. You stop, you juke, you jag . . . you’re probably done for.

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Eventually, we did require a break from the din, so we ducked inside the palatial gardens of the National Library of Vietnam. The library was originally founded by the French Colonial government, and it shows in the very European layout of the place. It was amazing to take a few steps off the street and suddenly find ourselves in a place where the traffic was muted and the birds were squawking.

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The library itself featured many old texts and newspapers, many of them in French.

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After the library, we found our way to the Museum of History. We purchased our tickets for a humble fee of 40,000 dong (less than 2 US dollars) and began exploring the gardens. There were many statues here, interspersed with beautiful bonsai-type trees.

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The trees gave me unexpected inspiration for a different world I’m building for Zoone, but I was most intrigued by the statues . . .

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That last one is a mythical tiger. Mythical, I suppose, because of that mischievous grin!

After we had our fill of the gardens, we went inside the museum itself. The museum covers the history of Vietnam from the prehistoric age, through the middle ages of repelling Chinese incursions, to French Colonization.

A couple pieces in particular caught our eye . . .

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This pair of whips jumped out at me (once again, for world-building purposes):

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One is made of bones, the other a manta ray tail.

After a quick lunch, we back-tracked through the city to the Women’s Museum. This is a unique exhibit chronicling the contribution of women in all aspects of Vietnamese society—from child-rearing, textiles, food preparation, agriculture, and even war.  There’s a different floor to cover each aspect.

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The museum is designed around a central installation of these beautifully decorated nón lá:

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I found a lot of unexpected inspiration here—unexpected because so many of the traditions and customs had been previously unfamiliar to me and they really helped me consider some angles for the world I’m building. In particular, I was quite interested to learn that many of the ethnic groups within Vietnam employed a matriarchal approach. So, instead of the woman going to live with the husband’s family, the reverse was the case.

Marcie and I were very captivated by the floor dedicated to women’s involvement in the Vietnam War. They were truly instrumental in that conflict; their strength, determination, and zeal really comes across in the exhibit.

The museum is very modern, incorporating a lot of multimedia, but, for me, I’m always the most attracted to the physical items. Here are some of my favourites that caught my eye . . .

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After the museums, we were pretty tuckered out, so we slogged back to our hotel and arranged traditional Vietnamese massages.

We’ve made arrangements for a tour of Halong Bay towards the end of the week—as for tomorrow, we’ve left it wide open for more exploration and discovery.

 

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Exploring Québec City ~ Day 1

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Technically, this was our second day in Québec City, but our first full one. We arrived late last night, and you can read about our welcome in my previous post.

We had a restful sleep in our gorgeous hotel, then after a quick petite-déjeuner, and with a spring in our steps, we entered old town Québec, ready to embrace all the new experiences awaiting us.

We started by walking along the old fortified wall and heading to get a view of the parliament building and, eventually, the Saint Lawrence River (pictured at the top of this post).

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We enjoyed the many gates, doorways, and bridges that afforded us the different views. They have many cannons along the walls, which especially caught our attention. See, after learning of our visit to Québec City, my cousin’s husband, Pat (a native Québecer) gave us a mission to find a cannon ball embedded in the trunk of a tree in the old town. We made sure to take pictures of the cannons—because we thought we could doubly impress Pat if we did so!

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Well, after surviving the cannons, we kept walking along the route, and eventually arrived at Dufferin Terrace and Château Frontenac. It’s here where you can see the beautiful monument to Samuel de Champlain:

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We had already pre-booked a tour for Château Frontenac, so decided to not linger there, but instead went up Rue Saint-Louis to gaze upon the beautiful architecture. We almost immediately were distracted by this side street where vendors were selling art.

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Marcie and I are not ones to buy a lot of souvenirs, except for artwork. We are running out of wall space, but I had no choice but to purchase this adorable print by Francois Thomassin. I think his artwork would be wonderful in a children’s book.

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Weaving up another side street, we came upon Chapelle des Ursulines, which is a Catholic Church with beautiful stained glass windows and many pieces of religious artwork that were saved from the riots of the French Revolution and brought to Québec. There was a very kind and knowledgable man outside the church, and he regaled us with the history and legacy of the Catholic church in Québec and encouraged us to go inside.

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We did take a quick peek, but did not spend much time there—after all, we had a cannonball to find!

And find it, we did . . .

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I won’t say WHERE we found it, in case you want to search for it yourself. Also, I’m not sure WHY there is a cannonball in the tree. One story claims that the cannonball landed there during the Battle of Québec in 1759 and then the tree grew around and over it. Who knows? Pat was very pleased that we found it; he immediately assigned us a new challenge, which we will try to undertake . . .

It was next time for lunch, and we overheard a tour guide waxing poetic about a restaurant we passed, so we decided to go in.

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We weren’t looking for an expensive or heavy lunch, but we did not regret dining at La Buche! It was pure Canadiana! To begin with, it is decorated with many items such as skates, skis, snowshoes, and . . . er, taxidermy.

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We dined out in the back terrace, where we enjoyed incredible food. I had tried poutine in Montréal, but nothing like what I was served here:

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Let’s just say that other bacon should go hang its head in shame. Because all other bacon has failed in comparison to this bacon.

As for Marcie, she had a grilled cheese sandwich unlike any we had ever seen:

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Yes, I know. It does not look like grilled cheese. I actually think it was battered and then grilled. Or deep fried. I don’t want to think about it too much, actually. I think we ate our calorie count for the day in one fell swoop.

Afterwards, we visited the bathroom. It was comprised of unisex stalls and every square inch was covered in graffiti. The sink was a bathtub:

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The faucets are actually the soap dispensers!

Well, it was time to make our tour at Château Frontenac. We found our guide, Michel, in full top hat and tailed coat waiting for us on Dufferin Terrace near the hotel.

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I ended up discovering A LOT of unexpected inspiration at Château Frontenac, this most historic of hotels. I’m working on a book that involves a hotel angle to it, and taking the tour got me rethinking a few details. (Alas, a writer is always at work . . . even when he is on vacation!) Mostly, this hotel allowed me to think about all the different services, details, and aspects of hotel life. I’ve read up on hotels of course, but nothing seems to top actually walking through one such as Château Frontenac and seeing it for yourself.

Well, there’s a lot one could tell about this hotel and its history, but suffice it to say that it was the largest hotel in North America for quite some time, and is still one of the most prestigious. It has had its ups and downs with fires, economic downturns, royal visits—you name it. The leaders of the allied powers even met here during World War II to plot their strategies.

Our tour included the grand ballroom . . .

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The ladies’ tea room . . .

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And the 1608 bar . . .

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The 1608 bar may have been my favourite place in the hotel. It was the old reading room, and we definitely want to come back here for a drink. In the adjoining room, where they serve the famous Château Frontenac brunch, we saw all sorts of taxidermy, much of it very strange . . .

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Yes, that was a two-headed duckling!

Here are a few other details I snatched from the hotel:

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Marcie and I now harbour the fantasy of returning to Québec City one Christmas and staying at this gorgeous hotel. It won’t be this Christmas, but hopefully one holiday season soon . . .

After our hotel tour, we went below Dufferin Terrace to explore the Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux national historic site, which is administered by Parks Canada and is underground. Similar to my experience at the Pointe-À-Callièreo museum in Montréal, we were able to explore the old rooms and gaze upon beautiful artifacts from this early period when Québec was New France.

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My favourite artifacts, of course, were this lock and key:

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After emerging from the past, we spent the rest of our afternoon ambling the beautiful old streets (some of them delightfully narrow) and squares, taking in the many sights, smells, and sounds.

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We did a little shopping (Marcie bought a pair of Québec-made moccasins!) and took many photos. Here are just a few of them, including the many doors and details that caught my eye . . .

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Well, that was our wonderful first day. We are next looking forward to exploring the Plains of Abraham.