I have had a very interesting day so far. I arrived in Hanoi at 9:30 this morning, after having had very little sleep for over 18 hours. However, I decided that as it was my first day in Vietnam I shouldn't sleep until the evening. I was met at the airport by one of the women from ILA. She was very friendly and took me back to my hotel by taxi, which was a rather long journey. During the taxi ride we went past the red river and some beautiful looking Pagodas. Once she dropped me off at the hotel she left, leaving me feeling very alone and scared.
After a quick shower I decided to take a walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, the area considered to be central Hanoi and often referred to 'the heart and soul of the city'. This required me to walk through the Old Quarter, the busiest part of Hanoi where most of the shops and my hotel is based. It was manic as there were vehicles everywhere!
Once I reached the lake I was really looking forward to a peaceful stroll. There are beautiful willow trees all around the lake and many sites to see. However, I didn't get the quiet time I was hoping for. As a foreigner I was constantly being harassed by people wanting me to buy things or just to talk English. One guy latched on to me firmly, which I was a little concerned about as I was worried he was hoping to earn some money out of giving me information about Hanoi. He kept insisting that he wanted to show me around, and I had real difficulty convincing him otherwise.
I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and he took me around the lake just talking to me about the history and sites in Hanoi. He said that he is unable to study English as he cannot afford it and seemed more than happy to just have the opportunity to speak. He bought me a rather interesting ice-cream (13p), which I thought was very generous of him. I felt bad, but it's rude to not accept a gift in Vietnam. To pay him back I paid for his ticket when we went to the Ngoc Son Temple (33p), an island temple with the preserved remains of a giant turtle (2.1 meters).
He then took me on his bike to see the Red River and to Bu Da Temple. I had an amazing experience at this temple for a number of reasons, the biggest being I got to see a part of real Vietnam. There were children running all around the temple and he explained that all these children had been abandoned by their parents and are looked after by volunteers who come to help out. They literally live in the temple grounds in small dingy rooms and have practically nothing! Some of them came up to me and where clinging on my arm, although one of them did take a fancy to my watch. This one boy kept repeating the word 'apple' to me because it was all the English he knew. It was a very eye opening experience.
We then went around to the other side of the temple where a Buddhist Ceremony of some sort was taking place. I was invited by those participating to come and sit with them. I still have absolutely no idea what it was all about, but there was a woman in the middle of the mat in front of the shrine who was dressed up. She would pick up different items and dance with fans and other objects. They kept giving her plates of money that she waved incense in front of and then everyone would share it out. They kept giving me some and I was told that it would bring me good luck.
Beside her she had a band playing (flute, guitar & drums - but not the kind we would think of) and a man and three woman who would change her outfit every 10 minutes or so. She had lots of beautiful outfits of all sorts of colours. The audience were sat around her on straw mats and there were points many of them were crying with happiness. Everyone was clapping along when she danced too. As I say, I have no idea what it all meant, but it was certainly interesting to watch. I was informed that I am the only foreigner to have ever sat with them and watched as it's doesn't seem to be something many people come across.
After He took me for my first Vietnamese meal, which was delicious. It was an assortment of chicken, pork, fish and tofu (all separate dishes) with rice. It went down very well with a glass bottle of coke! It was in a rather dingy room with plastic tables and chairs, pots of food cooking in the back and kittens running around. He refused to let me pay though, which really upset me and then to top it off he got me a gift from his work (he sells books on the street). He gave me a copy of the Sorrow of War, a novel written by a North Vietnamese Army Veteran about the Vietnam War.
Back at the lake I decided it was time to head back to the hotel and started making my way. However, due to my terrible sense of direction and the fact that the Old Quarter has a lot of streets and a lot going on, I got very very lost. It ended up taking me 1 hr and 30 mins to find the hotel. It should have taken me about 15!
So, back at last! Thought I'd write everything down tonight whist it's still fresh in my mind. It's been a very interesting day, if not a bit overwhelming. I am heading to the school tomorrow afternoon for my first day of induction! I'm definitely excited about seeing it. Still a little bit early for me to head to bed, so I may pass the time with a bit of Vietnamese TV.