Vietnam Airlines was a pleasant surprise, the two toddlers and newborn behind me were less welcome. Baggage collection resembled a budget version of the Generation Game; 7 rice cookers, 3 vacuum cleaners and a microwave (no cuddly toy) went past as I waited for my bag.
My flight had been slightly delayed and I wondered if that was why I couldn't spot the driver sent by my hotel. However after calling them from a pay phone (thank you Lucien and Caroline for a generous donation of 200000 Dong) it transpired he had been standing with a sign for someone called Sophie. I'm hoping there isn't a girl stuck at Nai Boi airport without a lift...
The Hanoi Guesthouse is in the heart of the Old Quarter and full of unbelievably helpful staff. I popped across the road for my first Vietnamese dinner and got talking to a couple at the next table who it transpired were medical students on their elective. There is no escape.
The next day I headed to the train station and thanks to the invaluable seat61.com (for those who haven't yet found this gem, it is the font of all knowledge on global train travel) managed to book 4 tickets for a staggered trip down south. Pleased with myself I headed to Ba Dinh Square, the ceremonial heart of Hanoi, but was most disappointed to discover Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is closed for renovation- apparently every winter he gets sent to the Russians responsible for Lenin for a touch-up. This scuppered my chances of completing the 'pickled despot triumvirate tour' but there is plenty to see and I headed to the Confucian Temple of Literature and the French Quarter.
China had partly prepared me for negotiating the scooter-filled roads in SE Asia as a pedestrian but Hanoi is a step up from Beijing. The key initially is to spot a local about to cross the road and walk out when they do, using them as a human shield. Once you have the confidence to go it alone there is one rule- never change direction. The scooter drivers have taken in to account your course and will happily go round you if you stick to it.
Next morning I headed off on a boat trip in Ha Long Bay, because my enthusiasm for karst landscape knows no bounds. The guide filled us with optimism when, at the beginning of a 3 hour bus trip, he informed us of the road death statistics for Vietnam (a staggering 13,000 a year). The bay contains nearly 2000 limestone hills projecting from the sea and provides calm waters for junket cruising, kayaking and swimming.
We saw the largest cave and climbed one of the hills but I have to admit the highlight for me was the seafood- 'jacuzzi' prawns steamed in vodka on hot stones, deep fried squid, barbecued catfish, grilled oysters...
I had a final day in Hanoi so visited some of the museums. Ho Chi Minh's Museum is utterly bonkers- they've taken an abstract approach to his life and works and exhibits include a model of his cave headquarters re-imagined as a human brain and a 3D interpretation of Picasso's Guernica. The Hoa Lo Prison Museum was a much more sober affair and the Vietnam Women's Museum was excellent.
In the evening it was meant to be time to test out Vietnamese trains with a sleeper to the imperial capital of Hue, but flooded tracks meant I was stuck in Hanoi. After debating the merits of a 16 hour overnight bus I've opted for the more civilised (and expensive!) option of a short flight. Here's hoping the rest of the trains run more smoothly!