Hanoi is beautiful, our group are agreed on this, we are having our breakfast in the hotel, before heading out for what should have been a 10-block walk to Hanoi St. Joseph Cathedral for 9 o’clock Mass. Despite the fact that the church is roughly 3 stories tall, we can’t see it from half a block away. We circle the designated block and still no luck. Fortunately, a guy looks at us looking lost and simply says, “Church?” We nod and he sends us down an alley; the Gothic spires suddenly appear.

On the front steps is an almost life-size manger.  Inside are wreaths.  The only words I recognize during the hour we spent there are Epiphany, Bethlehem and alleluia.

I realize that today is the feast of the Epiphany, the day Jesus and The Magi met up

It involved a lot of travel and following a star. Seems appropo

Since we arrived, we have commented on the extent of the nice decorations here. For a nation that is mostly Buddhist, there is an excessive amount of trees, bells, lights, garland and more. When we arrive in Florida, usually this week each year, there remain only a few pretty poinsettias in full bloom and a few straggling strands of white lines wrapped around palm trees.

st joseph cathedral hanoi

I comment about it and then learn that Tet Lunar New Year, Vietnamese new year is in February and it is a much bigger holiday than Christmas. So decorations stay up and more go up as part of all the festivities. If you like to see the local ceremonies then this time could be a good time to travel to Vietnam because many of the sights are overtaken with celebrations and local participation. The cathedral service is in Vietnamese (the one at 11 am is in French). The music is beautiful. The exchange of “peace” is a bow, rather than a handshake, with very little eye contact. I am the only blonde in church, but then, of course, I’m not really a blonde. So I guess there are none!

We make our way back to the hotel where some of the guys in our group have contrived a plan to visit Hanoi. First things first: a trip to a typical mall called Vincom Center. Kim need sweatshirts. Jolene need an overnight bag. A word about the weather in Hanoi, I say Hanoi because its if different from the weather of same time in Southern Vietnam, anyway, Hanoi is chilly. The normal high in January in Hanoi is 60-62. It is the same today, wet and breezy. Cheryl is freezing. She has brought a jacket and one cotton sweater. They both packed well for later in our trip when we are at the equator, but not so well for this first part where we are in North Vietnam. I have packed two sweaters, a fleece jacket and a raincoat. I am adequate with what I brought. Lilly wishes he had brought a heavier sweater and lined slacks or jeans; he brought a cotton sweater and a Goretex hooded jacket. And slacks, of course.

About the overnight: Tuesday morning we will depart the hotel for an overnight on a sampan with Halong Bay overnight cruise . Weather is similar to Hanoi. So despite the promise of kayaking and a reminder to bring a swimsuit, our group is buying gloves AND an extra bag because they didn’t realize they would have to voluntarily separate themselves from their big luggage for a night.

streets of hanoi

Our shopping time doesn’t take as long as we anticipate, so lunch plans come early. We decide to walk the 10 blocks to the restaurant, selected by our tour guide. The restaurant looks nice with classic decoration, what we like so far. The menu is limited but we all find things to dine on. The restaurant is a little dingy and its clean. But the food is all to our liking. I have duck terrine (pate), Dianna has pumpkin soup and most of the others have the pork three ways.

Two other tables are filled with Americans. There 15 or 16 in all. There is a run on the pork dish there as well. I stop to chat because I am curious about this al¬l-male group. I can’t believe it has never crossed my mind that these are Vietnam War veterans. They have been sent by the VFW to return to a place where ALL served and were wounded. It was a pleasure and a privilege to meet them. Many are from Florida and one is from the St. Louis area (Bridgeton).

We walk back to the hotel, taking photos along the way. Then we head out to the National Museum of Vietnamese History. Our guide spend an hour touring artifacts that are of minimal interest to me, but not to all of us, of course. Some date back 300-400,000 years. About half the items have 2 or 3-word English descriptions but very little frame of reference. “Dragon in stone” but no explanation of how and where it was used.

hanoi hoan kiem

At 6 pm we attend our first special function, a cocktail party in L’Orangerie, a lovely glassed in private area at the back of Le Club. We have 26 travelers, which is a nice size. Some of us are friend and know each-other for long time.

Hamid, our tour leader from Vietnamese Private Tours, gives us an intro to our tour and details about tomorrow for the trip to Halong Bay, while we sip beverages and munch on hors d’oeuvres.  We then move to Le Beaulieu restaurant in the hotel for a three-course dinner.  The meal is quite yummy. We retire to our rooms and prepare ourselves for our 8:15 meeting time in the morning.