Hanoi - A Vibrant and Messy Capital City
My initial plans for Vietnam only included Hoi An and Hue, to focus on central Vietnam during my short trip. When booking my flights, I found out I could fly direct from Guangzhou to Da Nang, but no direct flights were offered in the reverse direction. In order to return to Guangzhou to catch my flight home to SFO, I had to travel either south to Hoi Chi Minh or north to Hanoi from Hue. So that’s how I reluctantly wound up in Hanoi, the large, bustling, crowded capital city.
My flight from Hue was delayed by thunderstorms and it was late in the evening when I landed in Hanoi. Thankfully I had arranged a driver pick up from airport to my hotel in the Old Quarter. In the 13th century, 36 trade guilds set up on different streets, forming the business center of the city. One can still find baby items, herbal medicines, steel sheet products, funerary wares in separate areas of the quarter. Boutique hotels, backpacker hostels, eateries of all sizes, shops of all types, spas, tour providers now fill the expanded maze of lanes. Instead of shop houses, you find tube houses: slender, tall, multilevel structures with narrow footprints, again with businesses on the lower floors and residences on the higher floors. Cars, buses, motorbikes, scooters, vendors with pushcarts and baskets, cyclo drivers and pedestrians all squeeze through the alleys. Messy, noisy, dirty. Take a good look below before stepping off the curb to wiggle around the motorbikes parked on the sidewalks. After checking in and dropping off my luggage, I hustled out to grab a banh mi sandwich for dinner just as the shop was closing, moseying back to hotel for a foot massage to get ready for the next day’s explorations.
With my short 36 hours in Hanoi, I had to once again make the best use of my time and booked a pair of back to back walking tours. For the first, I made my way south beyond Hoan Kiem Lake through the French Quarter, where the streets are broader, less of a tangle. The semi-private food tour with Lan started with a delicious bowl of bun cha, stopped at a local market for fruit and salad, and ended with coffee. served with a side tea. Because I only had 45 minutes before my next tour, Lan called a xe om, a motorbike taxi, through the Grab app for my zippy ride back to the Qld Quarter. So much easier than making the mile long trek on a full stomach in the heat and humidity of early afternoon.
Rosie, an “ambassador” from Hanoi Free Tour Guides, was my volunteer guide for rest of my afternoon. This articulate, energetic, thoughtful young lady was the star of my Vietnam tours. I was so surprised when she told me she is 16 years old because she had more than enough poise and maturity to meet, greet and guide a stranger for several hours. We chatted about her life as a high school student and her hope to study abroad in college to experience the world outside of Vietnam. She not only took me through the Vietnamese Women's Museum as I requested, we also took a stroll around the lake to take in the spectacle that is the weekend walking streets. The streets immediately around Hoan Kiem Lake are closed to vehicle traffic and less polluting activities take over. Areas are cordoned off for kids to tool around in mini-electric cars. Aspiring children models strutted their stuff in a fashion show. Teenagers break into impromptu dancing and sing-a-longs. Students make offerings at a shrine for good grades. Hawkers sell treats and toys and balloons. The 2019 Cherry Blossom Festival Hanoi promoted Japanese culture that weekend in March with floral displays, hands-on activities and performances by both Japanese and Vietnamese artists. If I hadn’t taken the walk with Rosie, I would have missed a view of Hanoian life. She even inquired about my plans for the rest of my stay so we detoured to the Water Puppet Theater to purchase my ticket for an evening show. Considering my safety, she took us back to my hotel, to where her scooter was parked, so that I would recognize the route home later that evening.
The crowds of the afternoon continued into the night with street-side cafes and bars competing with outdoor ballroom dancing at the edge of the lake and the Night Market stretching into the Old Quarter. I must have been in a happy mood after the enchanting puppet show because I let curiosity get the better of me and walked into the Night Market. Bad move. We were packed tight around and inside the stalls - how did anyone get any shopping done? Traffic around the market was a massive jam of taxis and motorbikes. This was one of those instances when it was safe, and definitely faster, for pedestrians to snake their way through the standstill to get across the street. What a relief to arrive back to the air-conditioned sanctuary of the hotel lobby and the gracious welcome of the hotel staff.
Some facts I learned about Vietnam:
The country stretches over 1000 miles long, from north to south. The winters in the far north can be cold while the rest of the country will be mild. Typhoons hitting central and southern parts of the country will bring flooding in the autumn season. The diversity and variety in food, culture and geography is evident as one travels the length and breath of the country. Next time, for a contrast to urban life, I’ll have to make the excursion to the hill tribes in the villages surrounding Sapa in the mountains of the northwest.
There are 54 registered ethnic groups in Vietnam. In the Precious Heritage Museum and Art Gallery in Hoi An, Rehahn, a French photographer, exhibits photographs, traditional costumes, artifacts and stories from his years of traveling throughout Vietnam to capture the cultural heritage of these often remote tribes.
The current form of Vietnamese written language, using the Latin alphabet and six tones, did not become the official writing system until 1910, during the period of French colonization. Due to centuries of Chinese occupation, traditional Chinese characters were used in literature, in government, scholarly and religious documents into the early 20th century.
The population of Vietnam is over 92 million people; there are 45 million registered motorbikes in the country.