The Heart of Hanoi

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Vietnam  ,
Monday, February 20, 2006

Hanoi has begun its burgeoning push into the surrounding rice paddies of the Red River Valley, with new business parks bearing the logos of international corporations leading the way on the outer fringes. Surrounding the business parks is a maze of streets with new three-story apartments and many more under construction. Further inside Hanoi, streets are filled with motorbikes, cars, trucks, and pedestrians--the hustle and bustle. The true commercial heart of Hanoi is its Old Quarter, and the true intellectual heart of Hanoi lies within the Temple of Literature.

I returned to Hanoi by bus, heading for its heart, where Confucius is revered, family businesses sell their wares, and water puppets recount the stories of Vietnam.

In the heart of town, I walked around the Old Quarter with its ordered chaos. Almost anything a Hanoi resident could want was available here: memorials for ancestors, ladders, medicinal herbs, vegetables, meats, lunch, flowers, nail clippers, or the latest magazine. Above and behind the shops were people's homes and residents gathered along the sidewalks in groups, talking, bartering, smoking, drinking beer, or playing games. Many of the streets were tree-lined, providing an intimate feel along the narrow streets.

For lunch, I ate a hamburger and fries, notable because it was my first "western" meal in a vary long time. I wasn't even craving a burger. Eating this vile food led to an hour of sitting on the toilet leaning over the bathtub, sweating profusely.

Western food: I wouldn't recommend it, you might get sick.

Perhaps the street meat is safer. Perhaps those food stalls and markets are better for you. Or maybe it's all relative.

That evening, I watched a water puppets show, a tradition that started centuries ago in the heart of the Red River Valley. Puppeteers hidden behind a pastoral green screen manipulate painted wooden puppets over a pool of water--the stage. Immediately, the choice of water made sense: Northern Vietnam's people are intricately connected with water, whether through growing rice in paddies, fishing, boating, or raising ducks. Puppeteers splashed the puppets around as they recreated the daily events of peasant life with a touch of humor.

A man fishing, for example, gets pulled overboard, and the fish ends up catching the man.

Other scenes were mythological and historical, such dragon dances, fairy dances, a mandarin procession, and the Legend of the Returned Sword (see photos).

The show was great, except for the woman in front of me who kept moving back in forth blocking my view during pivotal moments. I also wasn't feeling too well and was exhausted from beginning the day before dawn, taking the slow early-morning ferry from Cat Ba Island, walking to the Haiphong bus station, taking a bus to Hanoi, and walking around Hanoi all day.

The next day, after a slow, tired start, first on my agenda was to pick up my business visa from the Chinese Embassy. When I arrived they presented me with a new L visa. L visa? "I don't want an L visa," I protested: "I asked for a business visa and was told it would be 'no problem'."

"There's nothing I can do," the bureaucrat said.

But despite asking clear questions, no one anywhere--Hong Kong, Beijing, Hanoi, Zhongdian--have given me any good information on what I need to do: "I can't tell you, but in Kunming, maybe they could tell you," the bureaucrat said.

"Aren't you supposed to know the rules and regulations? You work for the visa department."

At least I could re-enter China, but I looked with gloom at the mountains of paperwork and arm-twisting awaiting me in Kunming. If I was to continue working with WWF, I would need to get a work permit and a business visa was the first step.

A short walk later, I was at the Temple of Literature, where I escaped from reality for a bit into the depths of Confucian knowledge crystallized into gardens, statues, steles, bonsai trees, and symbolism around every balanced and ordered corner of the walled temple, home to academics for 1,000 years.

That evening, I was on-board a soft sleeper train, heading to Sapa and the Chinese border, talking to a Frenchman and two Germans until we fell asleep.

During my stay in Hanoi, I walked throughout most of the inner city for hours, feeling its pulse. I only wish my energy level had been higher at this point--I was dragging--but still, the puppets, the scholars, the millions of people doing their own thing all intrigued me and kept me going.
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lraleigh on

Re: hope you're feeling better
Sometimes when traveling your chi can take a beating. My chi is in the shop for repairs right now.

no worries, thanks.

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