Chào Hanoi

Trip Start Nov 14, 2011
Trip End Feb 28, 2013

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Thursday, December 1, 2011

Hanoi can hit you the wrong way at first encounter. The never ending rush of motorbikes in the Old Quarter, the noise, the vendors crowding the narrow sidewalks and the seeming chaos it brings. Coming directly from China, it appears that Hanoi is a poorer city than the ones we have visited to date.  But dig deeper beyond the surface and it doesn't take long to realize that there is some order to the chaos. 

In the 4 days we spent in Hanoi we learned that there is a very well defined hierarchy on the roads:  Buses -> cars -> motorcycles -> scooters -> bicycles -> and at the bottom, pedestrians.  With very few stoplights to cross at, pedestrians simply wade out into the swarm of cars and motorcycles rushing by and trust that every moving vehicle will avoid you.  The crazy part is that this feels relatively safe after doing it a few times.  The chaos slowly became our normal and we began to enjoy walking around – it certainly felt exciting (in a death defying way).  The initial sense of poverty is not the true state of affairs within the city of Hanoi.  Shops are bursting with various goods be it shoes, clothes, back packs, luggage, appliances, electronic equipment – the list goes on.  We did see a few luxury cars racing by among the throng of motorbikes and bicycles (the sight of a bright yellow Austin Martin DB8 zigzagging through the hundreds of motor scooters on a main street in Hanoi was a bit surreal).  Speaking to the people here, life is a bit hard to earn a living.  $1 USD can make a big difference to the cost of things in every day life.  The Vietnamese seem to have followed the Chinese economic approach - communism with a degree of capitalism to help move the country forward.  It was evident that some people are doing very well whereas the average Vietnamese is still eking out an existence hoping that with time and education, things will improve for them.

What we also noted is a city and country with people who are very kind with big, open smiles.  Where ever we went we were greeted with "Hello, where are you from?".  Yes they do hope that in this initial exchange you will purchase one of their products and/or services but they were very gracious in accepting your polite declines if you didn’t purchase anything.  There were also more foreign tourists evident everywhere – especially women travellers.  We saw either single women travellers or groups of women travelling together, an indication that there is a feeling of safeness to the city.  One of the interesting things we found on many of the street corners within Hanoi were people using little plastic squat stools and/or chairs to have their meals at restaurants or have a tea/coffee or beer hanging out with friends.  Initially we found this very strange as we towered over people walking through these make shift open air terraces.  We realized that this system is quite efficient as the sidewalks in the Old Quarter are narrow and this arrangement can fit 16+ people in a space the size of a double bed.

On our first full day we visited the museums that were close to our hotel. First stop was the Museum of the Vietnamese Revolution.  We found the exhibits interesting, if not perhaps a bit biased (singing the praises of Communism and the revolutions – history truly is written by those who won!!).  We did become more aware that Vietnam has a long history of occupation by foreign powers and also has organized resistance to these various occupations.

The History Museum also in a beautiful building that we guessed was probably a former French residence, houses a good selection of Vietnamese arts.

The Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius and at one time was Vietnam’s first university.  When we visited it, it was raining and the rain added to the peacefulness of the area.  We watched some Vietnamese women in traditional costumes getting their photos taken.

The Vietnamese Women’s Museum was our final stop.  We felt it was probably built to acknowledge the significant efforts of women in Vietnam during the revolution.  Indeed, one floor was dedicated to this very topic.  Family life, fashion and marriage rounded out the other exhibits.  One of the interesting exhibits showed videos of the street vendors who are primarily women and the difficult life they have.  Their days are long and hard while they earn what they can to feed and support their families.  It gave a different perspective and a better appreciation of the life these women street vendors wearing their cone straw hats have that we saw throughout Hanoi.

On one of our days of touring, we were getting hungry so we asked a friendly Vietnamese woman if she could suggest a place to eat where they serve authentic Vietnamese cuisine.  Her suggestion turned out to be in a beautifully renovated, late 1800’s “French” house of which there are many in Hanoi left over from the French colonization of Vietnam.  The food was delicious and the service fantastic.  We felt very spoiled.  See the photos for a look at the wonderful food.  On another day outing, we experienced more delicious sampling of the local cuisine – Pho (Vietnamese noodle soup).  The restaurant was close to our hotel located on the top floor of another hotel.  It was a rainy day and it was great to sit back, take in the lovely tastes and scents of our lunch and overlook the city of Hanoi (see more photos below).

On our last night in Hanoi we went to see the much recommended Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre which turned out to be located very close to our hotel.  We were not disappointed and had a very enjoyable evening of live music, singing and brightly coloured puppets.  The puppet show performs a series of Vietnamese folk stories.  Our favourite part of the show was the last scene “Carp transformed into a Dragon” where a carp puppet floats and dances through the water and then rises up into the air when it becomes a dragon.  The Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre has toured internationally and it is worth seeing if they happen to come to a city close to you.

As a final bid to Hanoi, we took another stroll around the Hoan Kiem Lake located in the center of the Old Quarter.  Where there is water and walkways, you’ll always find people.  We walked around the lake people watching as we all shared the same purpose to be out and about enjoying the evening and warmth of Hanoi.
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Eva on

The water puppet theater is pretty amazing. Was it people swimming under the puppets. It seems that the more recent buildings are not that different from warm climat western cities, great to share all this with you. Have you bought a lot of clothes yet mary? Love Eva

Mary on

The Water Puppet theatre was pretty amazing. The people who move the puppets are located behind a curtain but they are in water moving the puppets around. At times you could see briefly the long sticks they use to move the puppets around but most times it was seamless. The puppeteers came out in the final scene to pay homage to the Buddha located above the stage. They then performed a dragon dance moving around the water. They perform this show 5 times a day, the show lasts about 1 1/2 hrs. Can you imagine being in water that long!!

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