Mention Vietnam and most people’s thoughts tend to go to the tragic war of the sixties and seventies. It was interesting to hear people in Vietnam, refer to the “American War”, which I suppose makes perfect sense and highlights that I have had a very American perspective on the subject.
Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam is an exciting and vibrant metropolis. The endless flow and the hustle and bustle of people, bikes, traders and tourists is insane. We immediately fell in love with the Old Quarter, with its busy cafes, restaurants, hotels, bars, markets and street food vendors. Despite the hecticness of the city it seemed somehow manageable and we bravely wandered out of the sanctuary of our beautiful and peaceful hotel directly into the pulsating craziness. Located on the banks of the Red River, it’s a city in Northern Vietnam that’s the second largest in the country by population. It served as the capital of French Indochina from 1902-1954, before becoming the capital of a reunified Vietnam after the North’s victory in the Vietnam War. Hanoi is an old city. It celebrated its millennial anniversary in 2010 though it’s said to be much older than that, having been inhabited since at least 3,000 BC. Vestiges of Chinese and French colonial influence can still be seen throughout the city.
It feels as though the Old Quarter is where all the magic happens in the city. It’s noisy from perpetual hooting and the whizz of the heavy motorbike traffic, but we weaved our way through the streets and people and got a good feel for the place. The Old Quarter is a collection of about 36 streets, which all specialize in selling something (like ladders, pillows, shirts, baskets, toys, brushes, sunglasses, etc). In fact anything you can think of is available for sale. There are entire streets that seem to be devoted to crafts such as plumbing, welding and metalwork – most of the work happens on the sidewalks. Geoff was horrified to see that the welders wore no protective eye-gear.
Navigating the streets can be overwhelming for many because of the incessant river of traffic.
In Hanoi, the pavement is not exclusively for the pedestrians. It is not unusual for a motorcycle to ramp onto the sidewalk, weaving in and out between the street vendors selling fruit, flowers, helium balloons or peak caps. At the same time, the local merchants shop-front displays also burst out onto the pavements.
Advice we received about crossing the roads was to walk with strong intent right into the smallest of gaps in the traffic. 😳 Waiting for a pause or a break in the flow is a waste of time. It’s never going to happen. Interestingly, the locals spot your purposefulness and weave expertly around you. Problems only happen if you hesitate or back-track suddenly. It takes nerves of steel to execute though!
One of the typical sights that you see everywhere in Hanoi are the local people sitting on the tiniest of chairs and at little tables. At first I thought that they put up with this awkward discomfort because it must take up less storage space. Apparently the lower the seating, the cheaper the restaurant! So mostly the local people are sitting on these colourful kiddies’ plastic chairs, eating with chopsticks, chatting and observing their busy world go by.
As usual, Geoff had researched the best local foods that we had to experience. We weaved our way through the traffic and headed up a flight of rickety stairs. Chaca la Vong is a restaurant that is over a hundred years old. It is famous for serving one dish, named for the restaurant. When we visited its noisy dining room was packed with communal tables, set with charcoal burners. Once you have settled in, glanced with amusement at the menu with its single offering – “Yes, we’ll have that!” – a frying-pan of fish arrives, and various bowls of fresh herbs and accoutrements. Although its a case of DIY cooking, the waitresses stroll past every now and then and pause to pile herbs onto your skillet, burying your fish and ensuring that you are enjoying the dish authentically.
The combination of the tasty ingredients of turmeric, nuts, shrimp paste, fish sauce, chilli dipping sauce, together with noodles and a forest of fresh herbs worked beautifully with the chunks of exquisitely fried fish.
Vietnamese food is a wonderful experience. I was surprised by the degree of emphasis on fresh and healthy ingredients. Pho is the most classic Vietnamese dish, and one that we had for breakfast each day. It consists of a delicious broth or consommé base served with noodles and either beef or chicken and a variety of fragrant vegetables such as onion, garlic, chilli and coriander.
Vietnamese spring rolls are mostly made of vegetables that may include shrimp or chicken, and are either deep fried or freshly wrapped in rice paper. Of course the dipping sauces of chilli or peanut are yummy accompaniments.
A delightful choice for dinner was when we ate in a very simple cafe (it had big chairs so I assume it was regarded as more affluent!) and we used the small barbecue-like grill provided, to cook a pile of raw meats and veggies, which were also accompanied with the traditional lime, fish sauce, salt and pepper dipping sauces. A very sociable way to dine!
In the center of the Old Quarter lies Hoan Kiem Lake. (Lake of the returned Sword) This is a charming and scenic spot to wander around and observe Vietnamese life. It feels like the most peaceful spot in the city and you can momentarily escape the chaos of the traffic.
Near the northern shore of the lake lies Jade Island on which the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple) stands. The temple was erected in the 18th century. Jade Island is connected to the shore by the wooden red-painted The Huc Bridge/Cầu Thê Húc (The Huc, means Morning Sunlight Bridge).
The lake has special significance to the Vietnamese people. On the island in the centre of the lake there is a tower known as Turtle Tower, or Thap Ruá to the locals, which was built in 1886. The legend commemorates folk hero Le Roi, who freed the Vietnamese from Chinese forces in 1425. The victory was facilitated by a Dragon King who gifted Le Roi a magical sword giving him strength and power and ultimately victory against the Ming army. The sword was reclaimed by the Dragon King in the form a turtle in this lake.
The streets of Hanoi are a photographer’s dream. The colourful scenes of the vendors, the unusual sites of the people carrying their goods (an entire coop of 50 or so chickens on a scooter; or an entire mobile restaurant in two baskets suspended on a pole!) Quang ganh is the Vietnamese name for the pole and two baskets that the hawkers use to transport their wares.
It’s a cleverly engineered contraption, not just a random stick. The bamboo pole is fashioned to shape, by being submerged in water for a couple of months, and finally smoked in order to give it the flexibility it needs to sit comfortably on the shoulder.
The baskets are traditionally woven from bamboo or rattan. With disparate loads that change each time the carrier sells or cooks something, the baskets have to be perfectly balanced for the whole thing to work. It reminded me of how local South Africans carry enormous loads on their heads with apparent ease. The truth is not everyone can carry these baskets; one needs to walk carefully in ways that don’t make the baskets sway.
Also intriguing to see, are the local ladies wearing the Non La (Vietnamese conical leaf hat), walking gracefully along the sidewalk. The hat has a number of versatile uses. Firstly it’s used for protection from the sun and rain. It can also become a basket for vegetables when shopping at the market, or even as a receptacle from which to scoop and drink water!
While were in Hanoi, our friends Carol and Roy joined us from Hong Kong. Roy had travelled to Hanoi on business before and highly recommended the Sofitel Legend Metropole hotel. What a delightful place! The hotel serves the dual role of being both a historical landmark and a luxury hotel. Opened in 1901 by two French investors, the French colonial-style hotel soon became one of Southeast Asia’s most iconic hotels and today is the oldest continuously operating hotel in Vietnam.
“Bonjour Madame!” Friendly staff greet you as you sweep into the cool lobby and delight in the old-fashioned glamour of immense floral arrangements, whirring ceiling fans, mahogany furniture, porcelain lighting fixtures and dark wooden panelling. Apparently the hotel has had its fair share of famous guests. Graham Greene wrote “The Quiet American” while staying at the Metropole and there is suite named in his honour. Guest can also stay in the Somerset Maugham or Charlie Chaplin rooms.
Exploring Hanoi with Roy and Carol was continuous fun! 😄 We immediately hired rickshaws or what are actually known as Cyclos. These are three-wheeled bicycle taxis appeared during the French colonial period and their use is diminishing largely due to the hazardous traffic conditions, although they are still popular for tourists and the best way to see the the Old Town up close and personal. We drove up and down the streets enjoying the sights and marvelling at how our taxi-drivers managed to avoid serious collisions!
As crazily chaotic and busy as Hanoi is, it’s also a city teeming with character. An eclectic mix of foreign influences, this city has seen a lot in its thousand year history. It takes some getting used to, but soon you start to relish the way in which life plays out on the streets which makes Hanoi such a vibrant, energetic city.