The use of traveling is to regulate imagination with reality, and instead of thinking of how things may be, see them as they are.Samuel Johnson
Mar 5-8 & Mar 13-19 2017
Hanoi is high on a lot of traveler’s favorites lists, and it’s easy to see why. The city is full of amazing sights, sounds and smells around every corner, all while being a very affordable place to visit. A fascinatig city with a complex and sometimes misunderstood past. Our time in Hanoi was split while we traveled to northwest Vietnam for a week in-between, spending almost two weeks total in the Vietnamese capital.
When we first arrived, we were greeted by the same chaos we had seen over a month earlier in Ho Chi Minh City. A tsunami of traffic, both people and vehicle. Everything from motorbikes, cars, push carts, bicycles, rickshaws, strange little three-wheeled trucks to conical-hat hawkers with bamboo poles across their shoulders carrying the freshest of fruit and vegetables. The city was filled with horns, bells, yelling and above all chattering and laughing. It was enough to once again send our senses reeling as we had been traveling through the much quieter countryside for several weeks prior, where all we could hear was the hum of our motorbikes, the chirping of birds and the sound of roadside waterfalls.
For our first four days we stayed at a guest house located in the famous Old Quarter, an area which still maintains the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. Walking around this part of the city is an adventure as you must literally walk in the street as the sidewalks are full of parked motorbikes, and where there aren’t motorbikes the sidewalks are filled with little red plastic stools set around little red and blue tables in front of small makeshift kitchens cooking up various culinary delights.
We spent most of the first day wandering around the Old Quarter, where during the weekends they close the streets surrounding Hoàn Kiem Lake, it was alive with adults and children enjoying the cool weather, playing various games and enjoying the various pop-up food stands. During the evening, we met up with our friend’s dad who happened to be in Hanoi too, much to our surprise, it’s always nice to see a familiar face when traveling. After some cocktails and snacks we headed back to the guest house to get some much needed rest.
The next couple of days we continued to explore the area, the small alleyways, chic stores and bustling markets. I quickly fell in love with the architecture of Hanoi’s French colonial past. Shabby terrace buildings with lacy balconies and shuttered windows cascade down the street and butt up against Asian style concrete structures with box like angles and hardness. Trees espoused enormous limbs that hung over the streets, their roots pushing up the footpath paving, adding to the dangers of walking without looking.
We had decided to go on one last motorbike adventure in the far northwest part of the country, and the easiest way to get there was by train. We knew it would be important to secure a spot on the train so made a visit to the train station the day before our departure. Not knowing quite what we were doing, and with absolutely no English spoken by the station staff, we used hand signals, a calendar, and some broken Vietnamese phrases we jotted down on some paper to arrange our shared sleeper car tickets to and from Lao Cai. Luckily we were able to secure tickets for ourselves for the time and dates we wanted, but weren’t quite sure if they understood we also wanted our motorbikes to go on the train with us.
We arrived extra early prior to our trains departure the following day, and luckily they had room for our bikes and knew that we wanted to take them onboard. After draining the remaining fuel and filling out some additional paperwork we boarded our car and were soon making our north, crossing the famous Long Bien Bridge, which was constantly bombed and then quickly rebuilt during the war. You can read about our adventure in northwest Vietnam in the post Motorbiking Vietnam Part III.
After a week motorbiking the absolutely gorgeous terrain of northwest Vietnam, we arrived back in Hanoi for the last week of our 6-week adventure in Vietnam. This time we would be staying at a neat little AirBnb just south of the Old Quarter, away from the hostels and guest houses that most tourists stay at. The apartment was located on the 4th floor of a communist era apartment building which once belonged to the Ministry of Finance, with all the families around being artists, lecturers or government officials. Everyone we met was kind and helpful if you showed respect.
When the train pulled into Hanoi Station we had some time before we could check-in, as it was just past 5AM when we arrived. The city was just starting to come alive. As the Vietnamese tend to be very early risers, by 6AM the streets were bustling and packed as everyone was starting their day. We decided to take the time to check out the nearby Ba Dinh district, including Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the One Pillar Pagoda and the extremely interesting Ho Chi Minh Museum, one of the most unique museums we have ever visited as it was a unique combination of contemporary art and informative history.
For the next week, I would continue to wander around different neighborhoods during the day while Maggie worked from various cafes and coffee shops around the city. In our spare time, we visited various other sites tohether, including a small non-descript pond located in a dense working neighborhood that still had the ominous remnants of a crashed B-52 from the war, a youthful creative commune known as Hanoi Creative City that was full of startups and co-working spaces, and the up and coming creative and expat neighborhood, Tay Ho aka the West Lake District.
Enjoying the Hoan Kiem neighborhood we were staying in, but having to check-out of our current AirBnb, we shifted just a block down the road into another building, this time the apartment was within a structure that had previously been used by the staff of the State Bank of Vietnam during the previous century. We continued our last couple of days in Hanoi seeing other sites, including the Hoa Lo Prison, famously known as the Hanoi Hilton and the Confucius Thuong Ðien Complex, also known as the Temple of Literature.
As quickly as it had all begun our time in Vietnam, at least for this portion of our trip, had come to an end. We’ll miss the great food, friendly people and beautiful landscapes that we encountered. We’ll also miss the challenge that we had become quite used to of crossing the road as hundreds of motorbikes whiz around you, which was all a part of the fun. Vietnam exceeded our expectations and made us exited to return to southeast Asia as we continue our around the world trip. We’ve often read that it is a place you either love or you hate, and we definitely fall into the love category as we didn’t have any truly negative experiences during our visit, there was no getting ripped off, no getting yelled at or any other unfriendlyness that you sometimes read about.
Vietnam, a 90+ million person country, has experienced many wars and bloody revolutions in the past centuries. The country was under Chinese occupation for nearly a thousand years, it then went through the Indochina war with the French for almost a century, followed by civil war that involved the United States for over two decades. The country was completely exhausted from prolonged wars, but had built people’s endurance, with its undergoing revolution now peaceful and prosperous.
The modern-day Vietnam is on the way to be a new dragon in Asia. It is, quite simply, the remarkable speed at which the country is developing. High school students in the cities compete for the trendiest scooters, smart phones and shoes, while the children in the northwest mountain villages are happy with a shirt but no shorts, watching Tom & Jerry on color TVs. Youngsters in the dense jungle along the Ho Chi Ming road now have Facebook accounts, yet 20 years ago they didn’t even have electricity, and while staff in the offices gossip about the latest fashions, their parents harvest rice by hand. It is these changes that make Vietnam such an amazing place to visit.