Saturday, February 14, 2015

Nuggets of Hanoi

Evening, and all around the King's pavilion
people are sitting, fishing, sad and grieving,
loving, in love, remembering, waiting, watching.
Whose boat plies the river mists
offering so many river songs
to move these mountains and rivers, our nation?
~ A Vietnamese folk poem

The King's pavillion could well be one of the many lakes in this city where people congregate, meet friends, play chess, fish, gamble or just stare into the waters.

My first impression of Vietnam was of a place that was remembering, waiting and watching. It's only as I delved deeper, I found a country making rapid strides towards globalisation. 

Hanoi has been an important centre of Vietnam's political history for centuries. It became the capital of a unified Vietnam in 1976. The city celebrated a thousand years of existence in 2010 but is said to have been inhabited from way before - 3000 BC, at least.* 

Hanoi is one of the faster developing cities in South East Asia, its growth accelerated by the economic boom in the region. Though, given Hanoi's turbulent and bloody past in the 19th and 20th centuries, it's little wonder that most of the historical sights in the city are from those times. 

The city lies on the banks of the Red River and is dotted with numerous lakes. The largest is West Lake, about 15 Km in circumference. Hanoi has a mix of French colonial buildings, traditional Chinese homes and of course, the newer developments. The modern city with its sky scrapers and fancy, imported cars, jostles comfortably (at least on the surface) with the traditional - markets, hawkers on bicycles peddling their wares and even fishermen using ordinary bamboo poles to catch fish in the lakes.  

Very few Indians seem to visit Hanoi. The few I met during my travel were living and working in the SE Asia region. My presence elicited a few curious comments and questions from the Vietnamese. I got talking to a few (besides the hotel staff) during my trip - they all had one common thread with India - Bollywood movies! Almost all of them had either watched one or more of our films. Infact, in a store, I heard a local radio station playing a re-mixed track of a Bollywood song. One of the guys in the store, on enquiring, explained that Hindi songs were quite popular as 'dance-tracks'. Quite unexpected, this. :)

In many ways Hanoi reminded me of India's smaller metros where signs of development can be seen all around while people straddle the old and the new (seemingly) effortlessly.

A few photographs that capture this multi-faceted city.


Hanoi's shopping centre in & around the Old Quarter

Ho Chi Minh Museum's impressive lobby

The Presidential Palace with its distinct European (French) architecture

Beautiful paper-lamp installation & traditional 
costumes at the Vietnam Women's Museum

The museums had large sections devoted to the revolution and the Vietnam war. The HCM Museum is also devoted to, expectedly, Ho Chi Minh - his life, philosophy and ideals. 


Incorporating greenery into their 
surroundings with Bonsais

Flower seller with her bicycle overflowing

More flowers
Hanoi seems to be in love with flowers. Every street corner had florists or women on their bicycles selling the fresh, beautiful blooms. So pretty!


Street-side caf├ęs & restaurants
(pic: daytourshanoi.com)

Vietnamese spring roll
Propaganda posters
(pic: hanoikids.org)

Original art & reproductions
(pic: citinomad.com)
Vietnam is famous for its artists who can paint remarkable reproductions of paintings as well as 1970's style propaganda posters promoting communism and the wars. They are also known for original art depicting their culture and country. 

Temples & Pagodas in Hanoi

St. Joseph's Cathedral, one of Vietnam's oldest churches

Before leaving on the trip, I tried to read up as much as I could on local customs, the attitude of local people towards tourists etc. Most of the information was very positive and had great advice but I also came across a few blogs where people had completely disliked their experience of travelling through Vietnam. They had been scammed, overcharged or were simply underwhelmed by the country. 

I can only speak for myself here. I did not travel vast expanses of the country but in Ha Long and Hanoi I did not at any point feel cheated or taken for a ride. As long as I used my instincts and (outwardly) looked confident of what I was doing, it seemed to be OK. 

Some tips to keep in mind:

1. English is not widely spoken, especially on the streets, so you have to get used to pointing at things on the menu, at shop windows or using calculators. A bit of practise in dumb charades might be helpful ;) Almost all street signs and instructions are in Vietnamese too. Though, I have heard it's different in Saigon/ Ho Chi Minh City as it's known today i.e. it's more globalised.

2. In some places as a foreigner I paid more in entry fees. It's pretty normal in India too, so not a surprise. It may or may not be right but it wasn't a deal breaker for me. 

3. Taxis try to overcharge, atleast that is the common refrain. Thankfully, I didn't come across this aspect of Hanoi. As long as I had a map and an idea of the general direction I had to travel, the taxis drivers seemed to be sane enough. :) Taxis are an expensive option though. 

4. In Hanoi, most of the main sights are in close proximity of each other. I walked to most of these places and used taxis as little as possible. If walking is not an option, there are cyclos (cycle rickshaws to us, Indians) and public buses available. Besides, of course, taxis, motorbike-scooters and bicycles.

5. Most touristy stuff e.g. Ha Long Bay's cruises, the night markets,  tourist cabs are pricey. At the time of my travel, one Indian Rupee was roughly equal to 345 Dong. It seemed like a lot of money in foreign currency, for once, but in reality it's no such thing :) The value of goods is fairly high yet not off-the-charts expensive. It'll keep a bargain hunter quite happy. 

6. Don't expect an explosion of street food like in other Asian cities. There is good, traditional food available but it's in regular shop like spaces, spilling over onto the sidewalks. But it is not the stalls or street carts usually seen in other cities. My favourites were the Vietnamese coffee - sweet & ice cold, the spring rolls and the soupy noodles with fresh seafood and other meats. 

7. I felt quite safe in Hanoi. Everywhere I went, people were friendly and accepting. As a woman, I didn't get any suspicious or creepy vibes. It was such a refreshing change. But like anywhere else, don't take unnecessary risks and keep your wits about you. Partying alone, late at nights for unaccompanied women might be problematic. Best avoided.

A lot of other experiences as a tourist in Asia is the same for Vietnam too e.g. taxi touts at airports, hawkers angling for payment for photographing them etc. It's for us to navigate those facets of being a tourist in a foreign city. 

Among all the information I came across on the world wide web, one of the most useful was www.travelfish.org. Quite a ready reckoner on Vietnam (and beyond). 


Even today, many of the public service messages
across the city are a throwback to the 1970s style of art. 

I hope this has whetted your appetite for more on Hanoi. In later posts, I will elaborate on some of these spectacular structures and sights.