What a shock coming into Hanoi following the somnolence of Don Khong island in Laos. The traffic went from water buffalo to Formula 1. I tucked away my 10 words of Lao and exchanged kips for dongs. Temps went from 35 degrees Celsius (94 F) to 12C (54F ). It was cloudy, drizzly and cold. I had to buy gloves, a jacket, wear all my clothes and cover the bundle with the raincoat. And still surprisingly humid. Had to open the pit zips.
And here I was in Vietnam. I didn’t anticipate how my college anti-war experience would intersect with my current travels. Pinch me, I am in North Vietnam. Haiphong, Da Nang, Sai gon, Hanoi, Hue, the Mekong Delta, My Lai and the DMZ; names I associated with atrocities in an illicit war. I felt the dissociation of time collapsing. I expected thatched huts and jungle villages where guerillas fought our troops. Instead there are high rises, a booming economy, gigantic billboards, fancy hotels and crazy traffic replete with motorbikes, SUV’s and tour busses. The population is overwhelmingly young, all post war. The American war, as they refer to it, was their victory. It is weird to see the captured US tanks, various artillery and bombers next to a UNESCO tourist site. Vietnam has a long turbulent history; 1000 years of Chinese occupation, 100 years of French rule and the seesaw expansion and loss within the peninsula for thousands of years before that. I feel a shadow of shame being an American and remembering our country’s machinations in this region. Interestingly however, at first blush, people seem more apt to highlight the Viet victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 when they kicked out the French than the Vietnam war. We see banners, posters and pennants everywhere in cities and towns commemorating their 65th year of independence.
Hanoi’s is like an enormous village that left home and went to the city. If you could banish all motorized vehicles and mingle with what’s left, it would look very similar to country life; families, friends, neighbors congregating on sidewalks to eat, drink, shop, gamble and banter.
We walk around these human clusters often becoming wedged between active traffic and motorbikes parked on the sidewalks. Our first rickshaw ride was suspenseful with some eye popping near misses. Hanoi rules of the road: one way streets are only a suggestion, traffic lights are also a suggestion and sidewalks are also roads. Crossing streets requires declaring your intention and guts. Once you step into traffic, the whole organism operates like a school of fish, flowing around obstacles (like you) in its path. Unnerving yet after your initiation becomes commonplace.
Hanoi is very noisy, music so loud your chest thumps, smells so strong you either salivate or gag, dirt, fumes, pushy Chinese (sorry, it’s true) and the damn motorbikes. It is also colorful, stimulating, and beautiful with its tree lined streets, french influenced architecture, and vendors selling their goods off bicycles and carts. Fruits, flowers, fish, clothing, junk.
I am fascinated watching the women in conical hats hauling 2 heavy baskets with the wooden yoke over a shoulder. They walk quickly, the yoke bends and bounces while the woven baskets sway with their stride. How could you not love a culture that still delivers goods this way? I have seen a wok, oil bubbling in one basket and the condiments, dishware, cloths and bags of food in the other being carried while moving down the street. As it happened one of these women set up a pop up food venue on the sidewalk in front of me and filled the air with what’s cookin’. I point at the patties in her wok. She smiles and nods. Her friend grabs my arm and pulls me down while pulling out a tiny stool for me to squat on and the woman hands me a scalding freshly fried sticky rice and bean cake on a thin napkin. Sweet, greasy and I couldn’t stop smiling.
There is an Old Quarter of Hanoi that has been around about 2000 years and still operates much as it always has. It comprises “36 streets” (really 54), a net of narrow streets each representing a craft or function. Our second hotel was on Hàng Ga or chicken street. We didn’t notice any poultry except cooked carcasses hanging on hooks. Easy to get lost in this twisty nest of alleys until we realized we were near the intersection of bamboo and silk streets.
I really liked party goods and flower streets while kids gravitated to toy and candy streets. There is jewelry and baby streets, upholstery and shoe making streets and around the corner from our second hotel was metal and hardware accompanied by a cacophony of banging, drilling and welding.
And then there is Railway street with a train or two that comes through in the evening but otherwise a quiet respite with homes, cafes and food stalls along the tracks.One of the nicest places in Hanoi is Hoan Kiem, a large lake with 2 Buddhist temples on small islands. Beautiful walkways surround the lake and buffer pedestrians from traffic. Our first hotel was across the street and we enjoyed the serenity of the lake.
Artists, caricaturists, musicians and food vendors line the promenade. it’s almost like being in Paris. The architecture and the cafe’s…Having coffee at a Hanoi cafe ( or street stall) is an experience. You can do the barista, latte, cappuccino route or do Vietnamese. Grab a stool, enjoy the street scene and settle in. It takes a long time to filter, brew and drip the coffee and it is worth the wait. Vietnamese coffee or “milk coffee” is rich and deep. Make it with espresso and it becomes “Ca phe fin”, the brew floating on a layer of condensed milk. 3 glorious sips.
Or try the iced version, “ca phe sua da” on a hot day, which is everyday. Lastly there is “egg coffee”. Steve thought it was a typo and meant coffee with breakfast. Egg coffee is a delicate, smooth yet dense concoction made with whipped egg white on top of Ca phe fin. OMG.
On weekends, vehicles are exiled from the lake and roads become “walking streets” . It is an amazing transformation from stress to joy. It is like a Carnival came to town with games, street food, free play, dance, marionettes, juggling, hackey sack, flash mob, acrobatics. We hear music everywhere as we stroll around the lake. So much laughter, children and adults playing, making art, building block towers, picknicking and dancing. We see a huge crowd and hear loud music. A teen dance competition is in progress. It seems each song has its own choreographed routine and they know all the moves. The song segments come on more quickly each round, people drop out and the winner is the last one dancing. It was great. Hanoi teen culture is huge. School, work, family, cell phones, motorbikes, make up, and fashion ( which is hard to believe because they wear a lot of “Hello Kitty” clothing and accessories), and SELFIES.
We walk home in the dark filled to the brim.