Hanoi is a great city. We’ve had a lot fun just hanging out here, and it has changed in our eyes 180° from our first arrival just a few days ago. Of course, we realize it is we who have changed. We were so wary at first, and felt uncomfortable and nervous with everything. But after a few days in Vietnam, we are now far more comfortable and we find we actually really like this city. And we love the Vietnamese.
Here you’ll see things unique to Vietnam: The squads of Vespa scooters driven by young women wearing long colourful dresses. The crowds of families drinking and eating along the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake in the city centre. The hundreds of wonderful coffee shops with kid-size tables and chairs that serve some of the best coffee we have ever tasted. The monumental socialist-style architecture and public art. Hanoi is not as “Frenchy” as Saigon. It’s more uniquely Vietnamese, but you can still detect the French legacy here, faint and remote but it lingers. Hanoi is in many ways quite a stylish city. There are clubs of Vespa collectors, for instance, who worship the little scooters that are still ubiquitous. Among our favourite things are the motorcycle taxi drivers, hundreds of them, who gather at every intersection and say, “Hello moto!” every time you pass them by. We would laugh because it was the same slogan being used by Motorola for their latest campaign ads. Only these fellas were asking if you wanted a ride on their motorbike.
By far one of the most interesting things to experience in Hanoi is Tet. If not the actual night of celebration, then the eerie silence of the next morning.
You see, we spent New Year’s Eve in Hanoi in classic Scott and Karen style. We almost slept through it. We lay down for a nap only to awake just a few minutes before midnight. It was now too late for us to leave the hotel and make our way to Hoan Kiem Lake where the city had gathered to ring in the new year. That was supposed to be the highlight of our visit to Hanoi.
We went down to the reception and told them what happened, they invited us to the roof where they said we could spend the evening with the family and watch the fireworks over the lake. To be honest, that sounded perfect to us.
We took the elevator up to the roof and went out onto the rooftop veranda. The view was amazing. We chatted with the family about Tet traditions and it was then they told us the next day would be the quietest day of the year in the city. We also met the most amazing turtle. The family pet was a giant turtle, or small tortoise. The tortoise is especially esteemed in Hanoi. The big central lake is home to a century-old tortoise. And statues of tortoises are everywhere in the city. So pet turtles and tortoises are common.
But this one was special. When Scott saw him crawl out of his glass terrarium and plop over the side onto the floor, he told the mother he was escaping. She just laughed and said he often did that.
Then we watched as he made his way over to the steps up to the elevator where he stopped and waited. What was he waiting for? The hotel owner told us he was waiting for the elevator. We thought she was joking and we laughed. But then we heard the elevator go “ding!” as it arrived. The turtle got himself ready by waiting right where the door would open. When it opened, he walked on and turned around. He was using the elevator! She told us he went missing for three months once. They thought he was lost until they discovered him living in the kitchen. But they couldn’t figure out how he’d got there until they saw him enter the elevator and make his way back up to the roof. He had learned that the elevator would take him to the kitchen where he could find all kinds of tasty veggies. When he wanted, he would simply go back to the terrarium on the roof using the elevator.
We spent the rest of the evening watching the fireworks display and the hundreds of fireworks being set off by people in homes all over the city. Lanterns lit by candles were lifted into the air and floated above the city all night. The New Year was rung in with the striking of gongs. All over the city, hundreds if not thousands of people were striking gongs. And the ringing of gongs has gone on now for several days. The gongs are part of the Vietnamese culture of ancestor worship. It is colourful and beautiful, noisy and fun.
Then we went back to bed.
In the morning, we were up very early. Anybody that knows us well, knows we don’t stay up late, but get up at the crack of dawn. Vietnam is an early culture. The mornings start before dawn with roosters crowing. It’s followed by dogs barking, people on bicycles rolling down the street, and then finally you hear people. Shop keepers opening their businesses, neighbours starting their day, people shouting to each other. It all starts with silence, then one or two noisy things, then gradually layer upon layer of other noisy things are added until the daily hum of life reaches it’s busy pitch. Each day, all of this occurs just as the sun rises. The first few days here, Karen and I would get up to meditate. This slowly-building ritual of morning noise would occasionally make us burst out laughing as we sat there quietly trying to meditate.
The day after Tet is totally different. Nothing stirs. Not even the roosters or the dogs. It’s totally silent. And the streets are deserted. It’s unnerving and a lot of fun to wander the streets at sunrise on the day of Tet. It feels like the day after the apocalypse. Street after street is empty. No traffic, no bicycles, no hawkers, no coffee stalls, no people. It takes a few more hours for life to stir and, even then the day never reaches the level of normal activity. Tet is a day for people to spend time indoors with family. We were a family of two. Restless and hungry, so we wandered around the deserted city taking photos until our hotel was awake enough to make us pancakes and coffee.
We spent three more days here wandering around. We tried to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but always missed the eccentric opening hours. So unfortunately we never got the chance to see it. But we did wander around and see a lot of other things. Hanoi is a walkable city if you are up for long distances. And there is a lot of bustling, interesting street life to observe.
We’ve decided against taking the train south. The Tet holiday means all forms of transportation are jammed. We can’t easily get train tickets, so instead we took the advice of a Dutch couple we met waiting for the train in Lau Cai. They were the sort of people we wished to be: They had been traveling in Southeast Asia for over year and were confident, experienced and wise. We were just wide-eyed and nervous and hapless. But we had been on the road for less than two weeks. They told us the best thing was to take the bus south. The commutes always take place at night anyway, so it doesn’t matter how you travel. It’s cheaper than the train (just $25 USD each). And you can get off and back on as many times as you want between Hanoi and Saigon.
We just pray there’s air conditioning. Right now it’s 36°C and the humidity is about 85%.
We can handle this kind of heat if we have room, but as soon as gets crowded, the heat makes you feel claustrophobic. We expect no sympathy from any of you, especially our friends in Ontario. But we’re just saying…
We’ll end with our top three favourite things about Hanoi
One. The traffic. In our Western cities, traffic is a symbol of everything that’s wrong with our society. It’s the very tangible signifier of life out of balance. It’s evil. And it makes us hateful beings.
Everything you read about Hanoi implies there is no system to the city’s traffic. But we disagree. Traffic in Hanoi is a thing of beauty. A ballet. Cars, motorbikes and cyclos (a sort of Vietnamese tuk tuk) swirl in all directions, large buses somehow squeeze down impossibly narrow old streets. In the middle of this seeming chaos enter the pedestrians. Without meaningful crosswalks or traffic light-controlled intersections, people walk across the street without getting killed. They all follow a simple rule that puts them seamlessly in the middle of this traffic ballet’s rhythm: walk slowly and never run, don’t stop and never – ever – look the driver in the eye. Once you let go of your fear, and find the flow, you fit right into the dance, the vehicles swarm around you and land safely on the other side. Plus, you feel like a super hero every time you make it across the street.
Two. The people. The Vietnam is an amazing place. The Americans dropped two tons of explosives on this city for every one citizen in Hanoi. They literally tried to flatten the place. But instead of breaking the Vietnamese spirit, the Vietnamese patiently outlasted and outwitted their foes. As they have every other foreign enemy for a thousand years.
The Vietnamese have defeated the Chinese, the French and the Americans. What is most amazing is the resiliency of the culture in the face of such persistent conflict. They have borrowed the best of other cultures and discarded what didn’t fit. It’s a unique and diverse culture. We found people to be very friendly, helpful and always willing to share a joke or poke fun.
Three. The food. But especially the coffee. Vietnamese coffee is perfection. The only thing we didn’t like is the tiny serving size. Along with the coffee there is another Karen favourite. The amazing pancakes. If she could, Karen would eat nothing but mango pancakes. Indeed she tried to do exactly that. As an aside, being a vegetarian in Vietnam has been pretty easy. Almost any Vietnamese dish can be made into a vegetarian version using tofu.
Next stop is Hue, an overnight bus trip south. We leave this evening, but will first try to take in a water puppet show, more coffee and at least one more mango pancake.