Hanoi has some similarities to Bangkok, you either love it or hate it, my feelings are the former…but only after a few days of exploring. Hanoi is a city with everything, it’s noisy, dirty, busy, chaotic so what’s to like!? All you need to do is take a step back, walk the streets and get lost in the congested labyrinth, that may sound contradictory, it’s not, this city has charm oozing out of every crevice. For such a deteriorated city it is possibly the epitome of South East Asia heaving itself into the 21st century mixing the past, fundamental socialist tendencies of recent times with the present interconnect world and all that comes with it! The result, an eclectic volcano of colour and awkward dovetail of capitalism and culture pushing forward with gusto! For a city in much need of restoration, the Victorian era houses lining streets throughout now many fashioning years of additions like corrugated iron, shutters fronted by pavements filled with scooters…of the hundreds of thousands that are not on the road.
I say a city in much need of restoration, that has not deterred the city, especially Old Quarter being crammed with Western brands with their flashy signage buttressed between streets shops selling anything and everything. At first, I almost didn’t notice Hanoi is filled with street lined trees, huge distorted trees mutated over the years, they have adapted to become the very fabric of the city; twisting, turning, intertwining with their environment whilst reaching for the sky. I do not recall ever seeing so many huge trees in a city, yet here the foliage disappears between the flashing neon lights and the trucks camouflaged by the stained concrete buildings. Hanoi is different, but you need to give it a chance, don’t judge it at first glance or you will sorely regret what a unique and extremely interesting city this is. Would I like to live here, most likely not, would I come back to visit, yes, many times over!
Driving from the airport into Hanoi I questioned all of what I had see and read of Vietnam and Hanoi, granted I had done much reading or research, but still had some images in my mind; I had been told and thought Vietnam was less developed than Thailand. From what I had seen from the airport on route to my guesthouse conflicted with everything, in fact it reminded me more of Dubai! Sure, I had arrived in the evening, I was expecting something nearer to Cairo, not at all, the highway was many lanes wide, the place looked like it was new and clean, the pavements and highway shoulders were lined with hundreds of palm trees planted in neat rows. It didn’t have the grandeur of Dubai but as a first impression it was impressive, I felt rather disappointed that I had arrived in a “Western style” city. Hahahahahaha oh my I couldn’t have been further from the truth, once I got into “Hanoi” the real city revealed itself with a bang of reality! I was somewhat relieved. The difference between the newer part of the city and the old couldn’t be more strikingly different!
Back to what I had become accustomed to over the past weeks, packed roads, hooters, scooters being used for anything and everything from taxis to delivery vehicles, people everywhere driving chaotically with purpose yet somehow in unison. Uhhhh, this was more like I had imagined. I had arranged through my guesthouse to be collected from the airport, the driver, very friendly, with no knowledge of English and even trying to use Google Translate didn’t help – that’s more likely because of my pronunciation.
After getting a little lost on the way to my homestay I arrived at TU House Homestay in the Ba Dinh district, less than a kilometer from the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. I arrived late in the evening, only a little corner shop was open meaning dinner was some yogurt, crisps and nuts (I always try keeping nuts with me). For some, central Hanoi may bit a bit much, making the Old Quarter over the top in comparison so staying out of this thick of it could suit people. I extended my stay from one night to three considering how late I arrive the first day, after that I moved right into the heart of the Old Quarter Hanoi. What I can say about TU House Homestay is the owner and her sister were superb! Their genuine smile and friendliness no matter the time of day was so refreshing, it made for a warm welcoming environment and I felt a guilty when I moved to my new accommodation. If you are every in need for accommodation and don’t want to stay in the city centre their email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
My first day of exploring was insightful, knowing Vietnam is a socialist country I hadn’t known to what extent until I explored Hanoi, this would be reinforced throughout my time in Vietnam. No matter where you go, especially in the city there the Vietnam flag is flown everywhere, from state buildings to little corner convenience stores. Flying your country’s flag isn’t a sign of socialism of course, it is that and everything else combined that you see that enforces their socialist past and present. The Vietnamese people that I met are proud, I’d go so far as to say the country are a proud nation; not over the top or “in your face” like some Western countries, no, they have a history of being wars with much larger and more powerful countries and have always come out on top. They are not a warmongering nation, they seem to be proud of their achievements but by no means boastful. It felt like all the people I met were happy that “we” would come visit their country and were proud of what it has to offer.
Whether or not I’d like to admit it, my years of watching movies about the Vietnam (totally Hollywood Western biased in 99% of them) would undoubtedly have sown seeds of perception about the country and its people – even though I had spoken to many people who have visited the country in the past 15 years. Thinking back on my time in Vietnam, I cannot think of a place where I have met so many happy and smiling people; not false facades for the tourists so see. Yes, it is a poor country, I may not agree with their political ideology, that was not the reason I when to visit the country. Yet, I cannot ignore the fact of their positive nature, their unpretentious, pride and determination – not just in present times but through their history of the past few hundred years.
Back from my rambling thoughts. Around the corner from my homestay is the Dinh Ngoc Ha temple; I’ve done a lot of searching and cannot find any concrete information about it. An unusual setting for a temple, hidden away between residential blocks of flats and wasn’t open when I got there – not far from the little lake where a B52 crashed and they left it as is till today…only found out after I let Hanoi GRRRRRR. I spent very little time there so headed to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum via the Hanoi Botanical Gardens.
Hanoi Botanical Gardens
Well, I’ll caveat all I say about the Hanoi Botanical Gardens with the fact that the weather wasn’t great; overcast, dull sky with a minor chill in the air that I forgot about because of me walking about..when the sun comes out it got very humid. Back to the gardens, honestly, it is the worst botanical garden I’ve ever seen – Hanoi and Vietnam have many more beautiful parks and gardens by comparison. It felt run down, neglected especially if you compare it to the gardens around Ba Dinh Square. I really wouldn’t go back to visit the gardens, I would however go back in the late afternoon when the park and gardens fill up with locals. Locals can access the gardens for free and come in droves to exercise, meditate, play ball games and use the exercise equipment (old and very outdated but you can see they are used). Lots of people arrive walking briskly and swinging their arms in all directions with gusto as the speed walk around the park; it’s an exercise “technique” I’ve never seen before but so many seem to do it – I wish I had taken a video!
I don’t know how it happens, I’ve written near two pages and covered very little of Hanoi! So, like I enjoy doing I continued to Ba Dinh Square detouring along the way if I saw anything interesting. Visiting a place only for a few days my modus operandi is if I see something interesting or I want to know what’s down that e.g street then I go…never know and in all likelihood, I may never get to come back and hate the monkey on my back of “what if” or “I wonder”.
Ba Dinh Square
Ambling along a convoluted route to my destination trying to soak up this different world, bloody busy one at that I arrived at Ba Dinh Square, really only a kilometer or two of walking. Ba Dinh Square in my opinion is the epicentre of Hanoi, from here you can fan out to all the districts and here is where Vietnam’s recent history is revered with socialist tinsel.
For such a well-known person there is a lot of grey areas about Ho Chi Minh’s life. In part he takes up a near mythical character, what he did and where is was before coming into prominence and eventually leading Vietnam, even his date of birth isn’t universally agreed upon. Not to contradict what I said and thought of Vietnam earlier, at Ba Dinh Square there is a flagrant display of pomp and ceremony not to different from what you would see at Buckingham Palace. Here, guards wearing pristine white uniforms (very unpractical I thought) guard and monitor the area – I asked one of them for directions and I must say he was very friendly. What I’m not used to, is seeing the red flags with gold hammer and sickle in full view and aplenty – a reminder again of movies I watched when I was younger, sometimes even now. Growing up this emblem resembled the “enemy”, I don’t agree with communism but the people I met in Vietnam are certainly no enemy; different yes, the whole world is different, enemy, absolutely not.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
I didn’t go inside, for no real reason except I was enjoying the experience and views on display from Ba Dinh Square. Collectively the whole area in and around Ba Dinh Square which includes Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and many other governmental and historical sites (even some of the adjacent roads which are lined with government embassies) is a “show piece” area of Hanoi; lots of military security, very clean and orderly, an area of Hanoi quite different to the rest of the city, near polar opposites.
There is something quite distinct in many communist monuments, a uniformity, austerity, sometimes offering very little to no emotion or individual artistic impression. They remind me of Roman or Greek monuments without the frills, just the structural skeleton. Far from being bare, their minimalist nature portrays strength, a solid structure that looks immovable yet void of any passion, its purpose to last for centuries, not necessarily to portray or convey any sentiment.
One Pillar Pagoda
Of all the sites I visited in Hanoi this was the busiest by far because the area is small and around it is lots of little stores selling memorabilia and food. The queue was very long, those that were waiting to climb the few stairs seemed in most to be visiting as a religious pilgrimage, so I didn’t join in.
Visually it is insignificant, more so peculiar in design compared to others I had seem, set in the middle of a neat small proportioned square pond. Looks can be deceiving, the One Pillar Pagoda is considered one of Vietnams most iconic temples; it is almost 1000 years old being constructed in 1049 by Emperor Lý Thái Tông. What is seen today unfortunately was rebuilt after 1954 as the French forces were leaving Vietnam they destroyed the original.
I sat down to have a coffee, an outdoor coffee shop next to the One Pillar Pagoda. Being in no rush and since I like watching people it was the perfect place to observe people. Vietnamese coffee is strong, not like Turkish coffee, it is like very strong filter coffee, I like it! Observing and sipping away I had a random thought, here I was in a socialist/communist country I could be anywhere in the world. Vietnam has been through a lot of challenges, still is but, the people seem to be a resolute in their fundamentals; they fought long and hard for their independence to choose a way of life that they wanted, they didn’t want to be “Western” – rightfully so to decide your own identity. Here I was sitting, what I saw was most people wearing the latest Western brands, shops like any high street packed with every brand you know, it is as Western as you could want.
Watching the locals, I couldn’t help but think about the movies, a resolute people fighting in the toughest conditions against much more powerful nations for a cause they believed in. Now, through the backdoor they have succumbed to be their past adversary. If wars were fought by brands, lifestyle and image nothing would defeat it…. maybe not today, it may lose a battle or two but would win the war. To change ideology no war needs to be fought, just send in companies with flashy well-known brands, sports teams and celebrities, they are more powerful than any army.
My sightseeing was near done for the day, I took a different route back to my homestay before heading back out to meet up and have dinner with Julie and Mila (I met in Thailand). Dinner around the central market in Hanoi was interesting and delicious, sitting on tiny plastic chairs down an alleyway with hundreds of other people doing the same. Every now and then having to shift my chair in the let a car or scooter past. The atmosphere in Hanoi at night is effervescent, packed with people eating on the streets, roads like arteries filled with hooting motorbikes and cars. Although the city is bellowing with life in the evening it dies down quite early, by 23:00 the place is quiet, at 00:00 only the odd car of scooter is still riding about. I walked back to my homestay about 3km away, getting there near 00:30, I only passed maybe 5 other pedestrians along the way. At first, I was cautious, but subsequently did so many times in the early hours of the morning with my camera dangling from my hand – Hanoi is safe, I felt much safer walking its street in the evening than I would in London that’s for sure!
I’ll leave things here for now, no, Hanoi isn’t finished, I’ll need to split this post into two parts…Part 2 to follow soon…I hope.
Before Hanoi I was in Thailand, if you haven’t already seen the posts here is a link to two of them, there are much more:
- Khao Sok National Park, often overlooked wonder of Thailand
- Koh Tao, island paradise just what I needed