Exploring the Many Faces of Hanoi

March 17, 2007 No Comments »

Exploring in Hanoi Vietnam - Bridge

Bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake in the early morning

View Vietnam Photography

Hanoi is a large metropolis of 3.1 million people – there are no sky scrapers, but there are about 100 motor bikes for every one car! We tend to think that cities of this size never sleep – that they are always bustling. However I was stunned to find out that Hanoi did sleep – it shut down around 11PM and got its beauty rest. Our train pulled into Hanoi at 4AM and we were rudely awakened by the conductor banging on our door. We stumbled out into the rainy, cool, morning air and were welcomed to Hanoi. We took a mini bus to our hotel in the Old Quarter which is supposed to be a bustling part of town, but at 4:30AM this area was a dark ghost town. Everything was boarded up and locked down. All of the lighted signs were turned off so that you couldn’t really distinguish between hotel and house. In fact, when we got to our hotel and knocked on the door, someone had to turn on the light and let us in. The front desk guy had been sleeping in a cot in the lobby. Another hotel worker was sleeping on the lobby furniture and yet another guy was on the floor (he must have been the low guy on the totum pole). I guess there is little distinction between house and hotel in Hanoi after all! Sure there were times back in New York and San Francisco where I thought I’d be pulling an all-nighter at work – but at least I never had to sleep on my office floor!

Hanoi’s morning face

We hung out at the hotel and checked our bags and as it became lighter outside I decided to go out in search of coffee. Sure enough, Hanoi was waking up and you could start to hear the familiar horns…they start infrequently, and amplify to a constant beeping sound between the hours of 7AM and 8AM. New Yorkers think that you know horns, well no one knows horns like Vietnam. Walking around in the early morning hours you saw a different side of the city, slightly quieter, a bit more peaceful (for SE Asia). All of the vendors were setting up for the day. Old ladies would come up to you and try to sell you fresh donuts on a stick…yum! The city started to hum.

A few of us decided to take a quick cyclo tour of the Old Quarter. After negotiating the price down to $1.50 for an hour ride – we were off! It was a fun perspective to be ‘one’ with traffic – and a little terrifying at the same time. As we slowly cycled around the streets we were able to enjoy the old French architecture of the buildings. This was really the only place in the city that the original architecture was intact and preserved. At one time the streets were all organized by product…kind of like a huge grocery store. Our hotel was on Hang Bac Street. Bac means silver – so we were actually staying on the silver shop street. There was also a shoe street, a clothes street, a toy street, and a snack food street to name a few. It gave a tiny bit of organization to what seemed like a chaotic city.

One thing that always surprised me is that I would see many people squatting by the side of the street, by a food stall, or by a bus stop. Squatting was the position of choice. It seemed terribly uncomfortable to me – but for the Vietnamese it was as comfortable as sitting cross legged. In fact – at one bus stop with a bench were 3 men were squatting in front of the bench like a major league catcher waiting patiently for the bus, their bums only 2 inches from the ground. Some major league baseball team needs to recruit catchers out of Vietnam – seriously. As a runner I was completely envious of their flexible knees. I tried to squat like them once in the hotel room and I fell over – even without beer involved!

Speaking of beer – Vietnam has plenty of it and it’s the cheapest I’ve seen in my travels! There are numerous local brands that run about 40 cents a bottle and then there’s Bia Hoi. Bia Hoi is a really, really cheap beer sold by the pint. They set up little Bia Hoi stands on the corners – this basically consists of a keg, a few glasses, and a few squatty chairs…presto…you have a bar! Bia Hoi pints sell for $3000 Dong…about 20 cents. Brad, Nicole, and I tried some and enjoyed the whole experience. It tasted like Bud Light – pretty watered down…but then again – what do you expect for 3,000 dong?

Hanoi’s night time face

That night the group visited one of the mainstay tourist attractions in Hanoi – the water puppets. I’m not really sure what I was expecting – but I can safely say that I would advise people to skip this if you only have a short time in Hanoi. The water puppets were interesting, however the hot room, the dank water stage- it all kind of gave me the creeps. On top of it they handed out free hand fans – but they smelled like manure…not a good combination in a hot room! That night the Old Quarter lost power for about 5 hours. Considering the wiring that I see around Vietnam – this really isn’t surprising. Most of the electrical poles look like a labyrinth of wires that go nowhere. The whole city took it in stride – they lit a candle and kept on trying to sell their wares. Soup was still being made – all was good. I thought about how the blackout in NYC a few years back brought the city to its knees – what a contrast.

The next day I decided to get up and run around the Hoan Kiem Lake. I knew that if I got up early enough that I wouldn’t have to worry about the motorbikes and crazy traffic. It was so fun to go running – it was cool, it was flat, I was definitely an oddity, and there was tons to see around the lake. Groups doing Tai Chi, men playing bad-mitten, people out walking – I felt like I was able to see the locals going about their normal day. There was one old man that would give me the thumbs up sign every time I passed him!

One of the women in my group, Yvonne, made a great find – a bakery shop that sold the most amazing coconut pastries that I’ve ever tasted! I think I had about 3 of them a day (this was also a good reason to go running!) You would find these amazing little French pastry shops dotted about the city – bad for my figure – but great tasting!

Hanoi’s day time face

The last afternoon we were there, Sarah and I decided to go to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – why not go see the old guy ‘pickled’ – it should be an entertaining experience. We asked the hotel front desk what the hours were and she told us that they were open until 8PM…great. We took a taxi out there to find out that the Mausoleum actually closes every day at 11AM – apparently Ho Chi Minh has very strict viewing hours and few of them. We stood there at the information booth a bit puzzled and deflated. We just drove all the way out there to see this and now it’s not available. To top it off, all of the other buildings around the presidential palace close between 11 and 2 for lunch (see – government jobs are good everywhere). So we were baffled on what we were going to do. Like any good Vietnamese entrepreneur – a man came up to us and offered us some suggestions. He obviously wasn’t new to this situation where tourists come to see the Mausoleum only to find out that it was closed and they were stranded. He came to us and told us his name was Duong. His English was actually pretty good. He suggested that he show us other sites around the city instead – he even had a little battered comment book that he had past customers write in. He found some comments from an American and from a Canadian to show us. I wasn’t quite sold on this option as I was still a bit disappointed about the bad info the hotel clerk had given us, but then he said the magic word…motorbike. He was offering to tour us around on his motorbike…now I was intrigued. I had secretly been wanting to ride a motorbike in Hanoi. I wanted to experience the crazy traffic – but I would only consider doing this with a local who understood the chaos. Before Sarah knew it – I was negotiating with the guy on how much it would cost to take us around Hanoi for a little sight seeing until 2PM. I saw Sarah’s terrified look and decided that I better get her approval before I went too far. She was game for it…what a brave woman! Duong produced a friend with a motorbike, we agreed upon a price – and away we went. No helmets of course – but then again no one wore helmets – so I doubt that Duong could have produced one if he wanted to.

Exploring Hanoi on a motorbike

Duong was a great guide – he took us all over and we just held on for dear life! After about an 30 minutes I did loosen my grip a bit and even was able to pull out my little camera to take some action shots! He pointed out the houses in the French Quarter, all of the museums, the opera house, the cathedrals, and he even took us to the Hoa Lo Prison for us to tour. The prison was used for years to keep Vietnamese during the various civil wars and then it was used to detain American pilots during the ‘American War’. In fact, John McCain was actually detained here. I must admit – the section around the American prisoners seemed like a bit of propaganda – but it was interesting none the less.

Duong got us back to the museum complex on time and agreed to wait for us and take us back to our hotel later. Sarah and I viewed the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the presidential palace and the House on Stilts. It was a nice afternoon. But the real fun came again when we got back on the motorbikes and rode into the Old Quarter. The Old Quarter was full of narrow streets and tons of traffic – cylcos, bikes, cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians. I tightened my grip and tried to take some video footage of the ride.

At one point Sarah and Duong (on one bike) got through an intersection and one second later me and my driver tried to get through and we were enveloped by the mass of people going the other way. We had to simply stop and inch our way through with people blaring their horns at us! Sarah and I both agreed that this was our favorite thing that we did in Hanoi – riding a motor bike there was a true adventure! Better than any roller coaster ride that I’ve ever been on!

We treated ourselves to a nice dinner in the Old Quarter, one last coconut pastry and we bid the city goodbye. I was sad to leave Hanoi – I felt like I was just getting into the rhythm of it and now I had to leave. This city was unique to me, it was huge, loud, dirty, and full of people (like all great, big cities) – but it completely closed down from 11PM to 7AM – I have no idea where all of those people went! My tour of the north was over and we had to hop on the overnight train and leave Northern Vietnam…leaving Hanoi to get its beauty rest.


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