999 not out, Hanoi hurtles towards a second, very different millenium

Hanoi Travel Blog

 › entry 8 of 10 › view all entries

I'm never really sure what to make of Hanoi.  We've stayed there on three separate occasions, each only for one or two nights before heading off elsewhere.  In many ways its quite like HCMC, its big, busy, dirty, noisy and alive, but somehow it lacks a certain something.  I guess Hanoi is much more of a mood amplifier, its little quirks, the way it runs and is, are charming when your in a good mood but just annoying when you're in a bad one.

Its old quarter is certainly and interesting place to be.  There is no central tourist street like in Saigon, the hotels, hostels and bars are spread out throughout and the old quarter and so mingle so much more sucessfully with the locals.  The local restaurants have more backpackers lurking in them rather than in more specific, obviosuly tourist restaurants.  And this I like.  The fact that the whole old quarter is entirely shopping makes for an entertaining first day's worth of exploring.  Each street traditionally belongs to a guild of a single trade so there is a street for blacksmiths, a street for leather products, streets for shoes.  The silk street is quite touristy whilst some of the more hardware orientated streets remain very loca.  All crammed together, living side by side.  Out hostel was on one of the butchery streets which was intriguing but not always pleasant.  For example they keep bowls of fish by the road in water to keep them alive, then there are baskets of fish dying slowly in the sunlight next to them, and then beside them are fish with their tails cut off, dying a lot more speedily on the chopping boards.  You can't say the food here isn't fresh.

Maybe I'm also a little biased as we didn't stay in very good hostels and where you stay often influences majorly how you feel about a place.  We've ended up staying in three places, each one getting slightly better.  The final one was decent but we paid for it.  The first one wasn't terrible but the staff were rude, they didn't reserve a room for us the first time we came back (like we asked) and we suspect they didn't put our luggage into sotrage whilst we were gone (and again asked).  They probably just left it in the main room to one side, which is downright bad.  Basic rooms I can live with, I am a backpacker after all, but this was not good.  (You always have to be suspicious of renamed hostels too).

The downside of this is that Hanoi doesn't really have a concept of pavements, just motorcycle parks and places for tables.  Most of the time you end up walking to one side of the road.  Saigon also had this issue, but not to the same extent.  Plus the kerbs and gutters were wider in Saigon.  The old quarter in Hanoi is much more crampt, with smaller roads, and so, much more frequently you're thrust out into the middle of the road and the traffic.  Although, with narrower roads there are fewer cars (same number of motorbikes though!) and slower speeds.

It could be that there are fewer tourist destinations to visit to keep you entertained in the centre of the city.  On our last day in Hanoi, we decided to head out of the old quarter to the area around Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum, and the surrounding park.  The direct route would have taken us through the military citadel so we had to take a more circuituous route through the city, out of the cramped old quarter and through the wider tree lined streets that seemed to have a little less soul.  We say Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum but were too late to see the actual preserved body (open for a few hours a day, a few days a week, a few months a year)  We wandered round the outside looking for a way into the parkland behind where there was located a museum and a pagoda.  But we found now way in.  Most of it seemed to be military or government complexes with mean looking guards, we got firmly turned away.  You don't often get reminders about Vietnam being a communist country, but they do occasionally pop up, and the fact that they suprise you a little, I think tells a lot about the country and how it works.  We did manage to find the botanical gardens but there we found a very surreal sight.  About thirty or fourty brides having their pictures taking in various scenic spots.  Possibly for some kind of catalogue shoot, who knows.  But it was very surreal.  We escaped quickly and having almost circum-navigated the entire area we finally came across the museum, which was shut because it was a monday, adnt eh one-pillar pagoda, which wasn't that impressive as yet again, it was fairly concrete based, and so lacked the amazingness and finesse that it had been built up to.

What was good about Hanoi was the water puppet show.  Involving puppets and water!  The puppets were rather good, operated on sticks below the water's surface.  They moved and splashed about in a very descriptive way.  There was an orchestra providing backdrop and voices.  It was all in vietnamese but there was an english title to each of the twenty scenes (only fifty minutes long so quite a frequent change) and to be fair, I reckon it gained a lot from being in the local lingo and would have lost a lot with any english in it.  Each scene showed a different aspect of vietnamese life, traditions and mythology and it was good fun.

As we departed Hanoi for the final time, making our way on foot through the unusually crowded streets for a Monday evening, Hanoi finally burst into life and revealed some soul.  This came courtesy of the Vietnam under-23s side and their 4-1 semi-final victory at the south-east asian games over old enemy Singapore.  It was insane.  Everybody was out on the streets celebrating.  The entire-cities scootrs were blaring their way up and down the cities streets with bandanas and flags waving.  The central squares were alive with noise and celebrations and gridlock.  People were smiling and happy and it was great fun to be attempting to walk through all this on our way to the train station.  At the last minute Hanoi ahd shown us something special, a glimpse of what it can be, and quite possibly changed my mind about the city.

Anywho we were off to catch a train, the Reuinification express, all the way back to Siagon, a trip of thirty hours, more next time!

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photo by: mario26