(HANOI, VIETNAM) – I began my Vietnamese journey in Hanoi, and as this was my first trip to Asia I initially thought it was a wild place. Perhaps it was due to nasty jet lag and culture shock.
Upon further reflection, and having compared Hanoi with Ho Chi Minh City (the former Saigon), I think Hanoi is more laid back than HCMC. Armadas of scooters whiz about but, despite their noise and pollution, one can still cross the street in Hanoi. This simple chore becomes a life and death encounter in HCMC.
My best memory and possible advice to you is to take a stroll through the “Old Quarter”, which is teeming with shops and restaurants. The latter are entirely basic and makeshift, with pots of soup and rice in big caldrons on the sidewalk.
There are men drinking beer or tea, goods being bartered, and even lice being combed out of hair. Yes, its crowded, but I got the sense of being in a time warp, with pockets of crumbling French structures dotting the Old Quarter.
It is vibrant, intriguing and, after all these years, mysterious.
For history buffs there is also the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which is a tribute to the North Vietnamese leader who guided the country through its struggles with France, the United States, and South Vietnam. Perhaps more impressive are the Old French villas and government offices nearby which are painted an assortment of colours consisting of yellow.
Commercial development in HCMC is posing a serious threat to the declining stock of French colonial architecture.
There is also the definite laid back feeling of West Lake, with its shade and green waters. Here you can cross the small red bridge and visit Tran Quoc Pagoda, which is Hanoi’s oldest pagoda.
Pagodas and temples abound in Vietnam. Not to be crass, but once you have seen a few you’ve seen them all; like many of the churches in Europe. But, before you give up on temples you may want to visit The Temple of Literature, constructed in the 11th century. It was the first combined temple and university in Asia and sits in beautiful, shaded grounds.
Did you know there are 54 ethnic groups in Vietnam? You should visit The Museum of Ethnology, which is the biggest and most interesting museum in Hanoi. You’ll see many photos depicting ethnic dress and costumes and recreated scenes of daily life.
Leaving Hanoi by car is also a memorable and educational experience. Here also the commercialization of Vietnam is quite evident during the 3.5 hour drive to Ha Long.
There are bits of two lane highway here and there, but it is clear there is massive construction underway to build a highway from Hanoi to Ha Long, perhaps the premier tourist destination in all of Vietnam. The biggest stretch of highway is the final 44 kilometres into Ha Long.
Towns are basically being torn up by the construction. There is rubble everywhere, and village after village drifts by with the occasional green patches of rice paddies, fish farms, and vegetables in the field. There is the sense of both poverty and a country striving to rebuild itself into a modern Asian society.
Once you hit the last stretch of highway the rubble disappears and both the shops and people by the roadside look more prosperous. There are so many melons and pineapples for sale. And, 20 kilometres from Ha Long, the topography becomes one of forested hills and the hint of the beauty of Ha Long Bay.