Monday, 21 January 2013

The Streets of Hanoi

Hanoi is a lively, noisy, crazy, wonderful place, and I am so pleased that I decided to visit. It’s a city on steroids, with its manic motorcycle drivers honking their horns left and right and its bustling street life.

Life in the Old Quarter, in fact, seems lived largely on the sidewalk. Motorcycles park there, drivers for hire hang out there, vendors wander along with baskets of anything from fruit to pastries to flowers to Tet decorations, and food purveyors cook on outdoor burners, inviting customers to pull up plastic stools for spring rolls or pho or noodles. Meanwhile, tourists wander these same sidewalks, their mouths open in awe. I know my jaw was close to the floor much of the day!

Many museums in Hanoi are closed on Monday, so I set off on a walk, veered out of the Old Quarter and decided to keep going. Along the way, I saw all kinds of oddities, including a motorcycle carrying a family of five (true, I swear it!) and a row of barbers who set up shop on the sidewalk alongside a local park, giving haircuts and shaves to customers right outdoors.

I decided to walk toward West Lake, the more expensive part of town, and along the way I met a young woman from Shanghai who had the same intent. We decided to walk along together and ended up wandering the city all day.

Our travels took us to the lake, with its charming pagoda and men fishing along its shores, to the old French area with its colonial mansions, many of which are now government buildings, past Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum (closed on Monday!) and on to the Presidential Palace, where some official in a suit shooed us away for getting too close to the entryway – but not before we’d snapped some nice photos.

We stopped for lunch at a small restaurant that served beef noodle soup (pho), which I’d actually never had before, and it was surprisingly yummy.

Then, it was on to the Temple of Literature (open, by golly!), where scholars studies and stelae marked  those who succeeded at the highest level of national exams, questioned by the king himself.  A short walk later, we were at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, a Gothic structure that looked grey and worn on the outside, but had a stunning interior: white stucco walls with wooden ribs outlining the vaulted ceilings and brilliant stained glass in the nave and in windows along the length of the congregation. Most of the latter depicted French saints, which indicates that the building came about during French rule.

Nearby, we came upon a shop selling reproductions of old propaganda posters, and you had better believe there were numerous anti-American posters from what the Vietnamese call “the American War.” So interesting to see events from a different perspective!

On we walked to Hoan Kiem Lake, a small lake near the Old Quarter, which is a haunt of locals and tourists alike. It has a deserted temple in the middle and a temple that’s still used at the other end. Around the lake, we came upon a number of couples having their wedding photos taken. The women were in traditional dress: just beautiful!

Soon, it was dinnertime, and that meant more street food! We walked from stall to stall, eating spring rolls at one, salad rolls at another and renowned bun cha (noodles with grilled meat and broth) at a third.

Afterward, alas, it was time to part ways: Shimin, who returns to Shanghai tomorrow, headed to the water puppet show, and I returned to the hotel to organize my upcoming trip to Angkor Wat.

An unexpected new friend and a lovely introduction to daytime Hanoi!

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