Throughout the course of its history, Hanoi has been called my many names – ”Song Peace”, “Dragon Belly”, “Between Rivers”, “Ascending and Flourishing”, and my personal favorite, “The Rising Dragon” — but regardless of the many poetic monikers that it has taken on, it’s a city that lives with its history of colonialism, communism, capitalism, and repeated wars carved into the streets and its optimistic spirit and persevering heart on its sleeve. The soundtrack of the city is punctuated by the constant hum of motorbike horns, the din of the craftsman’s hammer or welder’s torch toiling away, the call of the female fruit merchants roaming the streets in conical bamboo hats, the giggle of school children gobbling down ice cream or playing on the sidewalks, and the occasional blast of pop music emanating from a nearby disco or karaoke bar.
After spending the last few weeks in the laid back and slow-paced country of Laos, stepping into one of Vietnam’s most dynamic cities was like stepping into an entirely different world with its own independent pulse and maddeningly hectic pace of life. Between wandering through the labyrinthine streets and alleyways of the Old Quarter, mingling amongst the old men drinking Bia Hoi on plastic stools, the constant sound of noodles being slurped on the sidewalk, weaving your way in and out of the cramped sidewalks chock full of both pedestrians and kitchen appliances, the hair-raising experience of trying to cross the street (the trick is the slowly walk into traffic and trust that the motorbikes will swerve out of your way), or simply the smell of grilled meat mixed with exhaust fumes and incense smoke, you’ll quickly realize that Hanoi takes on a life of its own. It isn’t a place for everyone, but once you adjust to the living creature that is the city, the constant sensory onslaught ceases to be a burden and emerges more as a sense of comfort, a feeling of being a part of a larger whole.
If the city does become oppressive and suffocating, however, there are quite a few side trips into the beautiful countryside around Hanoi that are available for the itinerant wanderers. A popular day trip is to what is known as the Perfume Pagoda, a series of Buddhist shrines and pagodas that crown the Huong Rich Mountain. A festival is held here each year during the third lunar month, sometime in March or April, during which hundreds of thousands of pilgrims descend upon the area, but during the rest of the year, the trek is (at least slightly) less crowded.
Halong Bay, Vietnam:
Another of Vietnam’s most popular attractions — and one of the most highly decorated UNESCO sites — is that of Halong Bay, a few hours drive Northeast of the city. The most notable features of the bay are the countless majestic limestone karsts, as well as the almost two thousand islands that are sprinkled over the area. The bay has been drawing visitors for decades now, so luckily, hiring a boat to take you out on the water couldn’t be easier — many even offer 2 and 3 day excursions in which you sleep on the boat (of which I took advantage).
On an unfortunate note, however, the beautiful postcard views of dark wooden boats with red sails being silhouetted by the towering cliffs is a thing of the past, as someone in management recently decreed that all boats trolling these waters must now be painting stark white (meaning, the dingy-looking white ships now stand out even more against the backdrop of earth tones than my 6-foot-4 frame does walking down the sidewalk amongst the Vietnamese people).
Hanoi marks just the beginning of my Vietnamese adventure. After heading out-of-town, I’ll be making my way south down what seems like the never-ending coastline, with probable stops at Hue, Hoi An, Nga Trang, into the hills for Dalat, back to the beaches with Mui Ne, and eventually into Saigon (now dubbed Ho Chi Minh City). Additionally, I haven’t even touched on the street food scene yet, which occupied most of my time in Hanoi, so I should have another few posts out again soon. Until then, Can Chen from Northern Vietnam!