Hanoi: City of the Rising Dragon

I appear to be two years late for Hanoi’s 1,000th year Birthday Party, the anniversary of it being coronated as the captial by Emperor Le Thai To (though the area itself has been inhabited since as early as 3,000 B.C.)

Hanoi, Vietnam:

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.

Taking a moment to relax and enjoy the view over Hoan Kiem Lake

Despite the chaotic world outside, the interior courtyards can be a place of peace and serenity

Inside the Temple of Literature

The Mausoleum Complex for Ho Chi Minh

West Lake, as seen from above

The streets lit up at night

Ngoc Son Temple (in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake)

Yet another lake in the middle of the city: Bay Mau Lake (I actually love the fact the Hanoi not only refused to fill in the lakes for the sake of additional real estate, but they take great pride in the aesthetic appeal that they bring)

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.

Several of the temples and shrines can be visited on foot, but the primary Pagoda itself can only be accessed by an hour-long boat ride each way

Once you reach the peak of the mountain, you begin to descend down into a cave-like grotto, where the actual Pagoda is housed (the “Perfume” adjective originated from he ever-present smell of joss smoke)

Looking out towards the forest-covered mountains that surround the area

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).


Another perfect vantage point

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!

About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

9 Responses to “Hanoi: City of the Rising Dragon”

  1. What was the feeling of the people towards an American?

    • This is actually a great question, and one I can only answer for myself — as I know other people have had varying expereiences. Before arriving, I was a little nervous about this one (as I’ve both heard some horror stories and the war still lies in recent memory for many), but as far as my experiences have gone so far, the Vietnamese couldn’t be much more helpful or polite. Admittedly, however, I always try to learn a few words of each new language, I smile a whole lot, and generally treat everyone with respect from the get-go.

      There is a subconscious stigma about US citizens traveling abroad and how others will react to them, but in all of the places I’ve found so far, people are usually more curious than anything else once they find out where I’m from (which is usually the second I open my mouth, as they can pick out the US accent in a heartbeat). Generally, they understand that I am a person, not a country, and the discussion usually leads to what schools their cousin attended for a while there, what everyday life is like, or how realistic sit-coms are.

      Occasionally, some folks have brought up political topics, to which I normally steer away, but the discussions are usually much more civil then they would be if we had the same discussion back in the US (where we are a bit more forceful with our opinions).

      Sorry for the long rant, by the way. I’ve got another few weeks in Vietnam, but so far, much to my delight, being an American hasn’t been a negative factor in the slightest. Thanks, as always, for reading!

  2. Andrew! I was just reading about Hoi An and their special dish Cao Lau in Afar magazine…. it made me think of you. If you do make it to Hoi An let us know about the food…. the magazine lists five places to eat Cao Lau…… http://www.afar.com/afar/where-to-eat-cao-lau-in-hoi-an Love reading about your travels!!!!

    • Oooo…thanks for the link. As you know, I’m always on the lookout for the next tasty treat to try. I pretty much spent a week in Hanoi eating everything I could find (for which I’m working on a separate post that I’ll have up soon), but I haven’t run into Cao Lau yet. I head into Hoi An tomorrow (I’m currently in Hue), so this will definitely be on my itinerary.

      And as a side note, AFAR was one of my favorite magazines for the few years I was preparing for the trip — although I’ve had to cancel my subscription for obvious reasons 😦 Thanks again!

  3. Andrew, thank you so much for taking “us” with you by presenting thoughts and photos from your travels. Seeing the sights of Hanoi reminds me again of how fortunate I am to be able to explore and think about the wide world with your help. You are an outstanding teacher! Best wishes, KH

  4. Hi Andrew

    Great post! I’m surprised to hear about the decision to paint all Halong Bay boats white! We were there in 2009 and can’t imagine that this would add to the aesthetic of the area at all.

    If you get to Hoi An – which I thoroughly recommend – try the pork stuffed squid at The Cargo Club restaurant. I think it is one of the best dishes I have ever had. The Red Bridge cooking classes are also great.

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