Hanoi, Vietnam: Medieval meets the 21st century

Just before boarding our flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, we stopped at the airport bookshop and found a Lonely Planet for Vietnam. We went back to the boarding area and unwrapped our “find” – a terrible photocopy of the original, and, a 2011 edition, not the advertised 2013. I’m sure many people would say “duh, what did you expect?!”. But We thought buying it in the airport would be a safe bet (especially for the 19 USD price tag). We tried to return it, and instead they told us to find a non-copied one on the shelf. Sounded promising but after unwrapping 4 more of them (and running out of time as our plane was boarding), we gave up and just figured we’d keep our Laos souvenir. We landed in misty cool Hanoi – a welcomed change from the hot & hazy conditions in Laos and Thailand. The best way to describe Hanoi for us was: a land of contrast – medieval meets the 21st century or communism meets capitalism. We stayed in the old quarter and it was a good introduction to raw Hanoi with its twisting mess of narrow roads and alleys, lots of attractive old buildings, interesting street scenes, rich exotic scents and of course plenty of noise thanks to the heavy traffic and the non-stop honking motorbikes and taxis


Below: Street scenes in Hanoiimage image Below: snake treats anyone?imageBelow: St Joseph’s cathedral we walked by every dayimage image image image Below: unfolding traffic scene in Hanoi, crazy! Photos courtesy of Morgan Lusk who was visiting from Anchorage Alaska.  imageimage image imageThe houses in Hanoi were very interesting, neither tall buildings as people normally see in cities nor stilt houses. They are called “tube houses” which are short and narrow but have great length. In the past, the king stipulated that citizens’ houses could not be built higher than the height of the king’s palace. And because of the dense population in a limited area, people needed to use the front room for stores; and the inside room was widened in order to divide places for manufacturing, dining and living of each family. We were also told that these tunnel houses were developed this way to avoid taxes based on the width of their street frontage.

On our first day, as we crossed a large boulevard, we were approached by a woman selling cute cards. As we perused the cards and negotiated a price, another guy approached telling James he needs his shoes polished. James tried to wave him off as business with the card woman wasn’t finalized and he wasn’t sure he wanted his shoes polished anyway. But all vendors here are very persistent and you must do much more than simply say no and wave them off. Before James knew it, his shoe was off and running across the street. The guy had taken James’ left shoe off! Sylvie yelled “follow the shoe” and continued the card transaction while James hobbled across the street using a 4-sizes-too-small flip flop left behind by the shoeshine man. By the time James reached the other side, his shoe had been polished and the guy had poked a hole in it to sew up something he claimed was wrong! Mind you, one shoe polished and one not meant the guy was going to get paid something, even before a price was agreed on (very clever). After some back and forth, for about $2, James had one shoe fixed? and both polished. image The conversation went something like this:

Shoeshine man: Shoes need clean
James: No thank you
Shoeshine man: You no understand, bad shoe. Shoes need clean!
James: No thank you
Shoeshine man: Yes, shoe need clean. Me very good, clean shoe.
James: No!
Shoeshine man: Yes, me very good. I shoe clean now.

Which at this point after polishing James left shoe while we were talking with the card woman despite James repeated no thank you, he takes James’ shoe off and runs with it. Very persistent indeed!

While we waited for the weather to clear for an excursion to Halong Bay, we kept ourselves busy around Hanoi. We visited the city’s famous women museum, a fascinating place that highlights the contribution of women to Vietnam’s history and culture, including their roles in Vietnam’s military conflicts as well as in commerce, women’s role in the family, and more. We took a walk to Hoan Kiem Lake and visited Ngoc Son Temple and snapped some pictures at Huc Bridge, the classy little bridge that connects the island where the temple sits on to the lake shore. imageAbove: newly weds by the lake.image imageNo visit to Hanoi would be complete without a stop at the HCMC mausoleum where a lot of locals come pay their respect to their embalmed past leader. We went in as well and walked slowly by the heavily guarded, slightly macabre spectacle of Uncle Ho laying in his glass coffin. We couldn’t help thinking that he looked very very good for being dead. The embalming must be quite a process, in fact he goes back to Russia once a year for maintenance we were told! Of course, no photography was allowed inside but we could snap some outside the complex.image image imageDuring our week in Hanoi, we also browsed all the different streets in the old quarter named after the goods that were traditionally sold on them. The names usually start with hang, which means “something you sell”, then the name of the good itself (China bowl, silk, shoes, etc..). We also took in the night market with its main street packed with tourists and locals alike, haggling prices and eating local treats. Besides the obvious local dishes, we also tried the local homemade yogurt and went to the cafe where Catherine Deneuve used to go when she was in Hanoi filming Indochine to have her favorite yogurt. It was indeed very yummy. The cafe had pictures of her on the wall. image On our last day, we took the local bus to tour the small town of Bat Trang, known for its ceramic artisans. We wandered from stall to stall admiring all of the ornate vases, tea sets, plates, planters, etc. We even stopped in a shop and took a quick ceramic-making course. Very fun, but we will need more practice. Our teacher made it look so easy though! image image image Below: Sylvie’s first try!imageBelow: Our finished pieces of artimageWhile our clay creations dried, we walked further into the village and found a shop where the locals were making tea pots and cups. They were very welcoming and allowed us to observe every step in the process and even shared some of their tea while two of the workers took a break.imageimageimageOn the way back we got to experience a taxi scam, common in Vietnam as we had read. They come in all shade of colors though. When we got back to the bus station in downtown Hanoi, we were too tired to walk back to our hotel so we signaled a taxi that we thought looked legit. But taxi companies in this land of copycat are often imitated. We got handed over to another cab as the one we had selected was apparently busy and off we went. It started off OK and we were watching the route he was taking like a hawk until we suddenly noticed the meter going crazy, at triple pace! We yelled at the driver to stop and it took him a while. Exasperated and half way there, we got off and walked back the last section to our hotel. With the weather not clearing at all and the forecast looking the same over the next week, we decided not to wait anymore and booked a 2 days 1 night cruise to Halong Bay. The cruise included some activities such as kayaking, cooking, hiking to a viewpoint and visiting a large cave. Even though the weather wasn’t at its prime, we enjoyed the scenery and the mystic feel the clouds gave the whole place.   imageimageAbove: our boat and small but comfortable room belowimage  imageBelow: vendor approaching the boat to try and sell goodiesimageimage  image image image imageAbove: making spring rolls on the boat for our lunchimage   We got back to Hanoi for one night after Halong Bay so we could catch our plane for Hoi An the next day. So far, despite the little shoe and taxi misadventures, we were highly impressed with Vietnam and how nice and warm people were to us (yes, despite our American passports).

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10 Responses to Hanoi, Vietnam: Medieval meets the 21st century

  1. David Howell says:

    Nice to see your smiling faces. And James, your shoes do need some help! Maybe he was just trying to say that they were ugly.

  2. Kathy and wayne godarr says:

    Now your getting a taste (and many more to come!) of Vietnam. Crazy huh? We so wish we could have met up. Halong Bay was was one place we were unable to visit. They are very persistent! Wayne’s leather sandals did get polished and looked like new after! Do take advantage of a massage or foot massage! Right by the Opera house in Ho Chi Minh city is a place called jasmine spa..check it out, just one of the many we visited. One hour massage is about nine dollars, one hour foot massage about seven. Tip…about two fifty. To get them to leave you alone if you aren’t interested in what the street vendors or anybody is trying to sell, say (COMB), (that is not how it’s spelled, but if you say that…it works) while puffing cheeks out at the end of the word B. Enjoy the disorderd chaos and be careful crossing those streets!!!

  3. Heather says:

    So glad to hear you guys are having a nice time in Vietnam! Funny about the shoe story – we had nearly the exact same thing happen in Delhi!

  4. Joel Lupro says:

    Must be nice to get all that Vietnamese food all the time. Yummy, isn’t it? The market photos remind me of Taiwan. Makes me miss Asia!

    • speters14 says:

      It was definitely good food, but we still needed a break here and there from noodle soup and rice. The markets are always so full of smells, colors, and activity. We did find a street vendor in the market that had pretty good food and ate there a couple times.

  5. Morgan Lusk says:

    Hey James and Sylvie

    Great to see your pictures of all the memorable spots we shared on that trip. I am glad you had a chance to experience Halong Bay. That was definitely a highlight of the trip. Another favorite is the Haon Kiem lake scenes. You captured a great moment with the shot of the wedding couple.
    I hope the rest of your tour continues with lots of adventure and wonder.

    All my best

    BTW; thanks for the photo credits!

    • speters14 says:

      Hi Morgan, good to hear from you. How is the weather in Alaska right now? We’re toasting here in Cambodia. Yes Halong Bay was nice despite being foggy. Thanks again for loaning us your Hanoi pics. Where is your next getaway taking you?

    • Dear Megan, Dear James and Sylvie,

      I allow to contact you in the name of Laboratory Infrastructure Architecture & Territory (LIAT) attached to the National School of Architecture of Paris-Malaquais (ENSAPM) and directed by Professor Dominique Rouillard. We actually are conducting a research as part of the tender of the French Ministry of Culture called “Thinking architecture, the city and the landscape through the prism of energy.” Its title: “Future of the vehicle, the future of cities. Urban life in the era of automobility “.

      To illustrate this research, we found on this blog your Hanoi traffic picture, which help us to illustrate the idea of the end of the “automobile zoning”.
      We would be particularly grateful that you help us to get the authorization required for the publication of this picture into a work in progress. If you have other iconography in your possession or informations to indicate to us about this picture (date, place…), it can also interest us.

      We thank you in advance for the help you can give us in this research.

      Our best regards,

      Marguerite Wable
      Research Assistant
      LIAT /ENSA Paris-Malaquais
      14 rue Bonaparte 75006 Paris

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