Monday, 5 December 2011

Hanoi – Holy Harried Honking Horns, We Finally Made It!

Our trip from Koh Lipe to Vietnam, surprise surprise, did not go exactly as planned.  After travelling by long boat, ferry, taxi and flight from Koh Lipe to Langkawi to Kuala Lumpur and then grabbing about five hours sleep at a KL airport hotel before dragging ourselves back to the departure terminal and hustling through the line up to get to the check in counter by 5:00 AM, we were pooped.  You can imagine how we felt when the woman checking us in informed us that there was a problem and we couldn’t board.  Our Visas to enter Vietnam were not valid until the next day!  OOPS – very big oops, very angry wife and very grumpy family.  We did some scrambling, changed the tickets to the next day and headed back to the crappy airport hotel to hang out until we could repeat the early morning routine with more success.  The day did provide us with a chance to do laundry and catch up on some correspondence so I guess that all was not lost.

Our next attempt to get to Vietnam was a success and wow, what a place. We are loving it.  Our trip just keeps getting more and more fascinating! 

We landed in the capital city of Hanoi which is in the northern part of the country.  Arrival and hotel transport went without a hitch and at our hotel we received the warmest welcome we have yet to receive.  We checked into a very new, wonderfully appointed and spotless room where rose petals, fresh fruit and drinks awaited us.  Quite a contrast to the Tune Hotel at the KL airport.

After settling into our calm and more than comfortable space we ventured out to start exploring.  We made it as far as the corner and then glancing at each other, Rob and I burst out laughing but the boys looked at us as though they wanted to kill us (not the first time we have received such looks) – where in God’s name were we now!

Hanoi is a city of 6.5 million people and 6 million motor bikes.  We thought we were getting used to Asia’s apparent lack of “rules of the road” but what we were in the midst of brought things to a whole new level.  Neither Beijing nor Bangkok could begin to compare.  There were motor bikes everywhere, seemingly going in all directions and all seemingly honking their horns at once.  Adding to the chaos and interspersed with the motor bikes were people commuting as well as selling their wares on bicycles and on foot, cylco cabs weaving in and out of traffic, many people walking and loads of hawkers approaching us to "buy from them".  Oh and there were also cars here and there thrown in for good measure.  We felt like we had been in a picture book while we were on Lipe but now we were plunked in the middle of a movie set with no idea how we could even cross the street.  Eric immediately declared that he was returning to the room so we escorted him back and Rob, Fearon and I headed out again, resolved to at least figure out how to cross the street.

Eric eventually decided to tackle the chaos and it did not take long for us all to get the hang of weaving in and out of the traffic like the pros - well maybe not like the pros or the locals but at least we could navigate from point to point.

Hanoi is so many things that it is difficult to describe.  I’ll post some pictures and hopefully they will provide you with a small sense of what this crazy, wonderful place is like – we absolutely loved it but again, are glad to not have to deal with it on a day to day basis.

Hanoi is famous for its’ Pho, the noodle soup that is Vietnam’s national dish.  Pho can be had at most restaurants but the tastiest dishes are made at the stalls that line alleys and avenues throughout the city. Our first Vietnamese meal was Pho, eaten on plastic chairs on a street corner amidst the chaos of Hanoi’s historic quarter.  Two marvelous and huge dishes of tasty noodles, grand total, about $2.00.  We made sure we had at least one dish a day during the time we spent in the city.

Our first chef de Pho.
We didn't only eat on the street.  We also enjoyed some lovely and very affordable restaurant meals.  They really add the special touches in this country - notice the flowers on Fearon's glass of soda....

One of the many things that we love about Asia in general is that life is really lived out on the street.  This was particularly evident in Hanoi.  In the cities, the spaces in which folks live are generally so small and dismal that it is most often simply more pleasant to be out on the street rather than confined to one’s home which frequently consists of a single room shared by many.  While I certainly would not trade our cozy North American abodes for a typical Asian dwelling, there is something to be said for the joie de vivre and the communal nature of living life so “out there”.  People can be seen cooking, eating, shopping and socializing on every street corner, in every alley and doorway.   

We could guess what they were trading here. - Cockfighting in Vietnam is still a popular "sport" and these men were likely discussing this poor bird's money making potential.

Lots of barbers could be seen cutting hair and shaving faces throughout the streets.

Tea Time anyone?

One of the many things that amazed us about Hanoi (and the rest of Vietnam that we have seen so far) is the extent to which the buying and selling of literally everything takes place on the street.  No shopping malls in the old part of Hanoi.  It really is like stepping back in time.  The maze of alleys and streets are not only jam packed with narrow store front kiosks but also with hawkers pedaling their wares on their backs, bikes and bullock carts.  I had to think very hard about how the principles of marketing that I teach to students in Canada could possibly be relevant amidst the cacophony and chaos of business in this environment.

While street vendors roam about everywhere there did appear to be some organizations to the tapestry and tendrils of shops throughout the old quarter.  Shoes lined one area, clothes another, sewing materials another and so on.  This organization apparently dates back centuries when workshop villages were arranged by trades, some of which are still existing.

Hanoi was not in any way lacking the Christmas spirit. Christmas street was full of plastic colour that was likely arrived here straight from China.

 Bamboo street was pretty cool as was spice street below.

We wondered how our friend Rob R would tackle the competition on streets lined with $10 Nike and Adidas.  We concluded that he would find a way to shine even in this environment.

Snake Wine is apparently quite a specialty of Hanoi....

Although we did spend much of our time in Hanoi simply wandering around the maze of the old quarter, we also took in a few of the specific “sites”.  The Temple of Literature dates back to 1076 when it was established as a centre for Confucian learning.  Although it has been damaged during various wars, it has successfully been restored and is still the home of many educational and cultural events.  It is a beautiful compound of lakes, courtyards, and yes, a temple.  It is also, as evidenced by the various people being photographed there, a popular spot for important photo shoots.

As with many of the places we have visited, there were actually sites to behold around nearly every corner......

Saint Joseph's Cathedral, built in 1886 would not be out of place in any European city.  It reminded the boy's of Christ's Church in Victoria, an obvious example of the European influence here.

Hoan Kiem Lake is central to the old town and around the lake are many beautiful buildings and monuments.  When we ran around the lake in the morning, we saw dance classes, badminton games, soccer and of course, Tai Chi.

Hanoi is well known for beautiful Water Puppetry and we went to see a wonderful show performed by their national troupe.  The art was originally performed in ponds and rice paddies but the show we saw was in a theater on a pool of water.  The puppeteers stand behind an elaborate screen and control the puppets that perform on the water’s surface with bamboo rods.  An orchestra playing traditional Vietnamese music on traditional instruments accompanies the play.  It was really cool.

Phew, no wonder we were a little tired when ever we arrived back to the oasis of friendliness and hospitality we found at our hotel. Here I am arriving after our cyclo tour.

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