Saturday, August 13, 2011

Tokyo/Vietnam July 2011 - Exploring Hanoi

***This post is part 8 of a full trip report. The index can be found here***

I was pretty exhausted from my travels after arriving at Noi Bai International Airport outside of Hanoi. It was definitely a good thing that I had pre-booked a private car pickup with the hotel. Taxi scams are notorious in Hanoi these past few years (just do a quick Google search), so despite being a couple of dollars more expensive than a taxi, I felt it was well worth the security.

What I wasn't ready for, however, was the white-knuckle, heart-attack inducing driving that every Hanoian seems quite adept at. I was dozing in and out of sleep during the 40 minute ride into town, but in the moments that my eyes were briefly open, I recalled seeing bright headlights coming directly toward us - we were swerving in and out of oncoming traffic to pass the slower cars that seemed to live in the fast lane. Not that there was a fast lane, or even lanes at all. Cars, motorbikes, trucks, bicycles, and pedestrians all shared the open freeway. I'd open my eyes again to catch a glimpse of children and old women with shoulder baskets crossing the freeway in front of our car while we swerved to avoid the potential fatalities. This, apparently, is normal everyday driving in Hanoi.

You learn very quickly how to walk the streets of Hanoi. Rule #1: Cars don't ever stop for red lights, and neither should you. Rule #2: Don't ever focus on trying to avoid bicycles, motorbikes, or cars while crossing the street. Just keep walking at a steady pace and somehow, everything works out. Rule #3: Sidewalks are just extra lanes of the road, expect to be honked by motorbikes driving on the sidewalk, or even cars. Rule #4: Like rule #3, roads are also sidewalks. Expect to see grandmas randomly strolling on the freeway, or people getting haircuts, or stalls selling everything from fruits to baguettes.

Crossing the street in Hanoi

Hanoi is truly a small town at heart, despite the designation of capital of Vietnam. There are very few high rises here, but you get the feeling that the city is quickly outgrowing its skin... roads are consistently congested, the local parks are filled with people from dawn to well past evening, and construction is around every corner. This does make for, however, a very exciting city to explore.

Deceptively calm picture of Hoan Kiem Lake

The Old Quarter is the touristy part of town, and contains many of the famous sites. Hoan Kiem Lake serves as a meeting place of sorts for Hanoians young and old. Women doing their daily group exercises, teenage lovers cuddling by the water, and tourists snapping photos all converge in this designated center of town. Shops and restaurants surround the lake and spread outwards in a maze of streets and alleyways. Right across from the lake is the famous Thang Long water puppet theater. The show is a bit manic, but entertaining and quite humorous nonetheless.

A hotel I would probably avoid in the Old Quarter

Water puppetry

There are plenty of museums and temples to see in Hanoi, the most famous of which is probably the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Not quite sure what it is with communism and their uncontrollable urge to embalm leaders and put them on display... but it sure makes for an eerie and uncomfortable tourist attraction. Most of the time spent at the mausoleum consists of waiting in a fast-moving line. Soon, you enter the building and up some stairs, all the while being carefully monitored by uniformed guardsmen telling you to stop talking or giving you the evil eye. Once inside the dimly-lit hall displaying Ho Chi Minh's body, you move quickly in line (with guards physically pushing you forward if you are too slow) around the perimeter of the room, staring at the center glass enclosure housing the body. And in less than 2 minutes the tour is over. To be honest, the whole thing had a strange amusement park feel to it... almost like the haunted house ride at Disneyland. Except, of course, the main attraction being a dead body. Very, very weird, but definitely worth a visit. Of course, no pictures are allowed inside, and to be sure of that, you leave your camera in a security office prior to entering (I was sure I would never see my camera again - luckily I was wrong).

One-pillar pagoda

Tran Quoc Pagoda, the oldest in Vietnam

The most well-known war museum among Western tourists is probably the Hao Lo Prison, aka the Hanoi Hilton. The key to visiting any historical museum in Vietnam, especially those relating to recent wars, is to expect propaganda. If you can look past the blatant misinformation and balance that with some of the universal truths about war in general, it becomes a lot easier to digest what you are seeing. Not far from the prison is the Temple of Literature, which turned out to be slightly different than what I had imagined. Anticipating a quiet and peaceful walk through old architecture and beautiful trees, we instead came upon hoards of teenagers all rushing in to buy incense so they could pray inside the temple for (what else?) good grades. It was actually quite a funny sight to see, as my friend and I both agreed their time would probably be better spent at home studying instead.

The Hanoi Hilton

John McCain's flight suit

Temple of Literature

Teenagers praying for a miracle

Hanoi is definitely a city in transition, bound to experience some growing pains in the next decade or two. But it will be exciting to come back in a few years time to see all the changes that have taken place.

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