10/15/2008 - 10/18/2008 80 °F
I flew into Vietnam with very high expectations. Thailand and Laos were good warmups, and now I wanted to finish off the trip with a memorable 3 week run north to south in Vietnam. Hanoi was the starting point, and in short, I really enjoyed Hanoi. Most people I meet hedge their reviews of Hanoi - its too busy, too smelly, too dirty - you get the point, and I guess in a way it is all of those things. But Hanoi is also this very strange place that has seen countless empires rise and fall, foreign colonization rise and fall, and is home to a continuing interplay between communism and the country's modern balance with capitalsim. The underlying amalgam of hardships and political posturing is written all over Hanoi - on the walls, in the decaying old city, and especially on the faces of its residents. This gives an American like myself a lot to chew on.
I stayed in the old city which is one of the oldest preserved 'old cities' in any asian country. Its streets are narrow and the shops all moonlight as homes for the shopkeepers. During the day the sidewalks are filled with merchants, motorbikes, and food stalls - walking requires frequent detours into the street. The street. Wow, well Hanoi trumps everywhere I have ever been in terms of street chaos. Seemingly endless numbers of motorbikes twist and turn with little regard for traffic laws, which I have learned are loose to non-existent in Hanoi. But in all the chaos, I found an endearing order to the old city. Old alley ways were lined with food stalls and the locals sit on tiny chairs and eat their Pho (Vietnamese Soup). I was not harassed by too many touts, scammers, or street vendors, at least no more than what I am now accustomed to in southeast Asia. And as you move through the old city to the Hoan Kiem Lake the choas opens up into a more modern city with larger streets and a city plan that uses the lake as a central point.
From the lake I walked through variously nice and not so nice neighborhoods to view the french inspired colonial architecture, the "Hanoi Hilton" known here as Hoa Lo Prison - famous for holding American POWs and before that used by the French to hold Vietnamese socialists and communists - a scary place. I walked through a mediocre Botanical Gardens, saw the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (sadly, Ho was getting cleaned up this month so I couldnt view him). I took in the Fine Arts Museum which held a nice collection of art, even if the building reminded me of a portion of my high school, and I also saw a memorial to John McCain, the American senator who was shot down in central Hanoi when he was a fighter pilot in the war. He is actually revered in Vietnam for his eventual pro-Vietnam stance regarding the war.
Enough with the little details, the big point is that I think Hanoi is great. Its not western its not really that beautiful in a conventional sense. Nor is a hard city to learn or get around, as some people suggest to me. I found it largely walkable, and with the proper choices, transport never put me in a risky or fraud inducing situation. One night I ccoordinated to meet my friend Sophie, who was part of my group when I lived in Wanaka, New Zealand. She is traveling with her husband and we all met up for drinks and dinner. Apart from that I was solo the whole time and due to Hanoi's sensory appeal in terms of sights, sounds, and food....I thought it was a good place to travel solo.