Hanoi is such a fascinating city: the juxtaposition of old and new, the incessant sounds of horns beeping, the smells of food cooking, the difficulty of simply crossing a street!
We flew from Luang Prabang into Hanoi and had arranged a shuttle ride through our hotel, the Oriental Suites Hotel and Spa. We had stayed in the same hotel last year and enjoyed it so much that we booked it again. The drive from the airport takes 30-45 minutes, depending on traffic. And boy, is there traffic! One of the unique aspects of this city is its many modes of transportation, all sharing the same narrow streets. There are very few cars and trucks, but many motorcycles, cyclos (pedicabs), bicycles, and carts. We noticed many motorcycles carrying small trees; this was not something we had noticed on our previous trip, so were curious and resolved to look into it further after reaching our hotel.
In the heart of town, there are very few traffic lights, so at each intersection, there are 4-5 lanes of traffic all trying to get through to the opposite side. This is what makes crossing the street such a challenge! Though there are crosswalks, they do not give a pedestrian any type of right-of-way. Vehicles definitely do not stop when they see you in one. Your best bet is to slowly cross, despite the fact that motorcycles and cars are rapidly driving right at you. And, once you have started, keep walking! Traffic will weave around you as long as you keep going. If you stop, you will cause problems. It is completely disconcerting at first, but after having spent 5 days here, I can say that I have become accustomed to it. We tried to take a couple of video clips to capture the experience, but there is no way to really understand it other than to actually do it.
There are sidewalks, but if you think they are for pedestrians, you would be wrong. For the most part, sidewalks are where the nearly 5 million motorcycles in this city get parked. If you find a patch of sidewalk without motorcycles, watch out. Most likely someone is riding their motorcycle down the sidewalk and is right behind you!
Anything and everything is carried on a motorcycle. Or bicycle. Or cart. Or…
Hanoi is all about trade; there are shops lining every street and street vendors on the sidewalks. More than visiting museums, we enjoy walking the streets of the city, watching the everyday lives of the people that live here. It amazes me how so many sit on the teeny little footstools, both to eat and to do business. Many of the streets have the word “Hang” in them. It used to be that each Hang Street specialized in a particular type of goods. This is no longer true; most streets sell a variety of goods, though there are some streets that are more specialized.
So, why were so many trees being transported around the city? Tet (Lunar New Year) is coming in a few days, and the people of Vietnam are very busy preparing for it. Peach blossom trees and kumquat trees are brought in after the home has been cleaned from top to bottom. Some people just bring branches in; some bring the entire tree. There is an entire street (at least one) here that is dedicated to selling all things related Tet. It is an explosion of gold and red!
Yesterday, we noticed that carp were for sale in many market stalls. People buy them for Tet, and then release them into local lakes and streams. There are also people burning votive paper all up and down the street; some in small chimneys or woks, some just make a pile and let it burn right on the sidewalk. The practice is related to the belief that burning objects that their ancestors loved while still alive will send these objects to the “other side” to provide comfort for them there.
People are very friendly here, especially young people that are anxious to practice their English skills. English is one of the three main subjects taught in school. All are anxious to tell you what to eat here – bun cha, banh mi, pho, egg coffee, and so on. The food is amazing – there are so many excellent restaurants to choose from. We got hooked on Banh Mi 25 for lunches. For a mere $3 US, we could both get a sandwich and a coke. Egg coffee was better than expected. We tried drinking black coffee before we knew better – that was some nasty stuff! Better with lots of sweetener and foam.
There are plenty of interesting museums to visit, but what made it so enjoyable for us was simply being here for enough days to really experience the sights and sounds of the city. Of course, we did take in a few of the sights. We spent a considerable amount of time relaxing at Hoan Kiem Lake; it is a very popular place. Click on the links below for pictures and information on the places we visited:
A trip around Hanoi on the HOHO Bus
Vietnam Military History Museum
Thang Long Water Puppet Theater