After two weeks in Bangkok dedicated to the initial healing period post surgery, it was time to move on to the other main event of the trip…flying to Vietnam, meeting up with Peg’s sister Barbara and spending three weeks touring the country, primarily North to South. First stop on the journey was Hanoi, the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. I really had no idea what to expect on my first ever visit to a communist country. The research was fine and the pictures pretty, but my uneducated impression of North Vietnam carried over from nearly forty-five years ago, plus now going through customs with everyone dressed in shirts and hats that contained a bright red square with a gold star in the middle, made for a sobering moment. Fortunately, the moment was short-lived, because the minute we cleared the rather austere and gray airport, a smiling face from the Jasmine Hotel was there to drive us to the city. Hanoi is located in the center of North Vietnam in the Red River Delta. Ha means “river” and Noi means “interior”, so the name is fitting. The very first thing I noticed upon entering the city limits was the traffic. I’m not referring to traffic in the mundane sense of say, New York City, I’m talking about the appearance and feel of six million plus residents all deciding to go out for noodles at the same time, traveling in all directions at the same time because apparently good noodles are sold everywhere. No traffic lights, and if there were, they would be ignored. No turn signals, just horns to alert everyone of your position in what I described as a massive symphony of chaos. Hanoi is the home to over 4 million motorbikes, and they are definitely the main mode of transportation, followed by bicycles, followed by autos, followed by vans, followed by trucks, followed by Cyclos (originally called Rickshaws), followed by tourists on foot feeling terrified with the knowledge that at some time in their walk, they will have to cross the street and try to live to tell the tale. If anyone thinks I exaggerate, just ask Peg or Barbara if it were not for my innate ability to be a leader of women and children, they would have toured the city by walking on only one side of one street. OK, so maybe I exaggerate slightly, but not much.
Hanoi is a thriving, bustling, and energized city. Ever since we opened trade relations with the country in 1995, it has been growing and prospering and even though Communist in philosophy, everywhere you looked you could see the impact of capitalism. No matter where we walked we were greeted with “hellos” and smiles. Some were pushy trying to get us to buy this or that, but most were not. Our hotel was located only two blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake, considered to be the heart of Hanoi both literally and figuratively. On any given morning between four and six AM, you get see locals by the lake running, working out, and practicing the art of Tia Chi. Unfortunately for us, any given day did not personally happen for us because we were sleeping during this lakeside active time, however the area is beautiful at any time of the day. Huc (morning sunlight) Bridge takes you over to the small “Jade Island” where there is an 18th century temple to visit. It is a beautiful area where often locals go to to play assorted board games during the day.
During the five days and four nights we were there, we hired one guide for a driving tour, and a second guide for a walking tour to catch all the main highlights the city had to offer. Highlights included water puppets, whose performance history began in the 11th century; the Old Quarter containing a maze of 36 narrow streets named after the products that were traditionally sold there (busiest street I saw was the one that sold only women’s shoes! Really!) and also home to amazing “tunnel houses which have a very narrow front which hides very long rooms; Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the great embalmed man himself is displayed in a granite monolith modeled after Lenin’s tomb in Moscow (once a year authorities take Ho out for touching up, and mercifully, he was gone on the day we visited and were spared that visual); the beautiful Temple of Literature, which houses both a Confucian temple (Circa: 1070) and the first university of Vietnam…during our visit, two young students walked up to Peg and asked if they could take some pictures with her and have the opportunity to practice their english (throughout our entire visit, people would approach for the purpose of speaking everyday english…each occurrence was delightful.); the One-pillar Pagoda, which was built by a childless Emperor in the 11th century after having a dream of meeting Buddha who handed him a son while sitting on a lotus flower (kids, do not attempt to do this trick at home, as it is very difficult to do). Shortly after the dream, the Emperor married a peasant girl and she bore him a son and in gratitude to Buddha, built the Pagoda…happy ending; and finally the Hanoi Opera House, erected by the French in the early 1900’s and modeled after Paris’s Palais Garnier. We would have loved to attend any performance in this fabulous looking building, but alas, nothing was scheduled during out time in the city.
The above highlights are only a small portion of the Hanoi experience. Peg’s continuing healing process mostly dictated each day’s agenda both with sightseeing and quiet time. Each day brought new adventures that can’t be appreciated simply by reading about them. This city has to be witnessed and absorbed. The many kindnesses offered to us by the staff of the Jasmine hotel were similarly offered by many Hanoi-ans we came in contact with. The wonderful food offered by street vendors and gourmet restaurants alike, the gorgeous architecture of the French Section and Old Quarter, the energy felt around every corner as we wandered this city…all combine to produce a unique and pleasurable international city experience.
The following are a few pictures from the highlights mentioned above: