Vietnam Travels – Hanoi

As I write this, I’m on the night train, slowly chugging south towards Saigon.

Admittedly, I am only posting this post several days after the fact, yet that sentence just seems to impossibly romantic not to include. But wait, I’ve skipped too far ahead. Allow me to backtrack a little.

Summer means holidays in most parts of the world, even in the Korean public school system. Two weeks of freedom to go and explore a new part of Asia. Myself and a couple of fellow teachers who had coinciding holidays choose to visit Vietnam, around a 4.5 hours flight from Korea. A country that is perhaps better known as a war than an independent state (at least in the west), I was not sure what to expect. And yet, and expectations I had were completely surpassed one hundred times over, and then some. I only hope these blogs can do some justice can adequately convey just how wonderful I found Vietnam.

Saturday saw us at Incheon airport, eagerly awaiting our Vietnam Air flight into Hanoi, the Vietnamese capital. As chance would have it, some friends were heading out to Cambodia at the same time as us, and yet more friends were flying to Beijing, so we all had a celebratory breakfast before we scattered off to our various holiday spots.

On the flight, for once, instead of being seated next to a crying baby, or an obese sweaty man who has no concept of personal space (oh the joys of flying) I found myself next to a gorgeous Korean girl. Unfortunately, she was seated next to her father and mother. Equally unfortunately, she spoke barely a word of English, and I’m not much better in Korean.

Oh well, next time perhaps.

Anyway, with all thoughts of a holiday romance shot down before they could even get going, we land in Hanoi. Despite being Vietnam’s capital, Saigon in the south is the country’s economic powerhouse, and Hanoi is consequently much smaller than its big sister in the South. This is clearly illustrated in the airport, which is small and bland and reminds me of East London’s airport. Equally surprisingly, although this was a pleasant surprise, was the weather on arrival. While hot, it was not unbearable, and while humid, is was nothing special. After Korea’s humidity, this was a piece of cake.

 A bus trip took us into Hanoi and dropped us off on the edge of the old quarter of Hanoi. The ride in had given us our first taste of the crazy traffic, with thousands of motorbikes, hooting everywhere and what seemed like chaos going on everywhere. It was almost (and I stress almost, more chaotic than Cairo’s traffic). Somehow it seemed to work though, and within a few days we hardly even noticed the crazy traffic.

Motorbikes rule supreme

We found accommodation at the Viet Fun Hotel, in Ngo Huyen Street, just a few blocks from Hanoi’s famous Old Quarter. We were headed for the backpackers just next door, but who would say no to their own private room and bathroom for just a $1 more than sharing a dorm? Especially a room with a balcony overlooking the colourful streets of Hanoi.

Looking out onto Hanoi's streets

Settled, it was off to hit the streets. Noisy, bustling with people, motorbikes everywhere, it was chaotic. And wonderful. The more we wandered the town, the more I liked it. Once we had figured out how to cross the streets (simply plunge in, and walk steadily, no running, the motorbikes will avoid you) we did some shopping in the Old Quarter, tried to eat everything we saw, visited a few attractions and reveled in being somewhere new.

One highlight of Hanoi, and one the continued throughout our trip , was the food. Especially after 5 odd months in South Korea, the use of fresh herbs like mint, basil and lemon grass to namebut a few was wonderfully refreshingly, as was as the abundant supply of fresh fruit and shakes. All at knock down prices. It really was bliss. A firm favourite was quickly discovered in the form of Pho bo (thick beef noodle soup) with its generous mint flavours. Sold just about everywhere, the best I had was one night on the street corner. Seated on tiny wooden stool,quite literally cheek to jowl with the other customers a large bowl of pho and bread, all for the princely sum of VD20 000 (around $1).

Hoan Kiem lake at night

A definite must next time you find yourself in Hanoi is the Hoa Lo Prison. More commonly known as the Hanoi Hilton, the was the prison that most recently housed downed US pilots during the Vietnam war. However, it has a long history prior to that as a detention centre that the French used during their occupation of the country prior to WWII. Expertly done, the museum is an excellent place to wonder for an hour or so, and tells an interesting, if rather one-sided view of the Vietnam struggle for liberation. Definitely well worth a visit.

The French influence on Vietnam is particularly evident in several spheres, most notablyin  much of Hanoi’s architecture. Of much more importance to me however, is the food legacy that they left behind. Imagine, after five months in typically Asian Korea, finding real bakeries. With fresh baguettes, croissants and cheese. Loads of it, in all sorts of varieties, everywhere. And at wonderfully reasonable prices as well. My only regret is that I didn’t have more if it while I was there. We found an awesome bakery right next to the UN buildings in Hanoi, and I am actively looking for a job with the UN in Hanoi so that I might be able to have lunch there every day….

The Old Quarter. So much shopping, so little time

After four wonderful, and all too short days in Hanoi, it was off to Halong Bay. Coming up in the next installment…..

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Published in: on 17/08/2010 at 7:15 pm  Comments (4)  
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