The night we landed in Hanoi, we took a walk near our hotel in search of dinner. That’s when I experienced the horrors of Hanoi traffic. In the narrow two-way street in Hanoi Old quarters, pedestrians, cars, trishaws, scooters tussled for the right of way. Scooters were coming in all directions as they skirted and twirled around us as we stood helplessly, not knowing where to go. I was in a daze. It took me a few days in Vietnam before I could comfortably walk and cross a street and ignore on-coming traffic. The trick, said my guide, is to walk in a steady pace with confidence. I tried that in Singapore and got a scolding from Mike. In Singapore, we don’t jay walk.
Hanoi Old Quarters is very much like Chinatown in Singapore, a place catering to tourists. You find restaurants, small hotels, souvenir shops, art galleries mostly selling copies of Vietnamese arts, and Bars. Now, there are bars that we are familiar with, with music and neon lights, and then there are these bars in Hanoi.
Groups of bar crawlers congregated on low plastic stools, drinking and snacking on nuts and other food.
Hanoi night market is on from Friday to Sunday night. Very much like our local Pasir Malam, it stretches a few kilometers. If you want souvenirs, this is the place to get it as the prices are already marked down without any need to bargain – tee shirts, knick-knacks, bookmarks, chopsticks – basically anything that you find in other shops in the Old Quarters. You can also try the local snacks, local arts and crafts, or be like the locals and shop for cheap clothes, household items or handphone accessories. Be aware though that the market is very crowded and we were advised to take care of our belongings.
Hanoi City Tour
As we only had a day in Hanoi, we decided to book a local city tour from the hotel. A free-lance guide named Tin Tin, aged 23, turned up in the morning to take us for our tour. The fist stop was the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where we could only wander about the courtyard outside. We then walked to the Residence of Ho Chi Minh and the Presidential Palace, and the The stilt house where Ho Chi Minh used to live, all these within a sprawling compound that reqired tickets to enter. We are not into history or museums but I found the story behind the man interesting.
As we were exiting the compound, we chanced upon groups of marching soldiers and they reminded me of my two elder sons currently serving national service.
Temple of Literature
The tour also took us to the usual tourist places like One Pillar Pagoda and Hoan Kiem Lake but the most interesting for us were the Temple of Literature where they were holding a convocation ceremony for PhD graduates. (You can read about the place on other online sites.) Throngs of graduates dressed in their finest áo dài and carrying bouquets and certificates were proudly taking photos with their families. Inside the temple, a ceremony was going on and behind the temple, the award ceremony was still proceeding.
Hoa Lo Prison (Maison Centrale)
The other interesting place is the Hao Lo Prison. We were brought up on American war movies where the Vietcon is the enemy, so hearing the other side of the story brought on a new perspective. Tin Tin said the Vietnamese POWs were treated very badly by the Americans, but when the Americans surrendered,, their POWs were given VIP treatment, hence this prison was also known as Hanoi Hilton. John McCain was a POW here and he revisited the place a few years ago.
The last part of our tour was a tour by Cyclo, or what is known as Trishaw in Singapore. We waited on the steps of Hanoi Opera House while Tin Tin went to get the cyclos and observed the traffic. I felt a wave of apprehension as I observed the traffic navigate the circle in the middle of a four-way traffic and wondered if it’s safe to ride in a cyclo.
The cyclos took us through the civic district, as the drivers pointed French colonial buildings and various points of interest. That day was an auspicious day and we spotted a few brides.