The city on the bank of the Red River
“Hanoi!? It was crazy! So chaotic! Have you managed to work it out?” asked one of my friends who visited the city earlier this year. He has been travelling through Vietnam on a motorbike from the north all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City. I had to admit to him that there were moments when I found Hanoi pretty confusing but I enjoyed paying this extra attention to my surroundings and occasionally checking the map. I bet it must have been more difficult to master the directions and roads signs being for the first time in Asia – “Come on… if it was easy you would not be happy either.” – His girlfriend just rolled her eyes and we both giggled.
It is not only Hanoi’s urban structure that can be viewed as far from being simple. The political significance of the city and the events of the past introduced some other layers of complexity. Located in the northern part of the country on the delta of the Red River, Hanoi lost its capital status to Hue for a century, played an important role in French Indochina and from 1945 was the capital of North Vietnam. In the end it became the capital of a reunified Vietnam in 1976, after the North’s victory in the Vietnam War.
Vietnamese street food and drink at its best
To experience the buzzing atmosphere of the Old Quarter you just need to pick a place where you want to eat, sit on a tiny plastic chair, enjoy the flavours and absorb the energy. Nothing brings you closer to people locals or fellow travellers like sweating over a steamy bowl of pho bo.
Round the corner from my hotel I found a great juice stall where a mango smoothie was definitely my heaven in the glass! It was so delicious that I came back to that place several times during my stay in Hanoi. I even had a conversation in Polish with one of the ladies helping the owner of the stall. It turned out that she used to work in Poland for two years. I was pleasantly surprise but as I have not been to Warsaw in the last 10 years I keep forgetting that there is actually a fairly large Vietnamese community there.
By walking around Hoan Kiem Lake I witnessed local people meditating in the shade near the water and discovered a slightly hidden café serving amazing Vietnamese coffee. You normally drink it with a sweet condensed milk, stirred and poured over ice. Naughty but nice… and I will be honest with you that when coffee is involved all my healthy rules go out the window.
Exploring other parts of the city was for me an opportunity to see that Hanoi is not only about small and narrow streets but also a very rapid real estate development. Modern skyscrapers tower above many sites and buildings that still bare the marks of French colonial-style.
No mummified comrades please
In the tradition of Lenin and Stalin before him, it is also possible to pay respects to Uncle Ho and see him… sort of in person. Although I know people who would find visiting Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum an interesting I decided to give it a miss. I managed to see the monumental and rather ugly building from the distance and it was enough for me. It even triggered “Lenin lived, Lenin is alive, Lenin will live” on a repeat in my head! If you were born before ’89 in Poland you can get your head filled with some propaganda phrases at moments like that one quite easily. It has nothing to do with many evenings spent at the Crown Tavern in Clernkenwell where it is said that Lenin met young Stalin in 1903 but you never know… Londoners! Be aware!