We finally fulfilled our desire to visit Vietnam, albeit during the summer when Hanoi was hot and humid. Our clothes became drenched from perspiration several times over from each days’ activities.

Focused on the wish to understand the lifestyle of Vietnamese people in Hanoi, we planned for the tourist sights of Hanoi to just one single day, leaving the rest of our four day stay to experience and understanding the culture of the people, their daily lives and sampling local cuisine.  We had the good fortune of engaging Phuong as our personal guide to show us the touristic sights and through Hanoikids, we were introduced to Linh who helped us experience the culinary delights of Hanoi.

As the country’s former capital, Hanoi tourist sites include the Ho Chi Minh complex (which featured Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum where his body still lies today, the Presidential Palace, his former homes and a museum in his name. Beyond this, the city also features pagodas, temples, museums and a delightful water puppet show.  Within the city, the French Quarter featured grand boulevards, elegant buildings and the Opera House.

Our favourite, the Old Quarter brings about a historical atmosphere, typically narrow streets, equally narrow houses (3 meters wide but some were up to 60 meters deep), alive with trade, eateries and people going about their business.

Phuong introduced us to Hanoi’s tourist sites through stories of myths and legends, introducing mystery to the day – we ended up at a bookshop hoping to find a “myths and legends” book to take home.  Photography was challenging as humidity was high, taking almost 90 minutes to defrost the DSLR camera and lenses from the cold of our air-conditioned hotel room. Most of the work of each morning’s photography was handled by the little compact camera, while the larger camera is being defrosted.

The Old Quarter
We stayed in a great hotel just outside the Old Quarter but found ourselves spending most of our time wandering through its streets: traditional stores, markets and eating places. Although there were many streets in the Old Quarter, it is more commonly known as the “36 Streets” after workshops were set up on these in the yesteryear. Today, some of the major streets were named after the products that that were sold like Silk, Silver, Textiles etc.

In the midst of all the stores, goods were also offered for sale on a mobile basis - from motorcycles, bicycles, makeshift stores as well as being shouldered on poles with hanging baskets.  Motorcycles appear to being the favoured machine of burden – we’ve seen many things carried on these motorcycles. From an entire family of five, chickens, ducks, piglets, vegetables, hundreds of eggs, furniture, you name it!  While some of these methods were not foreign to us, it has been a long time since we’ve seen them last. Shopping for silk clothing, the odd artwork, t-shirt or souvenir hunting can be fun. Bargaining with the friendly vendors is also allowed and can fetch a discount anywhere from 10% to 50%.

One of the more interesting visits was an unscheduled walk through an inner-city village in the Ngoc Ha precinct. The village mostly consisted of narrow 5-storey multi-tenanted dwellings, obviously rebuilt over the times.   These dwellings surround a pond which tree shaded shore was frequented by the locals who met to pass the time away: share conversations, play board games plus the odd spot of fishing, even as the ponds were somewhat green from algae.  Dinh Ngoc Ha, a temple is common in most villages.  A curious dog, tied to a pole in the shade of one the shorelines watched us as we tried entice it.

The brisk walk through the narrow passages of the village was interesting in that we found the ground floor of almost every dwelling was a store of some kind – the grocer, the butchers, small restaurant, hairdressers. fishmonger or a green grocer, stores were literally everywhere.  We interacted with the villagers easily; apparently our physical size and cameras giving away as tourists.  It wasn’t hard to note the mess of cables above our heads, evidence that broadband (and hence computers and the internet) was commonplace, although highly efficient but expensive fibre optic infrastructure was not yet in place.

Phuong led us to the site where an American B-42 bomber was shot down during the “American War”, as it was aptly named by the Vietnamese people.  Inside the Huu Tiep lake, the relic can be seen amidst the backdrop of homes.

We were told that another B-52 bomber was shot down not far from where we were.  The pilot captured and imprisoned for 5 years in the notorious Hoa Lo Prison, better known as the Hanoi Hilton.  The pilot, John McCain ran for President in the 2009 US Presidential elections but was defeated by Barak Obama.

Traffic Chaos
Driving in Hanoi is somewhat chaotic - "flexible" road rules allowing the thousands of motorcycles, bicycles and trishaws (called cyclos) weaving between a sea of cars in all directions and the human beings threading in between. This made traffic watch interesting.  It seems dangerous but we don’t see any accidents.  In all this chaos, the traffic just appear to sort itself out. Having said all this, drivers seem relaxed driving in this situation, often balancing the right amount of "warning" horns blasts right throughout the driving experience. One could just walk through the busy streets, holding the hand up - open palm facing the oncoming traffic to have them courteously slow down for you.  The term “right of way” doesn’t seem to work here but then again, this is courtesy in a grand scale.
We take our hats off to the drivers – as this would probably be the world’s most difficult place to drive, even taking Bangkok and Seoul into consideration.  While sitting in a cab, you might just see an unavoidable accident about to happen only to see it magically work itself out.  Simply amazing!

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Cathédrale St Joseph
in the Hanoi Old Quarter

The Old Quarters' "Lake of the Restored Sword" in the evening

Linh was a third year economics student engaged by Hanoikids to show us Hanoi’s heritage while getting a chance to practice their English at the same time.. She started us off at a “safe” Vietnamese restaurant serving what would be considered a home cooked meal. Whilst some of the dishes were familiar to us - like watercress (called Kangkong in Malaysia), spring rolls, stewed pork and soups - it was the exotic food offered by the roadside stalls which fascinated us more.  So, we decided to up the ante and take on street food.

We noted during our walks in the Old Quarter, that there was a culture of gathering in groups, seated on low stools, enjoying conversations and something to eat and/or drink. Makeshift roadside eateries are set up around a one-person vendor – normally servicing their products from a baskets or two. The customers simply sat on a little stool to enjoy what the vendor had to offer. This ranged from coffee, the Vietnamese Pho noodles, cut fruits, a cool drink or some other small exotic meal.  We've seen these makeshift stalls with up to 20 customers around them all over the city.

We were introduced to many delicious snacks and drinks - many of which we would not have ordered ourselves, mainly because we are unfamiliar with the language or brave enough to try.  Besides, we found it difficult to get up from those tiny stools, especially after a hearty meal! We sampled four varieties of Vietnamese coffee - normal brew (with condensed milk), egg coffee (whisked egg yolk, condensed milk and coffee), weasel coffee (weasel regurgitated coffee beans brew, condensed milk) and Vietnamese iced coffee (normal brew, condensed milk on ice) plus a delicious drink called Chae made from grass jelly, Lotus seeds, Jasmin infused syrup and crushed ice.  We tried to show the images of these and the meals and snacks enjoyed, which we hope you enjoy looking through as well.


Crab and Bamboo Soup


Pickled fruit offered
at the Don Xuan market

On the top deck of Paradise III, anchored off Castle inlet (Hon Dai Thanh)
overlooking its support barge offload equipment on the Van Hoi, its day boat.

Halong Bay, now in contention as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the Asian World, lies approximately 185 kilometres east of Hanoi. With around 2,000 islands (and little ones called islets), the archipelago contain many limestone caves and beaches ripe for discovery. Discovering these limestone caves meant a rigorous workout as one needs to climb up to the caves, then walk the uneven terrain at high humidity (albeit cooler than outside) along a badly defined path inside the caves. Some of these paths were made for contortionists, I'm sure but which we were not. Beyond the views and rigorous workouts, we were offered cooking demonstrations, yoga classes, spa massage services and all the meals and drinks you want.

We were surprised by being also provided with a day boat all to ourselves; this came complete with a guide, crew and a cook! One of the highlights of the cruise was the overnight at the Pearl Farm Area (Tang Sau) , selected because its protection from inclement weather. The area is a little bay protected by islands all round - with water nice, calm and perfectly still. We tried to feed the garfish from our balcony during the evening when the spots from the cruise ship pointed into the bay around us.

The views of the bay was simply too awesome to describe - you'll just have to review the pictures, which hopefully give you an apprepreciation of what we saw - walking through and discovering the caves and island village simply made the two day stay at Halong Bay a most enjoyable one. I guess it wasn't just the view, but also the calm waters and picture perfect weather which made our visit much more enjoyable.




Even as rain clouds approach, Halong Bay still exude a myserious beauty

Our tour ended watching the Vietnamese Water Puppet show, courtesy of the General Manager of the Moevenpick Hotel. It was a lovely gesture, especially when we’ve made a friend in the process.  We even saw fit to walk back to the hotel after the show, enjoying the view of Lake of the Restored Sword, the Old Quarter and more snacks again, along the way - our last bowl of authentic Vietnamese Pho. 

So, what do we like about Vietnam (or more appropriately Hanoi and Halong bay)? I would have to say the friendliness and innocence of the people, their culture, how they lived, the food and last, but certainly not least the beauty of Halong Bay.

With a new found respect, we found the Vietnamese nice people, hardworking, adaptive, industrious, economic minded and highly patriotic. We will most certainly return to Vietnam, but perhaps this time to other picturesque regions like Sapa, Hoi An or Hue.

In the meantime, we certainly hope you enjoy the pictures..

Jeanette and Raymond
August 2010

Kids racing out
to sell sea shells
they collected