Sunday, September 9, 2012

Hanoi, Vietnam: Chaos at its Finest

Greetings from Vietnam! The wireless internet in my room isn't working especially well, so I currently find myself seated in the lobby of the Jade Hotel in Hue, Vietnam. The large open windows to my left constantly remind me of the fast, often chaotic, pace of Vietnam. Scooters and motorbikes zoom past the hotel, being sure to honk at nothing in particular along the way. Now, as I mentioned in my final post on Korea, I'll be looking to take a more concise and didactic approach to my blogs on the road. I don't intend to spend much time writing about my experience and in the process forfeit the opportunity to experience something new. However, as you've likely previously discovered, I love to share my thoughts and feelings about my travels, so it'll be something of a balancing act. Today, I'll do my best to recap my experiences in Hanoi, which was the first stop on our long adventure. I was originally going to try to cover more, but I won't have the time this evening, as I've got a morning bus headed for Hoi An early tomorrow morning. My blogging over the next few months will come sporadically when I get a moment to write. Some posts could cover just one city (a prime example being this very post), or if I have more time, then it could cover an entire country. Consistency and routine are boring anyhow, so just be pleasantly surprised when another post makes it way onto my blog. Well, without further adieu, welcome to Vietnam.



If I was asked at gunpoint to describe Hanoi in one word it would unquestionably be "busy." That's of course a rather unlikely scenario, but Hanoi is a city full of unlikely scenarios and chaotic circumstances. Today, it stands as the capital of Vietnam, and it does feel as if you're at the center of something big. High up in the North it stands to look over the rest of the country, which is likely busy as well. It's population is something around 2.5 million, but it feels like it should be much, much more. I'd liken it to a weather report that suggests that it's -3 degrees outside, but with a windchill it'd feel more like -87 degrees. Whether or not you've visualized my previous analogy is none of my concern, it's a natural reaction of a man eager to write after a short absence from doing so. Sometimes I just get so excited about writing that similes and metaphors come pouring out of my mind onto the keyboard. If I wasn't travelling the world right now, I'd happily suggest the criticism that I "get a life," but alas, that's exactly what I happen to be doing. 

Built in the 11th century, the Temple of Literature effectively takes the title of Vietnam's first university. Let's keep in mind that neither Canada nor America would solidify a place of higher learning until the 17th century (Harvard University in 1636 and Universite Laval in 1663). The temple itself is dedicated to Confucius, sages, and scholars. The various buildings, of which there are many, served as ancient stomping grounds for the best and the brightest Vietnam had to offer. I'm a sucker for ancient places of learning. It's as if I feel like merely walking around these places will magically fill me with great ideas, or potentially an idea for a great forthcoming novel. 

Hanoi feels like an urban city through and through, but the presence of several large lakes serve to offset the feeling of grimy urban squalor. Hoan Kiem Lake is arguably Hanoi's most well known lake, as it's situated in the heart of the city. However, I tended to appreciate the two lakes situated in the Northern part of the city. Truc Bach Lake accented the burgeoning tourist interests with it's larger hotels across the shore, but also happened to be lined with cheap Vietnamese restaurants, and thus a healthy amount of locals. 

Truc Bach Lake

Located slightly west of Truc Bach Lake is the appropriately named West Lake. Fishermen line the shores hoping to catch a fish or two, and not a dirty plastic bag. That wasn't a shot at the cleanliness of Hanoi, I actually saw a man "catch" a dirty plastic bag, and then he proceeded to shrug towards me with a look that suggested it was all too common. Past the fishermen, you'll see a slew of swan-boats enjoying the gentle breezes afforded by the lake. However, looking to the east you'll spot the real jewel of West Lake, the Tran Quoc Pagoda. This pagoda is of cultural importance as it was originally built in the 6th century, but still holds an important message for the future as "Tran Quoc" means "Stabilizing the Nation." You don't need me to tell you that Vietnam's history has been anything but stable, no thanks to several devastating wars. 

The last sight I'm going to talk about in my highlight reel of sorts is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. For me, this was the building that most suggested the deep ties that Vietnam has with communism. Of course I'd realized that earlier as getting a visa for Vietnam was no small feat. The reverence that Vietnam has for Ho Chi Minh is simple indescribable. He was, and continues to be, their leader in a number of senses. He spearheaded the communist revolution here, and it's difficult to walk 10 metres without a mention of his name. That's largely because Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh are inextricably linked. To put it in perspective, during the first conversation we had in Vietnam at our hostel, the manager was quick to note that Bri was very lucky because she shared a birthday (May 19th) with Uncle Ho. Not to be blunt or assumptive, but the reverence Ho Chi Minh receives here is otherworldly, which explains why Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City shortly after his death. Unlike other nations, Ho Chi Minh has his face on all the currency, as if to suggest that, in terms of importance, there's no one who matches him. The whole complex around the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was essentially communism manifested in architecture. It had an aura of authority and intimidation rarely seen in places not named North Korea or China. Defacing this property is likely the surest way to end up in prison, or worse.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh Museum

And those, my friends, are my highlights of Hanoi. This is an approach I'll be taking to all the cities I visit to cut out the need to chronologically recount each minute to you. However, after the initial section I'll have another, smaller section with a few things I'd like to note about my time there.

Honourable Mentions

Hanoi's "Beer Corner" is most definitely worth a visit for its unique approach to drinking. Plastic stools appropriate for Kindergarteners stretch as far as you can see around this lively corner. Perhaps best of all, the beer is wonderfully inexpensive, and likely won't cost you more than a dollar. You'll get a little sore from the seat, but it's totally worth it. Apparently, hundreds of people around me were thinking exactly the same thing. 

The Vietnamese Independence Day celebrations that commenced on September 2nd were certainly a spectacle. The streets were unimaginably congested with motorbikes, scooters, merchants, and of course pedestrians as well. I've always loved to see other countries' national days or independence days. I've been lucky enough to be present for such days in The Netherlands, Belgium, America, Latvia, Canada and a few others. Now I can add Vietnam to the list, and these were certainly the most hectic celebrations I've witnessed. Bri and I took our place on a second floor balcony and sipped on a cold lager while viewing all before us. Sitting up there, I realized that this trip had truly begun because the scene before me was unquestionably from Southeast Asia, and more specifically taking place in Vietnam's capital.

 A quick shout-out to our friend Zippy who lives in Hanoi and dined with us on some of her favourite local cuisine. You're one of a kind, Zippy, and your apartment is beyond interesting and incredible. Who knows? Maybe we'll end up joining you at your international school one of these days.

There are many other things I could note that I'm not sure would be "interesting" per say. It isn't necessarily my favourite city, yet I found it undeniably memorable. What defines Hanoi isn't any one particular place, or even three particular places. It's the general feeling of it all. Hanoi is walking across an intersection and casually dodging sixteen different scooters. Hanoi is eating fantastic food and paying next to nothing for it. Hanoi is also stepping in a puddle and wondering what exactly you just stepped in, or being dripped on by unknown liquids from shop awnings. For me, Hanoi is fascinating as there is so much to be explored off the beaten path. I believe I discovered more about the city on the busy mercantile streets such as Hang Gai, Hang Trong, and Hang Bong, or the night market on Hang Dao, than any one building. There isn't an Eiffel Tower here or any one sight that forces you to touristically gravitate towards it. But that's great, because it allows you to forge a new set of experiences that not everyone who visits the city will experience. It allows you to see Hanoi for yourself.


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