I’ll admit, I was a bit ignorant and nervous going into Vietnam. Were these people going to be okay with an American among them? (Has anyone seen Apocalypse Now?) I was not prepared for the smiles and friendliness of the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese have generations of struggle weighing them down, however these people are resilient and strong and will keep going on regardless of what the world throws at them.
When we landed, Jordan and I did the usual. Find local bus and get into the city as close as possible to our destined hotel. (In SouthEast Asia hostels are $5/ bed while a nice hotel room is $11/night. It’s a no brainer to enjoy the luxury of privacy when traveling in a duo.) The level of English and guidance of backpackers in Hanoi is small. Hence, we had our first adventure in this country right away. The public buses have some sitting room, but it’s mostly crammed standing during peak hours. The Vietnamese jump up to let elderly sit down. There is a man who squats on a shortened wood stool at the front of the bus by the driver. He will walk around to have people pay for tickets as the bus continues barreling along it’s route. This worker is notorious for smoking his cigarettes while squatted by or hanging out the open front doors of the bus.
Jordan and I got off where most of our type seemed to get off. We wandered the tiny streets crammed with street food stalls and mini table set ups, careful and always concious of the massive size of our backpacks and kangaroo front packs as we weaved our way through the life of the city.
Jordan found a short-cut on our long walk through Hanoi’s Old Quarter. This is a really cool district in which the train runs directly through an ally. When the train comes round, laundry, kids and backpackers alike run to shelter as the train wizzes by, only inches from the buildings.
Our hotel was bare but nice. The room included breakfast, but we usually followed up with a coffee from one of the cafe’s across the street. Hanoi has some of the best coffee in the world. Hands down. And I lived in Italy for three months. By some odd twist of history, every coffee shop in the North offered for sale or for free when you sat down, a plate of sunflower seeds. (Jordan was in heaven.)
One of our more daring tries was ca fe trung, or egg coffee. This hot coffee is served with an egg foamed on top in a dish of water to help it maintain it’s temperature. I preferred the coffee and coconut milk ice slush.
The shops here use the sidewalks as their outdoor seating. Fans are nailed into the trees to attempt to cool the cafe guests as they drink and socialize.
The famous BEER! Who can go to Vietnam and not experience Bia Hoi Junction?? That would be like going to Bangkok and missing out on that ally…..
Scooters are not just a means of transportation for the Vietnamese. It’s the main family vehicle. I’ve seen as many as five loaded up onto one of these tiny two wheeled beasts. Full lanes of the major freeways are dedicated to scooters. They are by far the most common way to get around here.
As good tourists do, Jordan and I hit up some of the big “must see” attractions in the city. Within walking distance from our hotel was the temple on Jade Island. There is a traditional Vietnamese shadow puppet show near the lake that Jordan and I went to see. Around the lake were posted signs of proper social conduct. Vietnam is a one-party socialist republic and lives under such ideals. These ideals are reflected in how the citizens act….up to a certain extend. Yes, the people hold a high respect for their elders and a tremendous sense of calm in what I would consider stressful situations. They do, however, smoke in public and rip off white tourists. And there seems to be no consequence or fear of breaking these laws.
The Temple of Literature is dedicated to Confucius and still acts as a religious temple for Confucianists. This temple was built in 1070 and was the first Vietnamese national university. Today it is preserved behind the walls of it’s courtyard, while from the second story of the temple the bustling busy streets of the city can be seen.
Hoa Lo Prison
aka the Hanoi Hilton
A must see was the Hoa Lo Prison, or the Hanoi Hilton. This prison was used by the French to jail political prisoners during the French Indochina War. It was later used by the Vietnamese to house U.S. prisoners of war during the Vietnam War. The prison was initially constructed in the French Quarters in an area known as Hell’s Hole because of the constant fires burning in the stoves sold on that street. During the Vietnam War, stories emerge from the museum walls of U.S. prisoners being treated like kings; having basketball games, a Christmas tree, plenty of food and free time. The most famous prisoner, John McCain, was shot down and captured by North Vietnamese. There are framed drawings and letters from families on the walls. The prison museum boasts of a Christmas party thrown for the prisoners. Unlike Jordan, I fell for the propaganda that the US soldiers were treated to a great vacation while inside these walls. Unbiased history tells a different story.
A Walk About
There are very modern and very cute areas to Hanoi. While walking near the Joseph’s Cathedral in the Hoan Kiem DIstrict, Jordan and I found a brewery that could have been in Southern California called Pasteur Street Brewing Co.
The streets of Hanoi are full of life at any hour of the day.