It’s always seemed to me that the first day ever in a new country or city is a unique opportunity when
impressions are as fresh and childishly innocent as they’ll never be again. And today was my first day in Vietnam and Hanoi, and I thought I’d chuck a few of these experiences onto
Admittedly, my preconceptions of Vietnamese cities were mostly cliches from movies about that war half a century ago. Saigon, aka Chi Minh City – flashing motorbikes, pole-caressing bargirls, and the odd explosion. In the other ideological corner, Hanoi - grey, bombed by the yanks, their “air pirates” put up at the Hilton. And somewhere in this dystopia Jane Fonda is prancing about playing the radical peacnik.
I cannot report sightings of any faded Hollywood divas, and more importantly, Hanoi is actually a joy. The capital of the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam” is colourfully capitalist with 1001 stores and restaurants, seemingly happy and fun-loving people, and just about the fastest, kindest service I’ve experienced anywhere.
OK, Vietnam is still a one-party dictatorship and dissidents are reported to do it tough. But we’re dealing here with my touristic impressions, so I won’t go down that serious path. I did go to see the father of the nation in his mausoleum though. As you’d expect, a wax doll, his face with the famous wispy beard lit up with a pinkish glow , a saint-like aura. I noticed a rapid transformation in the local patrons, from a carefree Sunday mood in the long queue through a giant memorial garden, to touched reverence as they entered the chillingly air-conned marble chamber, returning to smiles outside in the Vice cream and souvenirs zone (where I took the picture of Ho you see here – no snapping of the original allowed.) May my Catholic friends forgive me, but the atmosphere reminded me of some Catholic holy sites I’ve been to. Christian or communist, the lure of eternal life draws them in.
I’m staying in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which architecturally is somewhere between China and Paris (see the pic with buildings), the size of ten Old Rigas if not more, draped in soot and smog, and one of the liveliest places I’ve ever been. As in other Asian cities, here life happens on the street. By there, merchants set up stalls on the kerb selling fruit, fresh meat, fish, spices, pots to prepare it all in, as well as knock-off “brand” shoes and shirts. Come evening, little chairs and tables appear out of nowhere and a gastronomic kaleidoscope is unleashed. Vietnamese street food has become a feature of dining in Western cities, but that pales in comparison to the diversity here. Beef pho, banh mi, countless ways to whip up seafood and poultry. To whet your appetite, I’ve put in a photo from the grill. Maybe not so enticing is one of a dish I dodged this time – a soup with noodles and every part of a duck, including its brain.
Regarding noise, the din of motorcycle horns and engines overpowers everything else. There are thousands of them, burdened with all sorts of cargo (there’s a pic of a bicycle in that state I managed to snap), charging toward pedestrians and more solid objects before somehow veering away at the last second. During the day, I had some encounters with four-wheeled taxis who wanted to fleece me for 100 times what was on the meter, so for my transport needs (I can’t find my way back to the hotel in this labyrinth), I negotiated a reasonable price on the back seat of a motorbike. The feelings started with concern about my insurance, to growing faith in the driver (if he’s lived this long...), then exhilaration.
The apparent chaos has its unwritten rules, and in conclusion I’d like to describe another scene which maybe points to the underlying order of things here. So I’m sitting in a pavement cafe with a beer, when suddenly the owners of all the surrounding bars start picking up seating which is scattered all the way onto the middle of the road. Is there a storm coming? No, a cop car drives by, and once it’s gone the furniture is put back where it was with the same dazzling choreography.