"The final countdown had begun, the kilometer markers sweeping by as we zeroed in on Hanoi. In Saigon I had been warned that the Northerners were a breed apart, that they had no sense of humor, they worked too hard, they ate weeds and dogs and were distinctly stingy. I had shrugged off the warnings, assuming a cultural snobbery based on little more than which end of the egg they broke open for breakfast, or what color noodles they put into their soup.
I was wrong. Even before we reached the city limits, the differences had become obvious. We passed a crowded front yard filled with dun-colored dogs in cages and excited buyers waving money. Russian hats appeared, the thick furry kind with hanging ear flaps. Vowels were hardening and intonations changing, and my hard-earned vocabulary was increasingly met with shaking heads and baffled looks. And everyone, from the potters stacking their wares on sturdy bicycles to the stall owners hawking small mountains of leafy weeds, was wearing army green. The men sported bulging headgear that looked disturbingly like Viet Cong helmets.
There was something else, the last thing I expected to find in steamy, tropical Southeast Asia. It was bitterly cold."
Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam
FACTS TO IMPRESS YOUR FRIENDS:
The Emperor Ly Thai To moved his capital to Hanoi in 1010 AD and rechristened the city Thang Long - "The City of the Soaring Dragon".
The word Tonkin (The European name for North Vietnam) is derived from another of Hanoi's names - "Dong Kinh", or Eastern Capital.
Hanoi means "The City on the Bend in the River".
Ho Chi Minh led a simple life and upon his death gave instructions to be cremated. His successors, however, had other plans for him. They needed him in a recognizable form to rally the troops and decided to have him stuffed. Perhaps the ultimate irony of the Revolution was the mausoleum built to house his remains, a huge monstrosity of blocky stone and sour, goose-stepping guards.
THINGS TO LOOK FOR:
- The Pagoda in the middle of lake Kiem is beautifully lit at night.
- Hanoi's history is littered with emperors, golden swords, treachery, and beheadings. You can read all about it in any number of texts but if you want to get a real feel for Hanoi, step through the great stone gates of the old city, into - the old quarter.
- There is a flower market just north of the city every morning, but you have to get up painfully early to see it. Ironically, the bulk of the flowers get turned into funeral wreathes.
- Uncle Ho still lives in Hanoi - suitably preserved - at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. If you want to see him then put on long pants and good shoes, be prepared to hand over your daypack to a security guard (don't do this ANYWHERE ELSE in Vietnam), take your hands out of your pockets and practice your goose step. Before you go visiting, make sure he's home - he gets shipped off to Moscow for two months each year for "scheduled maintenance".
- The Hanoi Hilton has been turned into a foreign hotel.
Before I left for Vietnam I watched some war-related footage of two important politicians at a meeting in Hanoi. They were both wearing heavy overcoats and you could see their breath as they talked. Despite these subtle clues, it never occurred to me that it can get quite cold in Hanoi. I should also point out that it can get quite stiflingly hot in the summer. And that it rains almost all year round. But it's in spring that a really remarkable transformation takes place...
I arrived in Hanoi after having spent six weeks on a 29-year-old motorbike on some of the nastier roads in Asia. I thought that Hanoi's pastries were the greatest thing since sliced cheese. I thought its sliced cheese was the greatest thing ever.
Other people tell me that Hanoi doesn't have much to offer in the way of luxuries. If you don't want to be disappointed, I suggest you book your flight through Kazakstan and Katmandu or take the bus overland from Laos. As far as I was concerned, Hanoi had exactly what I was looking for...
THE OLD QUARTER
Hanoi's old quarter is a window back in space and time, a medieval landscape where entire streets have been dedicated to a single commodity and families hand down their secrets through generations. Dye street, with its brilliantly colored powders spilling over onto the crowded sidewalk. Herbal medicine street, a maze of sturdy paper bags filled with twisted brown roots and crumbling gray leaves. Music street and vermicelli street and silk street and yarn alley...