Hanoi – The Old Quarter

Welcome to Hanoi, Vietnam!

The beautiful city of Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. It is built up just south of the Red River that runs from the western mountains to the eastern sea. Hanoi has served as the capital of Vietnam for close to one thousand years. The city centre is filled with temples, French colonial constructs like St. Joseph’s Cathedral and government embassies.

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The first night I arrived after 10pm. After a long customs line and sharing a cab from the airport with four Québécois guys of varying beard lengths I found myself on the empty streets in the old quarter of downtown Hanoi. It was close to 1am and eerie quiet. I walked around in the dark with all my belongings strapped on my back until I found my hostel: Vietnam Backpackers Hostel. I crawled into bed fully clothed and fell asleep, I reached the end destination of my 24 hour journey from Vancouver to Hanoi.

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The next morning I made my way towards the lobby for my complementary breakfast: baguette & eggs, or a bowl of mixed fruit, or pancakes with either tea or instant coffee. I was so glad to eat. After a quick meal I stepped out onto the narrow alley street and made my way to the nearby lake: Ho Hoan Kiem. The lake was filled with Tourists and locals enjoying the good weather.

Together with my sister, we jogged around the lake with the hope of running out the travel weariness. It wasn’t long into our run before we were stopped by some local students and their teacher who wanted to practice their English with us and ask us some questions: Where we were from, how long had we been in Hanoi, what is Canada like etc…Of the group, a beautiful young girl of 20 years old spoke fluent French. Like myself, she was educated in French for over ten years, this was a pleasant surprise as I was unaware of the influence the French had maintained in Vietnam. This realization was later amplified as I heard a young girl at my Homestay deep in the north western mountains in a village called Ta Phin sing “Frère Jacque” in Vietnamese.

First impressions mean a great deal. The afternoon in Hanoi was warm, sunny and the traffic was minimal as it was a Sunday. I learned over the next few days just how loud and bustling the city can become, especially during the great night markets! So many scooters and horns…

Ho Chi Minh Museum
This impressive building is located on the government grounds. The museum is quite new with exhibits displaying the achievements of Ho Chi Minh, the communist leader that lead the resistance against the French colonial presence in Vietnam and planned the agricultural revolution of the country. Today, Vietnam is the second largest exporter of rice due to the mountain rice patty fields fed by a network of simply constructed aqueducts. The museum displays many articles and documents in French as well as the political summits hosted in Hanoi after the Vietnamese War. The Vietnamese are a proud strong people. Ho Chi Minh was no doubt a great man that took great care in making sure the country grew from the bottom up, starting with the rural farmers. There are many tales of Ho Chi Minh’s greatness, it is even said that he had a brief entanglement with a local goddess.

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Ho Chi Minh by the end of his life had lived or worked in over 56 countries including New York, Tokyo and much of western Europe. Canada was not among the list.

Government Grounds
The government grounds displayed very proudly the communist spirit. Soldiers stood at every gate with officers in polished boots and bright white uniforms marching around the Mausoleum. The giant parade grounds with stadium seating and a massive road running from north to south of the compound seemed empty despite the mass of tourists huddling around the flag pole centred in the garden plaza.

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I managed to take a photo of what I believe is a group of officers in training in the military compound. They were running circuits, obviously in superb shape.

Lake Ha Hoan Kiem
This lake in the old quarter of Hanoi is my favourite discovery. Early in the morning, around 6am the locals gather around the lake in groups to do exercise before work. I saw Tai Chi, line dance stretching and something I think of as VPOP dancing which is crumping to modern Vietnamese hip hop music. I wanted to join in but hesitated as I jogged around the lake before dawn.

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When the sun rises, the lakeside is bright with surrounding flowers of all colours under a canopy of great trees hanging over the cobblestone walkways. In the centre of the lake, a temple ‘Den Ngoc Son’ that is only accessible by bridge sits on a small island. Before dawn, as I jogged by a pillar monument outside the gate, I saw a local praying illuminated by candles lit along the stone wall leading to the temple.

Street Markets, Food and Drink
Downtown Hanoi has an energetic night life of markets, food stalls, beer corners and karaoke bars. Some of the best places to eat and drink in the city are down dark alleys or up three floors on hidden rooftops. Asking the hostel staff is helpful in finding some of the city’s hidden gems.

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This was my first experience going out on the town at night outside of Canada. People drank and partied on the street corners, sitting at food stalls on plastic stools. Beer was 5,000 VND which is roughly $,32 CDN but tasted questionable. A good beer costs 15,000 VND or $1 CDN.

Banh Mi: The traditional Vietnamese sandwich is a roll of bread roughly 8-10inches long cut lengthways and stuffed with carrot, cabbage, cucumber, egg, cheese or pork heated until crispy. It’s delicious and a cheap snack starting at 12,000 VND. Ask for chili or BBQ sauce for added spice. One young lady taught me how to say ‘Thank You’: (Cam o’n) in Vietnamese, her pleasant laugh at my poor attempt was well worth the effort.

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Thank you Hanoi for a warm welcome to South East Asia

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