Hanoi. It’s hectic. It’s colourful and vibrant. It’s noisy day and night. It’s often pungent. Wandering the streets this last couple of days, there were many times when I wished one or another of my senses wasn’t working! It’s the kind of place where I’ve often wanted to teleport my class to when trying to wring some descriptive writing out of them! And it’s more busy, more bustling, more frenetic than everywhere we’ve been so far on our trip.
The first thing that struck me was that there are just so many people around, even on the tiniest backstreets and, unlike Laos and Cambodia (see earlier post), they’re actually largely up and about doing things!
Ladies wearing broad conical hats balance a strip of bamboo over one shoulder, with a basket suspended from each end. These are piled high with their choice of wares ranging from bananas, pineapples or dragonfruit to meat (only early in the morning), ginger, garlic, sweet potato, maggots, nuts or socks! Others use a bike or have just one basket around their neck, often stacked with various sweet dough products of which you can sample two each of four kinds for 30,000 Dong. The type we tried were similar to a jam-less Birds’ doughnut on a stick.
Most sellers tried to get our attention regardless of our level of interest but, and this was the first time on this trip, several of these women grabbed me which I’m not a fan of and really isn’t a great sales tactic! While at a pavement cafe, a man intentionally scratched my arm while we ate in the hope it would make us buy something from him. Later, before we knew what was happening, a pair of teenage boys armed with super glue attacked one of Dean’s shoes in the hope of him agreeing to a full repair job! Literally everyone is trying to make a tourist buck but these two, at least, were unsuccessful.
Guaranteed to ignore you though, are the groups of men convened to play cards or unidentifiable games with counters, usually cigarette or beer in hand. Roadside barber stops are also common but I’ve yet to convince Dean to try one.
Every single building is used for business of some kind. They are rarely more than a couple of storeys high and the floors above street level are usually French colonial in style and often residential. They are very long and narrow and so sometimes are called ‘tunnel’ houses (something to do with lower taxes). Historically streets were named after the goods sold there. They don’t necessarily tally nowadays but there are still discrete areas for different produce like sweets or mannequins or gravestones or carpets or cuddly toys or celebrationary goods. The latter was unexpectedly filled with halloween paraphernalia this week, although there were very few signs of it being used about the town. Lots of shops have caged birds hanging outside which is considered good luck but are a bit stressful for someone like me with a moderate fear of birds! No matter how upmarket a shop attempts to be, it doesn’t necessarily preclude the worker from lying, probably asleep, in the middle of the floor!
The market definitely attacks the senses in more ways than one. Piles of colourful fruit, nuts and seeds are displayed in front of their sleeping or sullen owners. We bought some delicious, juicy satsumas which still had their leaves on. Tubs of eels, snails, crabs and fish resignedly await their destiny. Seated, chatting women complacently skin large frogs in one swift movement (I couldn’t watch!). Turtles float about, their eyes seeming to half-heartedly beg me to free them. Cages are rammed full of frantic twittering tiny birds, huddled kittens, white doves or hamsters (for pets not food I think!).
The worst smell I’ve discovered so far is the dried squid; sold in the market but also on the street, tentacles splayed, as a ‘tasty’ evening snack. Hot street food takes a different form here to the trend of anything-fried-on-a-stick that prevail in the previous countries on our trip. Here, women hunch next to a small set of cooking equipment for making their chosen dish, usually some kind of noodle soup containing meat, crab or shrimp. Judging by the continued clusters of locals sitting nearby on plastic stools, heads bowed, chopsticks in hand, they must have perfected their art.
Distinct from these, there is a thriving pavement cafe culture where groups of business-like men and fashionable teenagers gather at tiny tables on tinier chairs to drink coffee, bia hoi or juice, usually smartphone or tablet in hand. We sampled tasty pork spring rolls and noodle soup at one of these restaurants plus some freshly squeezed orange juice and lemonade.
As darkness falls, street sellers dump the day’s pungent rubbish in the gutter. Women, wearing hats and scarves covering their faces, trawl the streets with large metal carts, scooping it up. But there isn’t as much as you might imagine due to a pretty good system: all the shop, cafe and restaurant owners listen out for the rubbish collector’s bell and bring their sacks out to her, avoiding the stinking piles on the streets common elsewhere.
Day and night, the traffic is manic and relentless. Apparently there are 8 million people in Hanoi and 4.5 million motorbikes: about 90% of the traffic. We used one as a taxi, experiencing the madness from the inside: scary! They weave, seemingly effortlessly, in and out of each other yet it seems that literally none of them have heard of the ‘mirror, signal, manoeuvre’ mantra. Indication is non-existent and, to my eyes, no one looks even left and right never mind checking behind them! Despite all this, it somehow just, well, works. Although the engines are noisy, there is much less horn honking than you’d imagine, no road rage and, so far as we’ve seen, no collisions. The other 10% is comprised of a few cars, fewer bicycles and a load of old men pedalling seats in front of them holding lazy tourists or, more likely, empty and instead accosting us every minute or two.
The concept of a ‘pavement’ is very loose. They’re actually everywhere and very wide, but if they’re not covered in the aforementioned array of eateries, then they’re turned into a motorbike parking bay since they are, (in)conveniently, a fraction wider than the length of a bike. Pedestrians are therefore literally demoted to the gutter!
Crossing the road consequently feels a perilous challenge! You do feel as though you’re getting braver but in reality you’re probably just getting more comfortable with the risk and fear! There are occasional meaningless zebra crossings and almost universally ignored traffic lights.
On the plus side, navigation is quite easy because the streets are well labelled. Also, for the first time this trip, all the words are written in Roman script meaning we can at least attempt pronunciation even if we haven’t got a clue about the 6 different tonal inflections that can be imposed on any one word!
So it’s possible to spend much of your time people-watching and traffic-dodging but another option for your evening’s entertainment is to watch a water puppet show; quite an unusual spectacle. The puppeteers stand behind a screen and Punch and Judy style puppets on sticks appear and dance about in the water to the live traditional music. It’s all quite slapstick, colourful and fun to watch.
As you can probably now appreciate, our senses have been well and truly overwhelmed. So I think we can be forgiven for spending one of our three days here watching cartoons in our hotel room!
Here are a few pictures from an overnight boat trip we took to Halong Bay, one of the 7 natural wonders of the world according to Vietnam!
Karst rock formations:
The ‘surprising cave’:
The floating village and its inhabitants:
Sunset in the Bay:
Unsuccessful squid fishing (only got a disabled crab) and the boat’s captain:
Visit to a pearl farm:
Hope this way of posting photos works… let me know if not!
Number of nights so far: 37
Number of different places we’ve stayed: 20
Weirdest thing transported on a motorbike: a live cow strapped on its side, head hanging almost to the road, tail waving about manically (a slightly comical but mostly uncomfortable sight)!