Part I: Hanoi
Words by George Tsangaris
The first thing people think of when they think of Vietnam is the war with the US. However thanks to Vietnam’s Communist government operating a system of Doi Moi; economic reforms with the intention of creating a socialist-orientated economy, the association with the war is fast changing and Vietnam’s many charms, its culture, hospitality and cuisine, are becoming increasingly recognised. This had led to foreign business operating in Vietnam as well as an ever-growing number of visitors discovering the country.
I chose to visit Vietnam for a week in April focusing on northern Vietnam. The itinerary began in Hanoi, then onto the Vietnamese-Chinese border in order to reach Sa Pả, by night train.
On my first day in Hanoi, my first stop was at the Temple of Literature, built in 1070 by the Emperor, and is home to the Temple of Confucius. Bring one of Hanoi’s top sites, it was a busy day and the area was overflowing with hordes of tourists. More delightful than the tourist however, were the groups of schoolkids who were at the Temple on a school trip. They walked with their arms around the shoulders of the best friends, smiling and laughing and needing no instructions from their teacher, who trusted that they would be well behaved.
Though the Temples of Literature and its architecture was wonderful, the focus of my attention were the university students, who, wearing their graduation robes posed for their graduation photo (and by default also posed for the groups of tourists who amassed around them). Counting backwards from three, the new graduates threw up their hats in the air in celebration. It was my favourite moment of the day and like everyone there, I wished them all, all the best on their new adventure ahead.
Wherever I travel I enjoy observing what people wear. Tourists could be spotted a mile off and you can tell who comes from where by what they wear. Australians wear flip-flops, shorts and vests no matter the weather and south Europeans seem to wear trendy jeans and sunglasses. However the trendiest person I met was a Vietnamese waiter who wore Louboutin-inspired shoes; sneakers of silver plastic, adorned with silver spikes. I spotted other people around town; some were dressed formally having their wedding photos taken and Buddhists monks walked through Hanoi’s sites in their traditional clothes.
By contrast from the city, in a village outside of Pả, three old ladies wearing traditionally colourful clothes adorned with beads sat weaving and chatting while less than 100 metres away two teenage girls, seated on a motorbike, were wearing jeans and t-shirts and were taking selfies. One of the girls’ t-shirts was a designer copy of two interconnecting Gs surrounded by blue and green stripes. Below that was the face of a cat made of sequins. In one H’Mong village, the men wore leather jackets as they rode their bikes or played pool. One man was dressed completely in red; red trousers and a red vest and wore a gold chain. Others patriotically wore a red t-shirt with the yellow five-pointed star of the Vietnamese flag. And for roughly US$5 you could too.
After lunch we walked to a park with a large statue of Lenin as teenage boys skateboarded right in front of him. Across the road was the Flag Tower, which was next to the Military Museum. There, the Vietnamese displayed the destroyed American aircrafts and exhibited their own military artillery. We circled the site along with school groups and tourists before walking up a long, leafy avenue called Điện Biên Phủ, passing the Romanian and German embassies and the Foreign Ministry, painted boldly and rather beautifully in yellow. It is located opposite Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.
In the mornings you have the chance to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body and for certain months of the year it is flown from Vietnam to Russia for maintenance. As it was afternoon we bought tickets for the lush grounds of the Presidential Palace and saw the One Pillar Pagoda and a Buddhist Temple.
Other notable sites in Hanoi include Tran Quoc Pagoda, located by the lake, which was beautiful in the sun’s diminishing light. Not to be missed is the Citadel as well as Hanoi’s many museums.
I asked to see something off the beaten track so our guide Minh took me to the rail tracks of Long Bien Bridge. It was a rattly old bridge that traversed the Red River. We walked from plank to plank as the Hanoi traffic zoomed below us. By sidestepping through the large metal frame we walked on the footpath opposite as motorbikes sped towards us. Their roar and speed was intimidating and as it was raining heavily we left and made out way to a Taoist Temple, Đền Quán Thánh, meaning Restaurant of the Gods.
Stay tuned for Part II