Hà Nội

Rush hour in Hanoi's Old Quarter... ...nice of the dog to give his master a ride!

Rush hour in Hanoi’s Old Quarter… …nice of the dog to give his master a ride!

Dates visited: December 27, 2014 – December 30, 2014

For me, Hà Nội was synonymous with Hồ Chí Minh and the Vietnam War, but after visiting this city, I learned a lot about Hà Nội’s 1000 plus years of history. We stayed in the Old Quarter that has still preserved the street layout and architecture of old Hà Nội. In olden days, each trader guild (e.g. silver traders, paper traders, bronze traders, household traders, etc.) was responsible for each street. Old Quarter is crowded with people, dogs, vehicles, vehicles and more vehicles (motorbikes are aplenty and drivers ride like maniacs), but that’s exactly what adds to the allure of strolling around and watching life go by. There are thousands of shops selling a variety of things and you can spend hours haggling with the shopkeepers or just window shopping. Crossing a street was always a challenge since vehicles authoritatively drive to tell you they have the right of the way. After getting trained by our guide, the technique to crossing-and-staying-alive can be narrowed down to these simple rules:

  1. If you want to cross the road, just start walking. No hesitation; commit right away.
  2. Walk confidently and stick your hand out in direction of the oncoming traffic so they know you mean business. Be prepared to use both your hands because sometime motorbikes are driven in the wrong direction.
  3. Make eye contact with the drivers who are most likely to run over you so it gives them enough time to swerve and avoid you… …they are not going to brake and risk getting rear-ended!
  4. Pavements or footpaths become extension of streets during rush hour so always be on the lookout for a motorbikes competing for space with pedestrians.

But in addition to participating (against your wishes) in the dodge-the motorbikes game, there is lots to see in Hà Nội. We saw Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum but did not bother paying a visit to see his embalmed body. I have seen Lenin’s embalmed body in Moscow and seeing a dead body just feels creepy to me! But Vietnam has made efforts to keep their revered leader feared and respected by maintaining a strong police presence and displaying messages of communism and socialism. And just like in Moscow’s Red Square, the police will watch you with suspicion until they find another victim to scare.

We visited also visited the Temple of Literature (a Confucian temple built in 1070)… …a beautiful complex with manicured bushes, ancient architecture, a lake and several courtyards. The fifth courtyard served as Quốc Tử Giám (Imperial Academy) which became Vietnam’s first national university. In addition to tourists, there were numerous students in graduation gowns and caps participating in photo shoots. Apparently, it is a tradition for all aspiring graduates to visit the Imperial Academy and get their pictures taken here up to a year in advance.

Two unique things I saw in Hà Nội:

  • Tube houses! Also know as rocket houses, these houses have narrow widths, but stretch all the way inside from the road. This is because properties were/are taxed on the basis of their street frontage so it makes economic sense to have a narrow façade in an expensive real estate market. See picture gallery below.
  • Road-side restaurants with low stools! Two-feet tall plastic or wooden stools are a common sight and these restaurants are popular hangouts for locals, tourists, professionals and students. It’s not the low stool height that was interesting, but just seeing swarms of people, sometimes dressed in their finest, all gathered, sitting down and socializing is a unique sight to see. See picture gallery below.

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