I arrived in Hanoi on a visa run from Bangkok in 2014. I figured I’d come to Vietnam instead of Cambodia on a 5-day trip.
Hanoi is similar to so many places in SE Asia – the squalid, old, congested and polluted ones, that is. The people are ok, not as friendly as the Thais (really- there are no other people in the world like the Thai people). The Hanoians go about their lives with little mind for the tourists trampling around in their city, except to sell them something.
First impressions of Hanoi. It was a mix of mostly Chinese influence plus narrow, four-storey buildings that reminded me of Thamel in Kathmandu.
The streets narrow and congested with motorcycles and honking, like a Chinatown anywhere in the world, but everything runs calmly and smoothly. There are old French colonial touches still around, even a nice French tree-lined boulevard as the main road.
I dropped my stuff off in the hotel room and headed out to walk around and see the sights. I was not more than 15 minutes out the door when a lady came by on a motorcycle and offered to show me around. It was hot and so I thought it would be ok to get an overview of the place. The lady, “Cow” ( at least she pronounced her name that way) said hop on and we went sightseeing.
This is a country that has been under attack for millennia, so lots of statues, museums and remnants throughout town of fighting men, remnants of arms and victory mementos.
We went to the Hanoi prison, famously known as the Hanoi Hilton where US prisoners were incarcerated during the war.
After the prison visit, we went tooling around on her motorbike looking at remnants from the Vietnam War, still intact.
Hanoi-ing could be the gerund form of the activity of sightseeing in Hanoi, or a play on words, as in annoying, Hanoi style.
I eventually had to dump Cow. Here’s why.
I was naïve to believe her initial pitch that she was a history major at university and it was her first time driving a motorcycle around for money. Granted, she was nice enough to take me around to the sites, but at the end of the day, she said she wanted some shoes to wear to remember me by. Wha…?
She took me across the Red River to a very specific shoe shop and inside she found three pairs of high heels she was thinking of buying. They looked cheap. The material was shiny like patent leather, but just plastic. I thought “She wants these shoes badly, and she did take me around, so, ok, how much could these cost?”
The store lady pulled out a calculator and the price of only one pair was 2.9 million Dong. That’s $140 USD for crappy plastic shoes! I couldn’t believe it. No way I would buy them, so Cow settled on another pair for $40 USD, which still seemed expensive for the quality of materials.
With shoes in tow, Cow took me back to my hotel but wouldn’t stop in front – more like a block away. I thought that was fishy. Then she asked for more money and I said, “but I just bought you shoes!”
She said she wanted money for gas and I asked how much and she said the old familiar “up to you”. I offered $20, but she asked for more. I reminded her I just bought her shoes and that’s all she was going to get. She left saying she’d pick me up tomorrow again. I had no intention of doing that.
When Cow had gone, I decided to go look around, Flâneur-style. About an hour later, I saw her on a street corner on her motorcycle with a friend waiting to hustle some more customers. That’s when I knew she was on the hustle.
I paid $60 for that day excursion. A bit pricey. It always takes a day to get to know the game in a new land.
I decided to walk everywhere from then on, even though it was sweltering.
A Look at Museums
I got up early the next day and went down to the French Quarter to look at museums. The first was Museum of Anthropology. Another one of these museums with artifacts tracing back the country’s civilization thousands of years leading up to modern times.
It’s good to get the point of view of the Vietnamese in their struggle for autonomy in the 20th century. We older folks in the west remember the Vietnam War because we grew up with it. From the US perspective, it wasn’t a loss but a compromise. But the Communist Vietnamese really make it clear it was a victory. They won the war by defeating the US-supported south Vietnamese government. When the Viet Cong Army marched into Saigon in 1975, it was really over. (Check out Ken Burns’ 10-part film about the Vietnam War).
The museum just has a bunch of old artifacts and pictures. Nothing really great although some stuff is definitely propaganda.
For example, at the Army Museum, there is a Soviet-era MiG 21 with a USAF logo on it!
Four floors of stuff not that interesting (to me). Here is the highlight for me.
Last time I visited Saigon in 1990, most women wore the Ao Dai.
Ho Chi Minh
I’m not going to bother repeating what’s on the history books about Ho Chi Minh. You can click here and read the Wikipedia’s biography.
Here’s one thing I did learn: Ho was a waiter and pastry maker in Brooklyn, New York. One of the many surprises of his well-traveled life.
More photos walking around the French Quarter in Hanoi.
Hanoi attracts a cohort of youthful travellers mistaking the city as a beach resort. Here’s evidence of beach-attired young tourists (mostly European) who traipse around in swim suits and garish singlets and flip flops.
These youths seem like pot-smoking, hackey-sack playing, puppy-on-a-rope-wearing-a-kerchief hippies, but as we found out from the 60s social experiment, hippy-looking folk grow up to become Capitalist conservatives. There is no dearth of these types wandering the streets of Hanoi, so rest assured America and the world, in a few more years this cohort will be making your sorry-ass lives more miserable once they take power.
Dusk in the Old Quarter
People sitting low in the street drinking Tiger beer and Coca-Cola.