Stories and essays on food, travel, culture.
The two middle-aged Americans sit at a long table along the wall-to-ceiling windows of the small cafe just outside Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Sunburned and happy, they down beers and guffaw loudly at some private joke and wave good-naturedly at passers-by. They beckon two young Asian women hanging around nearby, take their photographs and ask them if they want to go dancing later that night.
Outside, in the gathering dusk, neon-lit shop signs and headlights from a steady stream of cars and buses cast a hazy glow on the still waters of the Hoan Kiem Lake. Noisy motorbikes duel with “cyclos” (similar to cycle rickshaws) and bicycles for valuable real estate on the streets. Young boys hawk cheap editions of popular English titles on pavements.
Pedestrians plunge in, weaving in and out of the traffic to traverse the intersection widened by a large circle in the centre. Women with non las (the pointy, wide-brimmed hats) strapped to their chins sell steaming hot pho (a soup) in one corner, and flowers and fruits out of baskets on bicycles or strung to the ends of long poles balanced on shoulders.
This is our first time in Vietnam, but a sense of déjà vu accompanies every turn of the head. Where have we seen these scenes before?
It doesn’t take us long to realize that the Vietnam War movies defined our sense of the country long before we arrived in its capital. It is perhaps a sign of things to come, but as we stand there on the pavement in the bustling street corner, celluloid past jostles for space with the real-life present.
Hanoi is an alluring combination of the tranquillity of a city with an ancient soul and the vibrancy of an up-and-coming economy. Tree-lined boulevards, serene lakes with arching willow trees, verdant parks, stately monuments and old temples more than compensate for shiny malls, chaotic traffic (Hanoi has slightly more than half of Bangalore’s population but nearly the same number of motorbikes) and dowdy government offices.
Even the crumbling edifices of the Old Quarter, the 2,000-year-old bargain-hunting paradise, exhibit grace and resilience as they cling to the charm of a bygone era.
As we negotiate its narrow streets and the nearly non-existent sidewalks on foot, eager faces pop out of doorways and salesgirls’ delicate hands invite us in with sweeping gestures. The haggling is intense but their smiles stay put as they perform mental calisthenics, swiftly darting between dong and dollar, calculating in one and bargaining in another, before dropping all pretence and sticking to the dollar.
The following day we drive through the city to the revered Temple of Literature (Van Mieu). Young couples court on the banks of West Lake along Thanh Nien Street (the “most romantic spot in the city,” our taxi driver tells us, a wicked grin creasing his smooth cheeks), families with young children in strollers and on hips throng Ba Dinh Square near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, parks are filled with older people playing badminton across make-believe nets. Hanoi’s youthful vibe is irresistible.
At Van Mieu, the site of Vietnam’s first university, a series of courtyards culminate in an altar to Confucius. Past the outer gardens, huge concrete turtles in corridors on either side silently bear the weight of stone steles engraved with the names of those who graduated more than five centuries ago. The mostly young visitors run their fingers over the etchings, lost in thought, before making an offering of incense sticks, flowers and fruits at the statue of Confucius. Whether Confucianism is a religion is still open to debate, but there is little doubt that these offerings are made in prayer.
On the surprisingly smooth road to Ha Long Bay in the Gulf of Tonkin, 3 hours east of Hanoi, Vietnam’s bounty of beauty is hard to miss. Farmers tend to lush green rice paddy fields that roll away from the edge of the road to greet the horizon in the far distance—the same fields you’ve probably seen flash before you at the mere mention of Vietnam. Small hills intermittently break their vast sweep.
A cacophony of horns greets our arrival at the Bai Chay Tourist Wharf. Tourists and crew scramble to their junks. We pick a booth near the entrance to ours and settle down to wait for the rest of the tourists. Two passengers later, the boat backs out of the wharf and we are off. We all look at each other and laugh. A two-level 40-seater junk, a crew of six and two guides for four adult passengers and two children.
As we exchange notes on our Vietnam experience—including how our daughter’s chubby cheeks and our female co-passenger’s ample bosom received admiring caresses from a few over-enthusiastic women in Hanoi—the crew rustles up lunch and then leaves us alone with the breathtaking sights unfolding outside our windows.
A floating fishing village (complete with a school) gives way to a series of broad, cone-shaped pillars soaring majestically from the water. Cavernous grottoes open near the bottom of a few of them, perhaps hosting busy townships of their own. Hundreds of such pillars are spread over more than 1,500km, and about a third of the bay is designated as a Unesco World Heritage site. Mute witness to a violent naval history, each one is an island made of a single limestone rock, their thick forest cover imparting a deep shade of green to the surrounding water.
Far away from Hanoi’s tumult, the bay is a good place as any to reflect on the collage of sometimes conflicting ideas and images that is Vietnam—a people gentle and unassuming but fierce when occasion demands it; ravaged by years of war but industrious and resilient; proud of their history but pragmatic; worshipful of elders but not overtly religious.
Vietnam’s celluloid past has undergone a reality check and we are the luckier for it.
How to go:
For visas, apply at the Vietnamese embassy (17, Kautilya Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi-110021; Tel: 011-23018059) or at their Mumbai consulate (Wajeda House, 7, Juhu Scheme, Mumbai-400049; Tel: 022-26736688). Applications require your exact itinerary. A single-entry 15-day visa costs Rs2,250.
Flights to Hanoi from India require a stopover in Bangkok or Singapore. Jet Airways flies from Mumbai to Hanoi while Thai Airways offers connections from New Delhi. Return economy fares start from around Rs50,000.
Where to stay:
Sheraton Hanoi Hotel (www.starwoodhotels.com; Tel: +84-4-7199000), where we stayed, is situated about a mile and a half from the centre of the city, and offers lush landscaping and a view of West Lake. The Oven D’Or Restaurant’s continental and Asian buffet is great for a quick breakfast before heading out. For a scrumptious Vietnamese spread and a leisurely dinner, head to the Hemispheres Restaurant across the courtyard from the lounge. Room rates start at Rs9,500. For a more central location, try the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi (www.sofitel.com, Tel: +84-4-8266919). Recently named the Best Business Hotel in Hanoi by ‘Business Traveller Asia Pacific’ magazine, this luxury hotel has been a Hanoi fixture for more than 100 years. Rates start at Rs12,000.
Hilton Hanoi Opera hotel (www.hilton.com, Tel: +84-4-9330500) is also closer to the town centre, right next door to the Opera House. Don’t confuse this with the Hanoi Hilton, an actual prison for American PoWs. Rates start at Rs9,000.
Where to eat:
The Hoan Kiem Lake and West Lake areas abound in restaurants that offer a range of cuisines reflective of Vietnam’s rich history. Even if you pick one of the other hotels to stay in, the Hemispheres Restaurant at the Sheraton is still worth a visit.
What to do:
Head to the historic Bat Trang ceramic village on the banks of the Red River and watch ceramics come to life; take a half-day tour of the Van Phuc silk village or Cuc Phuong National Park. Hop on a “cyclo” for a tour of the Old Quarter and keep your eyes peeled for a bargain souvenir. Don’t miss Ha Long Bay.
Check with your concierge for tour operators with guides. Because language might be a barrier and most road signs are in Vietnamese, driving yourself is not recommended.
Originally published in 2008 in Mint Lounge.