Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital and second-largest city, is one of the most beautiful capitals in Asia. Most well known to Americans for its role in the Vietnam War, Hanoi celebrated its 1,000th birthday in 2010.
As the cultural center of Vietnam, Hanoi’s rich, cosmopolitan history is evident in its Chinese, French and Russian architectural influence. The wide boulevards inspired by the French create an interesting contrast to the narrow lanes of the Old Quarter.
One of the most popular ways to take in the city of four million is through a cyclo ride. You can also walk, but it’s not necessarily an easy city for the visitor to navigate. Hordes of motorbikers maneuver through the streets, honking and not worrying a bit about traffic lanes.
There’s also a dearth of English speakers, which provides an additional challenge – unless you happen to speak Vietnamese.
I arrived in Hanoi on an early morning train and watched the locals exercising and doing tai chi as the sun rose over Hoan Kiem Lake. My small hotel was located a few blocks from the lake along the narrow lanes of the Old Quarter, a district that dates back to the 13th century.
My first day in Hanoi was spent relaxing and recuperating from a cold. I took a walk to pick up some medicine and get a feel for the rhythm of the city. Locating cold medicine became more of an adventure and ordeal than I expected; I soon found myself lost. This experience, though, was worth it to cut my teeth on the city.
I rarely get frustrated when I get lost in foreign cities, as I consider it an element of the adventure of travel. Sometimes it’s good for me to be nudged outside my comfort zone, and I certainly was here. I finally located the clinic with the much-needed medicine and gave the clerk an unexpected “cam on” (“thank you” in Vietnamese), which elicited a bright smile.
The following morning I traveled with a van packed with tourists to scenic Ha Long Bay, three hours outside of Hanoi. The bay, with its numerous limestone islands, karsts and caverns, is truly one of the magical sites I’ve encountered in my travels.
Nearly every hotel in Hanoi offers a tour there, generally lasting 1-3 days. You can visit on your own, but a tour simplifies the hassle. If you go on a tour, try to select one that will allow you to kayak into some of the enchanting grottos. Here you can experience a feeling of solitude and oneness with nature that's easier to attain away from the plethora of tour boats in the bay.
On day 3 in Hanoi I was provided a personalized tour of the city by a wonderful organization named Hanoikids. Hanoikids offers free individualized guided tours (the visitor just pays for taxis and meals) of the town by a young, English-speaking guide. I was able to select my desired locations.
My guide, Phuac (pronounced foo-uh) was a very knowledgeable aspiring tour guide who volunteered with the organization to practice his English. I found him easier to understand than some of the professional guides I had in Thailand and Ho Chi Minh City. He took me to all my requested locations including the Temple of Literature, Hỏa Lò Prison and the Museum of Ethnology, capped off with a stop for tea where we chatted about our daily lives.
The Temple of Literature was the seat of learning in Hanoi for a millennia. A Confucian temple, it underscores the city’s Chinese influence. The Museum of Ethnology allows you to learn about the numerous fascinating ethnic groups in Vietnam. The outdoor section of the museum is particularly interesting, as it features a variety of examples of traditional houses.
Most of the displays in Hỏa Lò Prison actually deal not with the Vietnam War, but with the French occupation and the Vietnamese resistance to it. Obviously, it is not the French occupation that’s of primary interest to most visiting Americans. Between 1965 and 1968, while America bombed Hanoi, 75% of the population was evacuated. Several American POWs, including John McCain, were held here.
I saw some Americans at Hỏa Lò of the age to suggest they may have been Vietnam veterans. I tried to imagine what was going through their minds as they watched the displays with somber expressions. Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in this war – as did millions of Vietnamese.
I felt somewhat awkward touring the prison with Phuac and was much more silent and reflective than I was at the other locations. Clearly sensing my discomfort, Phuac told me, “We are looking ahead to the future now and we want peace.”
As the afternoon wore on, we relaxed at Hoan Kiem Lake, the unofficial heart of Hanoi. The 45-minute walk around the lake is a pleasant stroll and a good excuse to people watch, particularly at sunrise or sunset. Locals come here to jog, do tai chi and play checkers.
To the north side of the lake is the Ngoc Son (Jade Mountain) Temple, a tranquil spot to relax and enjoy a moment of serenity amid the urban bustle. Several Buddhists left offerings while we sat.
After the R&R by the lake, Phuac and I stopped at a local coffee shop for a cup of tea and talked about our lives. He has good times and battles with his relatives, studies and aspires to a better life, and loves his iPod. Sounded like the average early twenty-something in America to me. We found much in common and chatted longer than originally planned about our likes and dislikes, cultural influences and hopes for the future.
On the way back home, Phuac took me by Hang Dao, one of Hanoi’s busiest shopping streets. I curiously perused the shops of Hanoi’s “silk road” – its Melrose Boulevard. I was still dodging motorbikes while crossing the street, but Phuac showed me the local way is to walk at a steady pace so they can easily maneuver around you.
While Vietnam also has some of the most genuinely sweet people I've met in my travels, it also has some of the most relentless hawkers. They’re not necessarily rude, but they are…well, persistent.
The most insistent hawker of my entire trip appeared while Phuac and I were strolling back from Hang Dao to the Old Quarter. I was more curious than annoyed, but I probably goofed when I succumbed and bought a green T-shirt with “Vietnam” emblazoned on the front. I didn’t really want it, but it was only two dollars and I felt bad for this desperate woman. Phuac said he could not intervene because it might inflame the situation and incite a violent reaction. I think he would have preferred that I not buy the shirt. My purchase undoubtedly further encouraged this behavior toward the next Western tourist to pass by.
Finally, we made our way back to my hotel through the Old Quarter. I watched groups of families gathered together on sidewalks on little stools as they do daily for morning and evening meals. They chat away for hours, often while sipping pho, the staple noodle soup.
Phuac told me I was the first American he had met and was thankful that I was friendly. I learned more about Vietnam that day than I’d learned in my previous week in the country. It really helped to see the city through the eyes of a local. I felt much more at ease now walking the city than I did the first day, when I tromped around like a lost puppy looking for cold medicine.
Phuac and Hanoikids helped me appreciate the highlights and cultural subtleties of the city. The next day I emailed the organization my thanks along with a good recommendation for Phuac.
Upon returning to San Diego, I emailed Phuac some photos taken during our time together. He emailed back, informing me he wants to come study in America, but added that finding a scholarship will not be not easy.
Having firsthand experience of Phuac’s intelligence and preparation, I wouldn’t be surprised if he manages to nail one down. I’m wishing him luck.