The last city I visited in Vietnam is its capital, Hanoi. During my first visit to Vietnam, it was the starting point of my voyage through this country, and I instantly liked the city. If you forget about the mad traffic for a moment, the city is really charming with its old center with narrow streets, just north of Hoan Kiem lake. There, a number of streets are named after the products that virtually every shop in the street sells, like Hang Bo, with Hang meaning “merchandise” and Bo stands for “baskets". There is a Hang Manh for bamboo screens, and a Hang Muoi, for salt.
There are of course many family restaurants, with delicious food, served usually within a minute after ordering. And then the many coffeeshops, where you can sit down and relax, and watch life going by on the busy street in front of you. Many women, wearing the typically Vietnamese conical hat, carrying a bamboo pole on one shoulder with two baskets attached to it. They sell fruit or carry all kinds of goods. Across some streets, there are red banners with slogans in Vietnamese, reminding you that you’re in a socialist country: “Honesty, Nobility, Solidarity!", or “Long Live President Ho Chi Minh!". Every hundred meters or so people ask you if you want their motorbike taxi services, very cheap (after bargaining) and very fast.
Hanoi is also the city where you can see Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho as he is fondly known, in the mausoleum built after his death. Next to the building, two large banners proclaiming “The Socialist Republic Of Vietnam Will Live On!", and “President Ho Chi Minh Will Walk With Us Forever!", facing the large square that is crowded with people and dignitaries on special occassions. Soldiers in khaki or bright white uniforms guard the mausoleum, and inside is the body of the late Ho Chi Minh, subtly lit in a glass sarcophagus, emphasising his thin white hair, goatee and his bony hands.
The mausoleum is surrounded by large botanical gardens with enormous trees and plants from all over the country, and they were well kept by a dozen female workers with those typical straw hats again. Further on, there is Unclo Ho’s presidential palace, his residential house, and his semi-residential bungalow, completely made out of teak wood, with a carp-filled pond in front of it.
Also on the mausoleum terrain is the famous One Pillar Pagoda, originally constructed by Emperor Ly Thai Tong, who ruled from 1028-1054, destroyed by the French upon leaving Hanoi in 1954, and rebuilt by the Vietnamese government. This small pagoda on an enormous stone pillar has a buddha statue in it, surrounded by flowers and other offerings, and incense.
There are a lot of Chinese influences everywhere in Hanoi, from the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius, to the many Chinese gates, temples and pagodas in this city. The Chinese / Japanese style (fat) Buddha can be seen a lot here, and sometimes statues of Confucius, Vietnamese emperors, and occasionally the more slimmed down Thai version of Buddha. In the center of Hanoi is a Catholic church, a dark grey structure resembling the Notre Dame on the Ile de la Cite in Paris.
By now, I spoke enough Vietnamese to have basic conversations, and it helps enormously with negotiating to get the right price for transportation, or for that nice t-shirt you want to buy. Usually, the asking price is about five times as high as the actual price, and if negotiating doesn’t get the price down enough, the tactic of walking away helps. The vendor shouts out the lowest price, in the hope you turn around. Some people confided in me, in Vietnamese, that the asking price would have been much higher, if I wouldn’t have spoken in Vietnamese to them.
Unfortunately, after several weeks revisiting wonderful Vietnam, it was time for me to leave. My next destination was going to be China, and I was very excited that my explorations of this huge and unfamiliar country were about to start.