After three weeks travelling through Thailand, we flew from Bangkok to Hanoi. I’m quite behind on the blog as we’ve been so busy exploring. We used Hanoi as a base for getting around the north of the country, as the capital has good connections to the surrounding rural regions. We’ve been back to the city four times!
The rules of the road in Hanoi are that any type of transport, going in any direction, can go anywhere.
Navigating through the Old Quarter to our hotel was pretty challenging, crossing very busy streets with our big backpacks, unable to walk on the pavements and with no pedestrian crossings. The pavements are pretty much useless for pedestrians because people use them as extensions to their streetside shops and cafes, laying out their wares and seating on the pavement. It’s also the prime location for people parking their motorbikes, and since there are so many bikes there is virtually no free space on the pavement anywhere.
We stayed at a small hotel on a street in the heart of the Old Quarter. It was right next to the main area for local Bia Hoi bars, so was very noisy at night, but it didn’t bother me. I actually had my best sleep there as I was so tired!
Once you become used to the traffic and resigned to the perilous nature of every road crossing, Hanoi can be an interesting and fun place to be, although it’s frenetic. There aren’t a lot of major sights in the usual sense, but there are plenty of cultural things to do and it’s enjoyable to simply absorb the atmosphere of the capital.
We saw a performance at the Thang Long water puppets theatre. It was something Mel really wanted to see and I wasn’t too bothered, but I’m really glad we did because it was amazing. The venue was a normal looking theatre, except that the stage is a pool of water. Puppets move around on and in the water, controlled by people hidden behind the curtain. Water puppets are a tradition developed by the people of the Red River delta, around the 16th century. They display features of rural northern Vietnamese life, which I found fascinating.
The puppets were fishermen and farmers, dragons breathing fire and water, jumping fish, and water buffalos being ridden by children. It was a real insight into a past way of life, one that still has relevance to many lives lived today around the river delta. Watching the water puppets performance felt like being transported to a radically different place and time. This feeling was enhanced by the background music, played throughout the show on traditional instruments, most of which I hadn’t seen anything like before.
I noticed in Hanoi that the influence of China and Chinese culture is very strong, and I hadn’t realised the extent of this in Vietnam. It’s particularly striking in the north, but then the north of the country is closer to China than to anywhere else. Vietnam was ruled by China for almost 1000 years, until the 11th century. You can see the impact of this history in the temples around Hanoi, which are all very Chinese in style and use Chinese script.
We walked around Hoan Kiem lake, the spiritual heart of Hanoi, with its red bridge and island temple. There’s also the Temple of Literature and the One Pillar Pagoda, which are beautiful and tranquil. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is a grand stately building and probably the most important site for all Vietnamese, being the tomb of the father of the nation.
Arriving at the airport in Hanoi went very smoothly. We got on a local bus that took us into the city for $1. Once we reached the city centre, things got more complicated as the traffic is insane. It makes crossing the road in places like Mumbai and Bangkok look like a walk in the park. The difference is that in Vietnam, the motorbike rules the road. Somehow it seems easier to deal with several cars approaching you on a wide unmarked road than 60 motorbikes all swerving in different directions.
Why are there so many motorbikes in Vietnam?
Hardly anyone has a car in Vietnam as they’re extremely expensive, with the cheapest, most basic one costing the equivalent of $22,000 USD. There is a government tax of over 100% on goods imported from countries like Japan and Korea, where South East Asia gets most of its technological and mechanical goods.
There’s no tax on items produced inside Vietnam, but Vietnam doesn’t manufacture any cars, only motorbikes made in Vietnam with Japanese machinery (so there’s a tax on the machinery but not on the finished product). Motorbikes are still relatively expensive, at around $800 for a standard model, but cars are on a different scale. Motorbikes from China are much cheaper as there’s no tax on Chinese imports, but they’re not popular as the quality is low.