Hanoi’s hazy glow belies the promise of the sleek new international terminal at Nội Bài Airport: this is a stressful place. Circled by smokestacks, 7 million souls writhe beneath the permanent dusk of anthracite coal emissions. Algae clouded waterbodies open some smoggy sight lines… and bottleneck traffic. Hanoi ranks high on the BPM (beeps per kilometer) index, and the driving is exciting as the road’s centerline is usually ignored. Scooters are cheap so wheeled vehicles rule – sidewalks serve as parking lots and impromptu scooter repair shops; crossing the street is like playing Frogger with higher stakes.
Vietnam is politically strange as well. officials in military green with red star caps are a common site. One of only a few remaining single party communist countries (Myanmar, Laos, China, Cuba and North Korea round out the list), the press and internet are controlled. Spartan, soviet-style monuments and buildings mix with mildewing French colonial influences. Fortunately, the French bakery culture survives.
Even so you’ll find smiles beneath the smog masks – the Vietnamese are a jovial people, service minded and eager to please. Our very friendly hotel staff takes time to orient us and coach us on avoiding taxi scams; on the streets locals are quick to offer help. Stunned at the site of a westerner fearlessly wading through a river of honking motorbikes and taxis, a bicycle rickshaw driver applauds and shakes my hand…
We spent Thursday evening marking up google maps with walking tour destinations. Friday AM after a generous breakfast of croissants, fresh fruit and eggs, we brave the streets. It feels like a more metro Kathmandu outside… shops spilling on to alleys crowded with honking scooters. Max has an excellent head for directions so to get the boys engaged we put him in charge of navigating. He winds us confidently to the Ngoc Son temple on the north end of little Ho Hoan Kiem lake, and begin our clockwise tour around the French Quarter.
Hanoi street merchants organize themselves into lanes like Wal Mart aisles… there’s a street for toys, toiletries, Chinese medicines, silks, leathers; one for tapes… even one for bamboo scaffolding and ladders. To escape the chaos, we regularly slip into “community houses” along the way… communist Vietnam is an a-religious place, but these ancient temples live on as a place of refuge and perhaps occasional worship. One particularly interesting one has been layered around a huge banyan tree over several hundred years.
By mid-day the street stress tolls Sue and the boys, so we escape into the expensive but refined Red Bean restaurant for lunch, and it’s just what the doctor ordered… delicious spring rolls, green curry, and a nice mix of western food – Caesar salad and pastas. After lunch we visit a traditional house – open and airy for ventilation, a separate kitchen with no chimney, of course… Later we taxi across town to visit the Temple of Literature, a millennium-old university espousing Confucian ethics. It’s teeming with recent graduates during our visit; the girls their Ao dai gowns are elegant. Walking north out of the back gates Max and Ben are disappointed to find that the military museum is closed this Friday… but we see a tanks and proud MiG fighter through the fence.
It’s hot and we’re tired, so I hail a cab back to our hotel for a power-nap. But soon after arrival our building gets browned-out (glad we weren’t in the elevator!!), so we take a cold shower and wilt atop our beds. At 4PM I put on my best clothes, grab a walkie-talkie and depart for a business development meeting I’ve arranged with an enterprising Hanoi attorney. It’s a pleasant 20 minutes’ stroll – part of the travel adventure, and an engaging discussion of solar development challenges and opportunities in Myanmar and Vietnam… good of him to take time late on a Friday to meet with me.
By 6:30PM my meeting’s done and Sue and the boys are well into their walking street food tour. I walk north and using the walkie-talkies we meet up at St Joseph’s cathedral, where our ebullient guide Ellie welcomes me and the tour continues. She takes us places and feeds us foods we’d never otherwise attempt – crispy rice pancakes stuffed with meat and beansprouts, bon mi, sautéed chicken and mushrooms rolled up in rice paper, quail egg with roasted beef and squid, iced fruit for desert, and egg coffee afterward. Ellie also tests our comfort zone in her choice of eateries… “The dirty restaurants are best..” she says, “…they are popular so don’t have time to clean up”. The rule applies to street food too. In Hanoi it’s illegal to serve food on the streets… but impromptu restaurants appear anyway using children’s chairs and stools which can be quickly gathered and stowed when the cops swing by. Sue discreetly doles out Purell and Pepto along the way…