After the quiet tranquil, simplicity of Luang Prabang, Hanoi is like a screeching banshee. Scooters, bicycles, cars, hooters, markets, street cafe’s, music, night clubs, people, people and more people…….
After a forty-five minute drive and a hefty taxi bill to the city from the airport, we are unceremoniously dumped in front of our hotel in the Old Quarter. It’s a quick check in, dumping of the bags and out onto the busy streets to join the masses of humanity sitting on little plastic stools on the sidewalk, eating either rice or noodles with fish, chicken or meat.
After a short walk around after dinner to get a sense of the place, we hastily retreat to the quiet of our hotel. Hanoi is too much for the senses. Maybe tomorrow morning after a good night rest we will be up to the chaos.
The day dawns grey, rainy and overcast and it somewhat matches my mood. I am a fair weather person and enjoy bright blue, sunny skies and sunshine. I am so spoilt with many days like these in South Africa. Good weather should be mandatory for travel!
Hanoi has a lot to offer. There are a number of museums and historical monuments, but we are not in the mood and a slow walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake, which has an interesting legend going back to the 15th century attached to it, and around the old quarter and citadel gate is about as much energy as I can muster for today. After lunch I retreat to the hotel. My body and mind are tired, and I need to take heed and rest. Travel can be exhausting, always on the go, rushing off everywhere, scared not to miss anything. Sometimes we just need to put the brakes on and today is one of these days for me.
The Backpackers accommodation is a couple of doors down the road from our hotel. It’s a vibey, busy venue with fantastic facilities – computers with free wi-fi, a travel booking agency, big screen TV’s, restaurant and coffee bar. It’s a far cry from the backpacker accommodation I made use of when I backpacked around Europe almost 20 years ago. Times certainly have changed! We make use of the agency to enquire about tickets to Cat Ba island and are served by a young Australian chap who was meant to stay for 3 weeks and has been here for 6 months!!!
Day 2 in Hanoi is greeted pretty much the same as the day before – noise! The Old Quarter, a tangled web of streets, is a seething cauldron of commerce. There are streets that sell only clothes, some only souvenirs, another is chock-a-block full of eateries, round the corner and you come across a street specializing in silk garments. Commerce has ruled here for 1000 years and this is the heartbeat of the city. This is where it started.
Walking away from the Old Quarter offers some respite but not much. Commerce, people and traffic have spread their way out of the original city gates to greater Hanoi. By chance we come across “technology” street and I am very tempted to invest in some new lenses but fortunately I manage to restrain myself and buy only another much-needed memory card. We eventually find St Joseph’s Cathedral, a neo-gothic church inaugurated in 1886, but it is unfortunately, closed, so we opt instead to lunch on the rooftop of the Marilyn restaurant.
Re-energized after a good lunch, we re-enter the Old Quarter on a mission to find the market. Huge is not a word that aptly describes this 3 story high monolith of a building, filled to capacity with handful sized stalls selling EVERY conceivable thing imaginable. It seems that the total production of goods of this country is sold here. We literally take a peek in and bolt out of there in record time, too overwhelmed to venture in. We walk around the outside of the building through the off loading section where bags upon bags of goods are piled a story high with more being offloaded all the time. Who, where, how does so much stuff get used and consumed?
We stroll around and hit upon the fish market section. Still shell-shocked from the quantity of goods and activity all around, we stumble across fish of all descriptions and sizes, swimming, ten or more to a small tank. Crabs, again of every description and size, climbing over each other as they are kept alive with water hoses spewing water into their tanks. There are large frogs, alive in baskets and I watch as a customer chooses 3 and they are promptly skinned, cleaned and placed in a plastic bag to be carried home for the pot. I am saddened but not sickened. After all, plucking and cleaning a chicken is not that dissimilar to skinning and gutting a frog. I am saddened by the sheer amount of food that we consume. Surely we don’t need to eat so much?
I continue, mesmerized and come across hundreds of little birds in cages. There is so little space for them, they are on top of each other. I have seen these birds being sold at the entrance of Wats, where after a prayer of sorts, they are released by the devotee. It’s an ongoing cycle of capture and release and I wonder if these birds survive the stress of it at all. Some of them are not fortunate enough to be released as I have also seen the fascination that Vietnamese people have with birds. I may be wrong, but I think they are believed to bring good fortune. There are hundreds of cages hanging from the electrical cables in the streets with birds in them. The cages are small and are positioned high above the smog of the traffic and in the constant noise pollution. It must be horrifically frightening for the little creatures. I have noticed that there are no wild birds in the city and I have yet to spot a pigeon.
By now it is late afternoon and we feel drained. We settle on a couple of red plastic stools, have some coffee and watch the city vibe continue unabated. We chat and distill some of our thoughts. Hanoi is a vibrant, energetic, fast paced city. It’s on the go 24/7 at 1000 miles an hour and its hard to keep up. I feel that I have failed miserably but there is one consolation in store. During our meanderings, we have come across a Spanish tapas bar. Guess where we’re off for dinner tonight?