Friday, March 7, 2014

Hanoi- last few days in Vietnam

As our bus from Hue finally reached the famous old quarter in Hanoi, I was flooded with memories of my trip here in 2012 with trippr group. My hostel was a 2 km walk from where the bus dropped us and this walk proved that nothing had changed in this old quarter of the city. Streets named after the merchandise being sold there, overhanging yellow roofs shadowing part of the streets and displaying names of the shops, people crowding below these roofs on small stools drinking coffee or famous Bia Hoi or eating Pho and many hawkers selling fresh sizzling food items. Smells of beer, food, spices and many other unrecognizable merchandise mingles with the smell of cigarettes that so many people smoke sitting idly. There's a Sunday like feel almost every day in this part of the town. This city is vastly different from Ho Chi Minh city, in culture, food, accent and architecture. While Ho Chi Minh is crowded by glass buildings and posh hotels, Hanoi's old quarter is crowded by small old buildings with small alleys to enter and narrow streets. While Ho Chi Minh is more commercial, Hanoi is much more cultural. While Hanoi is as busy as Ho Chi Minh, this city has a grace to it, almost elegant and exotic!

Wandering through the streets, its very easy to get lost. Almost all streets look alike, almost all corners are same, almost all Bia Hoi joints look familiar and every street is a busy street!
After spending a few hours though, a map in hand, I got my bearings and was able to find my way towards Hoan Kiem Lake. The lake has an island in the middle with a beautiful structure on it. The side-walk around the lake is crowded by tourists and locals alike, most of them enjoying ice-cream. At one corner of the lake is a famous ship-shaped building hosting various cafes and restaurants on each of its five levels. From there, tourists enjoy the view of the busy street below or the calm waters of the central lake while sipping coffee or a beer.
The famous ship-shaped building
View from one of the cafes in the building

Hoan Kiem lake in the night

One thing, different from my last visit here in September 2012, was the temperature. It was much colder, 8 during the day and soon I began to feel it. So I decided to head to the market street to buy a decent jacket, just a few minutes from the lake. As I walked through the market street, my each gaze towards the shops attracted pleas from owners "very cheap", "you want?", "how much do you pay?" etc. Nodding and smiling in courtesy at first and then just ignoring the repeated pleas, I continued my way till the end of the street. The street and the market are filled with all varieties of goods. First section may be for the clothes and jackets, then food and spices, further on there will be fruits, sports shops, shoes, make up boxes, alcohol, souvenirs, art work and so on.
Art shop



A typical street in Hanoi

Soon, I forgot my initial objective of finding a jacket and was lost in the colors, aromas and variety in the market and the chaos on the street!
No visit to Hanoi is complete without going to a Bia Hoi place and for more authentic experience, be ready to walk a little to find a place only with locals. I found one and saw a look of surprise on owner's face as perhaps not many tourists go there. As I sat down on a free small stool, my knees almost touching the floor, the owner brought me a glass of fresh Bia Hoi. The place was flocked only by locals (except me). Those present were families, college going kids, colleagues at work. As the evening wore on, the place became more and more crowded. Soon three of owner's daughters began to serve as well and two of his sons were taking care of the motor-bikes for the customers, valet-parking. There was loud discussions about the day at work, or may be politics, laughter at various tables, at a random table a guy would make an excuse to go home but his friends would force him to sit back and drink more. It was a busy place and the owner and his family would run back and forth from the Bia Hoi containers to various tables, removing empty glasses from the tables and replacing them with the filled ones! What felt like a noisy place at first, made me almost go into the trance and I started to enjoy myself. I must have spent at least a couple of hours there, doing nothing, just observing! The experience was something that is very difficult to write down or explain and one should try it out for himself.
Bia Hoi place

I loved this city and did not want to leave it. I spent more than five days here and though I saw a couple of museums and went to a few cosmopolitan pubs, these were not the highlights. The real feel of the city is in wandering aimlessly through the exotic streets of old quarter, eating street food, buying from cheap local market, drinking Bia Hoi and observing the busy life through laid back eyes!

As my last day in Vietnam arrived, I felt it arrived too soon and I started to feel an urge to stay more. But I knew this was not going to be my last visit here and I would definitely visit this country again! This country was about speed and now I was going to its neighbor Laos which is known for its slow pace. With a heavy heart and load full of brilliant memories I said my goodbye to the city of pace, culture, food and amazing people and hopped on my bus to Laos!

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