Friday, October 11, 2013


I took me a while to connect with Vietnam. I guess having come from Bhutan where we felt instantly at ease, well informed and engaged and totally in our comfort zone, it was a shock to be a tourist again. At first I didn’t even read the guide books or know what I wanted to do, but slowly that yearning to know, that excitement to discover and the sheer hive of bustling activity that is this city took over.

The old quarter is a maze of small lanes and narrow streets onto which goods tumble from the tiny shops. Each street more or less confined to a particular type of product- votive paper makers, shoes, coffee, traditional medicine, door furniture and hardware, clothing, sporting equipment, stamp carvers etc. They are all interspersed with a selection of street side cafes and tea stalls and serviced by a roaming band of mobile suppliers of food, plastic goods, fresh flowers, vegetables, cane products and more. The noise, the chaos of the traffic and the bedlam of frantic business transactions sits side by side with the quiet calm of those who spend their days sitting on low stools on the pavements and watching the world go by.

There are snapshots of lives lived in close proximity and as a part of a close knit community: a grandmother with blackened teeth squatting on a low stool in the open doorway, with a small grandchild on each knee and obviously blissful, an elderly wispy bearded refined looking gent in traditional white Chinese style clothes puttering slowly off into the traffic on his ancient motorcycle oblivious to the mayhem of the traffic, elegantly dressed young women wearing their Ao Dais and gracefully strolling along chatting and looks of concern and interest as 2 middle-aged men shout abuse at each other, one from the balcony above and one at street level wildly gesticulating. All 4 scenes we saw in the space of 10 minutes in the late afternoon yesterday and whilst none were captured in photographs all illustrate the daily throng of activity.

World-class museums have grabbed our attention and provided a great deal of food for thought as well as answering the myriad of questions that arise when one leaps feet first into a new culture. Frankly I was surprised at the trilingual labels and the accessibility of essential information. Ethnicity, fine arts, religious practice and history and patriots all offered up, displayed, explained and analyzed for the enquiring mind. There is a lot to digest and many misconceptions have been overturned. Uncle Ho features throughout as the father figure of the nation but I am unsure about how much is propaganda. The colonists get a caning. The warmongers, aggressors and oppressors rear their heads in public art and literature. But what stands out beyond the rhetoric is the indomitable spirit of the people. One cannot help but admire them.  They seem just as resolute today.

Colonial buildings abound but are increasingly giving way to a jumble of concrete modern structures.  Those remnants left seething with life in the crowded old quarter seem to be crumbing into dust, while those in the hands of government and military establishments stand as testaments of their grandeur. In the quiet avenues embassies and the well to do occupy mansions that recall an era now gone but never forgotten.

As we continue the journey I am intrigued to know how much remains of the spectacular rural scenery and ethic minorities’ lifestyles remain intact and if Hanoi, with its diversity, intensity and eclectic blends, is an enigma or truly representative of the nation. 

And as for the food well that deserves a whole blog to itself !

1 comment:

  1. Can't wait for that food blog! Loved your take on Hanoi. I loved it too, but even more Saigon, I wonder what you'll think?