Hanoi adventures in Vietnam

Written by admin on November 18, 2009 – 4:18 pm -

If you’re someone who craves peace and  quiet, don’t book a trip to Hanoi or Saigon, rather Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC). But they happen to be cities that have captured my heart. If forced to choose between the two, I’d head north to Hanoi, the country’s capital. Rise and shine and see the city awaken. Hit the streets after dark when it takes on an almost mystical feeling. Don’t miss Hanoi’s night market when the city comes alive.

Since my last trip to Hanoi two years ago, I immediately sensed the considerable economic growth that has taken place. An American photographer whom I encountered, commented the city has matured to the point that it’s lost some of its charm. Her definition of charm was no longer being able to bargain for items to the point it felt as if purchases cost nothing. Previously,  visitors had been able to return home with silk goods and clothes, lacquer work, pottery and so much more, without making a dent in a modest budget.

Some of my favorite family owned stores have been replaced by chic boutiques, where the personnel aren’t interested in discussing prices.  They know what they’re selling and aren’t desperate to dump inventory. This doesn’t mean there aren’t bargains and there may be some give and take.  You can certainly buy cheap tee-shirts that say Vietnam or “same same.”

Rather than the road from the airport into the city being inhabited cattle grazing the land, much of it covered by low banana trees, manufacturing plants are far more visible. Fewer people sit by the side of the road looking as if they have nothing else to do but beg. This isn’t to imply there isn’t tin and cardboard housing; but it’s far less visible. The cars are newer and cleaner and high-rise housing is more prevalent. A middle class is growning.

There are a lot of choices when it comes to transportation. Wear your most comfortable shoes and walk as long and as far as possible.  Some of Hanoi’s greatest treasures are found down back alleys; this is definitely a place where you want to get lost. Locals warn you to be careful with your possessions because they’re protective of visitors.   As everywhere, there are bad guys who’ll grab and run if it’s easy. Violent crimes targeting tourists are rare, which doesn’t mean purses or backpacks should be filled with valuables. I always leave my passport at the hotel and carry a photocopy of key pages.

A green light at a crosswalk doesn’t mean go. As a matter of fact, it seems to mean the reverse. If you can’t wear blinders and stride right along, you may be standing at the same corner after your flight has departed. People assume scooter drivers will swerve to miss pedestrians. Come to think of it, in spite of the chaos, I didn’t spot an accident, which is amazing considering many drivers might be considered mad with nerves of steel, and take no prisoners mentalities.

Men and women race through the cities on scooters. Most drivers wear masks to avoid pollution and helmets are mandatory. Families share scooters and pregnant women sit side saddle. Being a type-A person, my preferred way of getting from point A to point B was to hail one and join the crowd. The chauffeur always made certain I wore a helmet and I religiously forked over $1.00. It was more than a fair exchange. Ironically, I was sometimes taken the scenic route. Was I being ripped off? Not at all. I suspect the driver was showing his friends an older Caucasian woman was his charge.

There’s a thriving industry of pedicabs. Some drivers pride themselves on being tour guides and are delighted to be hired by the hour. Settle on the price before climbing in since fares are highly negotiable. The drivers, always men, have zero need to see the inside of a gym. They love to take tourists on tours of Hanoi, a city that’s composed of narrow streets. The vendors on specific streets  generally sell the same products. Passengers take photos of other tourists. It’s rare you’ll see a local riding in one of the pedicabs.

During rush hour, taxis may not be the fastest mode of transportation. But they’re clean and air-conditioned. That’s worth a lot if you’ve been out shopping (or whatever) and the thermometer is hovering near the 100 degree F mark.

If you are addicted to pottery and are up for a short excursion outside of Hanoi, head to Bat Trang, the world’s brick center and the country’s pottery and ceramics center. It’s a tiny village, complete with a tourist ox cart and heaps of dishes. You can walk the entire village in less than an hour. But it might difficult to tote your purchases. I scored six very small bowls and forked over $3. The price was established using a calculator with the shop’s owner taping one price and my entering another. If you’re tempted to go crazy and buy larger items, some stores offer shipping. I’ve always been hesitant because I’m certain the cost would negate the savings and will the pottery arrive whole and not in slivers?

Stay away from Vietnam if you can’t tolerate smoking. Asians still like their cigarettes and tobacco companies are betting they’re not going to give up their addiction soon. Non-smoking hotel rooms are available. But you know how smoke rises. Most restaurants have non-smoking sections but bars don’t. Go with the fumes or you’ll end up missing a lot.

Vietnamese food is wonderful. It can be spicy (meaning hot) or well seasoned. Its cuisine is healthy, well presented and you can eat well for next to nothing. How many nems can one person eat? Don’t miss ordering pho, a chicken soup that comes with noodles and you can add a variety of edibles from beef, chicken, vegetables and don’t forget the condiments.

During this trip (that was nowhere nearly long enough) we landed in HCMC, flew to Hanoi and back on Vietnam Airlines. If you’re flying within that part of Asia, you are not subjected to security, forced to have every item X-rayed, take your computer out of the bag and strip to the essentials. Vietnam’s and other Asian transportation officials feel  scanning isn’t effective. Your bags may be checked by hand, even though I can’t imagine anyone being able to see what’s in my purse that’s stuffed beyond stuffed.

If only we’d remember to reserve on line via Air Asia, we could have gotten a lot more bang for the buck. There’s so much more to write about Vietnam. And I will.

One thing that amazes me is that even though 58,000 US troops were killed during the war, more than a million Vietnamese, the majority of whom were civilians and happened to be in the line of fire, lost their lives. You’d think Americans would be disliked. They’re not.

Perhaps the Vietnamese perceive Americans as being anxiety ridden.  A friend asked a pharmacist for some sleeping pills to counter her extreme case of jet-lag and was offered Zoloft. Yes, Dr. Freud.

I’m already planning my next trip to Vietnam. It’s a country that holds endless personal fascination. But, next time, I’ll stay considerably longer.

Karen Fawcett is president of Bonjour Paris.


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