Vietnam – March 2008

Northern Vietnam, Hanoi and Halong Bay

Being only 3+ hours flight from Vietnam, we ‘popped over’ for a short visit to check out Hanoi and the famed (and popular) Halong Bay.

Still a soft spot for communism? Or is it retro art? One of the larger, quiet roads on the edge of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Hoan Kiem Lake is the centre of activity, especially early in the morning and after dark. As early as 5.30, the walkway around its perimeter and any adjacent open areas around monuments or statues are taken up by the old and young limbering up, doing tai chi, walking briskly, playing badminton, breathing deeply, meditating. No need to dress up for the occasion; a pyjama will do, although the quintessential communist comrade attire of loose-fitting shirt and trousers and rubber-soled canvas slip-ons is still popular.

In the evening the place becomes a Mecca for strolling and canoodling couples, family walks and people watching. Although the traffic flows around relentlessly within meters on all sides, the lake feels like an oasis. A couple of cafés on its shore are great for relaxing, Western-style coffee and watching life go by. Saturday evening the road around the lake turns into cruise-central: groups of youngsters on scooters and bikes – many of them adorned with tinsel, feather-boas and the like – circle around, talking, shouting and generally having a great time.

Hanoi is home to thousands of scooters, moving through its streets, alleys and lanes like big swarms of insects. They are in front of you, behind you, around you, crossing intersections, shooting out of doors, creeping through markets. There seem to be no rules as to where to drive or how to overtake, just one requirement: honking! They honk when they want to go past someone, when someone goes past them, when they want to change lanes, when they don’t want someone else to change lanes, when something is in the way, when the road is clear, after they have overtaken someone, after someone has overtaken them. It’s a mind-boggling cacophony, chaos in motion with a soundscape to match. Hanoi’s historic and commercial heart, the Old Quarter, is a maze of narrow alleys and lanes where the custom of guild-dominated streets is still preserved in street names (Hang Gai – silk street; Hang Tre – bamboo street)and clusters of shops of a kind: a whole block of paper lantern shops; noisy, messy blacksmith street; a row of copper wire shops; more than one clothing street; and the shoe shop quarter, where there is nothing but rows of shoes inside the shop, hanging from the wall outside and displayed 5-pairs deep on the pavement.

Mobile street vendours, many of them still wearing the signature conical hat, are everywhere and sell everything from fruit to bread and mini-doughnuts on skewers to these face masks. It’s not clear how well the latter work to protect their wearers from pollution, but they certainly are a fashion item and available in an incredible range of sizes and patterns. There is absolutely no limit to what and how much a Hanoian can transport on a ramshackle bicyle.

Don’t even try to see a traffic pattern here. Everyone just follows their own private route across the intersection, miraculously avoiding other scooters, pedestrians, cars and baloon vendours. Moving through the maelstrom of traffic is a skill better acquired quickly if you want to get anywhere: just move into it, walk swiftly, with determination and an eye on the wheels coming towards you. Like Moses parting the sea, you’ll get to the other side unscathed – great way to make you feel like a local in no time.

Besides the never-ending fascination of its street life, Hanoi also has some great cultural venues and highlights. The much talked about water puppet theatre on the lake is a cheap and cheerful diversion with a distinctly Vietnamese touch. The stage consists of a large basin of greenish water, framed in the back by a large tiled roof on pillars with decorations. To the left on a raised platform are 7 traditionally dressed musicians. They play, sing and sometimes participate in the narration. There are 12 stories (about catching fish, Vietnamese festivals, dragon dances, etc.), told in Vietnamese and accompanied by music, all acted out by the amazing, agile water puppets (manipulated by long sticks from behind the bamboo-screen curtains) and accompanied by effects like sparkles, smoke puffs. It’s lovely to watch, a little world of make-believe a la Vietnamese.

A 2-day cruise on a junk in Halong Bay was the perfect counterpoint to the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. Stretching over 1500 km2, this UNESCO World Heritage site consists of a couple of thousand rocky islands, rising steeply from the waters of the Golf of Tonkin. A fan-sailed junk, very much like the one we were on, sailing past one of the floating fishing villages, the only human dwellings in the bay.

We abandoned the luxurious comfort of the junk for a few hours to get a close-up look of the rocks, small coves and caves and floating villages in kayaks. The natives were very friendly, waving eagerly and, as in the case of this pearl farmer, inviting us to come aboard the float to take a look at what they were doing.

With absolutely no knowledge of how to evaluate a pearl, we managed to make a token attempt at haggling and ended up buying a single pearl as a souvenir of this rare glimpse into pearl farming life in Halong Bay. A peaceful sunset with rocks seemingly fading into infinity.

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