We flew in to Hanoi not quite sure what to expect from Vietnam. Obviously we knew about the war ( known here as the American war, to distinguish it from various others, generally with the French) and a little of their political situation but not much more. What we found was not much different to anywhere else, the people work hard to make a living, are very proud of their past and love to ride their scooters!
We stayed in the old quarter in a hostel which did not live up to the reviews but was well located. The old quarter is basically the commercial heart of the city and to some extent the country and the world. If you see something with Made in Vietnam on it, it was probably made here. Streets specialise in different products ‘Button street’ next to ‘Zip street’ next to ‘Shoe street’ and then one where metalwork, complete with welding torches, was taking place on the street, to produce the sort of items you see in every kitchen. The pavements were generally impassable because of the number of scooters and motorbikes parked on them and the roads were packed full of moving ones. You soon realised that you had to negotiate carefully but confidently between the roads and pavements to get anywhere.
The city has a lake in the centre, not massive but takes about thirty minutes to walk around. It gives the city a heart and with traffic banned from the surrounding roads at the weekend it is where people come to meet, walk and listen to the various musicians busking. Nearby is the theatre with the ‘Water Puppets Show’, apparently these originated in the paddy fields to amuse the workers but has been bemusing tourists for over twenty years in this theatre! It was very well done and the skill of the puppeteers in combining the different puppets in scenes of dancing and fighting was remarkable. Apart from an introduction the performance was completely in Vietnamese so we had no idea what was going on but just enjoyed the spectacle.
The war does still cast quite a shadow over Vietnam but not in a negative way. We visited the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ the prison where the American POWs were kept which is now a museum. The history of the prison goes way back beyond the GIs detainment and goes a long way to explaining the history of the country. It was built by the French to imprison those revolting against their rule. Those who were not executed (there is a guillotine which was used well into the second half of the last century) formed the basis of the communist resistance that would finally take over when the French left. History is written by the victors and the descriptions in the prison certainly back this up even when describing the detainment of the Americans. We weren’t able to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum as it was closed but turns out ‘ Uncle Ho’ is on his summer break to China anyway! From outside this and the other government buildings have an impressive if austere grandeur about them.
Hanoi is an interesting blend of the Asian city chaos and French boulevards and architecture. You could easily be in Paris as you walk along the streets to the south of the park where the pavements at least are less packed with scooters and looking up at the buildings there is a very clear throwback to the times of occupation.