The streets of Hanoi rumbled into life in the morning like a great machine coughing into life, intoxicatingly fragrant with noodle soup, vibrating with motorbike engines, horns, shouting, conical straw hats, fruit and Buddhist shrines, pulsing and pumping like a heartbeat. Yet unlike the pantomime of certain tourist-laden streets in Ho Chi Minh City, there was always a feeling here that it was business as usual. I met Jeff at the airport immigration counter (by sheer coincidence), as he collected his visa, pre-arranged online (as is required for entry to Vietnam). We caught the bus into town, and a million motorbikes escorted us to the old town, a large sector of the city surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake. Spending time here can be as fast-paced or lazy as you want.
Bia Hoi, if you know where to look, is locally brewed beer sold for something like 3-5,000 dong (10-20 Australian cents). And it’s damn good, too. Take a kid’s chair, order a Bia Hoi, and sit and watch the street chaos. Restaurants dishing out bowls of pho (Vietnamese noodle soup) spill out onto the sidewalks in a frenzy of tiny plastic kid’s chairs too. At night, the chairs remain, and youths crowd the sidewalks sipping mango smoothies and chewing sunflower seeds, their broken shells scattered across the pavement. Welcome to Vietnam.
A sudden downpour in a city so heavily laden with motorcycle traffic is quickly and easily remedied; the motorcycles pull over to the side of the road, and out come the raincoats, covering rider and handlebars both. And on they go, back to business. Meanwhile, locals and tourists on foot scamper for shelter; this is a perfect opportunity to run inside a pho restaurant, and enjoy a hot meal while the streets are washed down.
Hoan Kiem Lake, (which translates quite awesomely into ‘Lake of the returned sword’), a massive expanse of glassy water, sits in the middle of the old town, drinking in the reflections from the drooping green trees on it’s banks. In it’s centre sprouts Turtle Tower (a small pagoda), and at the north end is Jade Island, a temple/museum connected to the shore by a red wooden bridge. Jeff and I walked along the grassy banks, and a Vietnamese lady sold us a bag of assorted puffy sugary cake-bread things. As we munched, we walked across to Jade Island. There was a model of a super-sized snapping turtle, one of the behemoths believed to have been caught from the lake. Rumours that giant turtles live in the lake still persist.
A warm night in Hanoi. Jeff turned to me and laughed. “I have no idea what’s going on”, he whispered. Neither did I. Some puppets were flailing about madly in the water in front of us, to the sound of beating drums and erratic, high-pitched Vietnamese narration. But I was enjoying the show. By the recommendation of our guidebook, we were in Thang Long Water puppet theatre, watching traditional Vietnamese water puppets, controlled on long poles by puppeteers backstage. From the small cinema-style seating, lacquered and painted wooden puppets skated and splashed around in a pool of water, puppet masters hidden behind the temple backdrop. Ladies sang and strings were plucked, and the whole story of fish and dragons and farmers was utterly lost in translation. It only went for 45 minutes or so, and cost 60,000 Dong. Definitely worth checking out.
Hanoi has a few interesting museums. We popped into the Vietnamese history museum. I could see the fascination growing in Jeff, who just months later would enrol in an archaeology degree. We didn’t see the tomb of Ho Chi Minh, (to see Ho Chi Minh’s ‘mummy’, as a Saigon tour guide described it weeks later, which made me regret passing it by!). Instead, we ambled through the grounds of the thousand-year-old Temple of Literature, serving as a temple of Confucius and ancient place of study, philosophy and learning. The temple was well provided with gardens and massive stone tablets. I liked to imagine teachers and students sitting in the shade of the temple a thousand years ago, practising their mathematics.
Our train to Hue was leaving late on our final night in Hanoi, and the station was some distance away. We had heard a few stories of scammer taxi drivers, so Jeff and I strapped our oversized backpacks on and walked the distance. The air was humid and we were soon drenched in sweat. A pair of kids stopped us to ask why our bags were so big. I wondered what I must have thought when I first saw a guy hauling a 70L bag. We told them that our home was inside.
Something special was happening tonight. Racing past us, swarming around Hoan Kiem Lake like a swarm of angry bees and pouring into every side street, were motorbikes. A river of headlights, men and women, open faced helmets, and noise, oh, yes the noise. Roaring and revving and go go go! at green, then placid at red. Organised chaos in every way. Tonight was some sort of public holiday, and to celebrate, Hanoi was on the move.