A city with a fascinating blend of East and West

In July 2010 while I was still stationed in Bangkok, we had a four day weekend, so we decided to travel to Hanoi, the second largest city in Vietnam after Ho Chi Minh city. We booked with Vietnam Airlines the national flag carrier of the country, through my usual and dependable travel agent. Initially, I had some qualms about flying with this airline as it was a state owned one, and Vietnam is still officially a Communist nation. However, my fears were unfounded. It was run in a very efficient manner on both the outgoing and return flights. The service and the food served on board the plane were really good.

We arrived at Noi Bai International Airport after a two hour flight. Immigration/Customs formalities were smooth (we already had entry visas which we applied at the Vietnamese Embassy in Bangkok). We had also arranged for a hotel pick up car, and it was there waiting for us outside the airport. The ride to the city took us about 40-45 minutes and it gave us a chance to see the countryside. Our hotel called the Cozy Hotel is located in the old quarter of Hanoi near the famous Hoan Kiem Lake a very popular scenic spot in the city. I can say that this hotel lives up to its name as its frontage is nestled between two commercial buildings, and we would never have found this place by ourselves. However, after checking in and seeing the room, we were quite satisfied with the room facilities which included cable TV, attached bathroom, air conditioning and free wireless connection, plus complimentary breakfast.

We still had nearly the whole afternoon left to explore this part of the city so we went out walking. As mentioned above, we were in the old quarter of the city. This historic district is a maze of dozens of streets dating back to the 13th century, and still retains the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi. Our first stop was Hoan Kiem Lake or Lake Of The Returned Sword, and as the name implies, this lake is of historical significance. The Turtle Tower (Thap Rùa) standing on a small island near the center of the lake is linked to the legend of the returned sword.

We were very surprised to see so many people, tourists and locals strolling about, or just relaxing around the lake's attractive gardens and paths. The crowds were particularly intense on the small The Huc Bridge, (The Huc, meaning Morning Sunlight) most of them taking photos. The vista of this red painted bridge was just like a picturesque postcard, but without the people! We were to come back to this place a couple more times later. We walked along the wide boulevards besides the lake and saw the General Post Office, and believe it or not, besides this building we were simply amazed to see a United States Post Office! I really don't know how this came into being, considering that just 40 years ago the USA and Vietnam were at each other's throats in a long and brutal war. It is a perfect example of how enemies can become friends, or vice versa. On the eastern bank of the lake there is a small park. It is named in honor of Indira Gandhi, the late prime minister of India who was a huge supporter of Vietnam. A big bronze statue of Ly Thai To, the first king of the Ly Dynasty dominates this park. It is also a busy meeting place for Hanoi residents who come here to exercise, do "tai chi," play games, dance or just to relax

The next day, we joined a tour group and traveled by van to Ha Long Bay a major tourist site in the Gulf of Tonkin. (Separate review to be posted). It was rather late when we returned from our day's trip to Ha Long Bay, so we just had dinner at Vietnam Travel Cafe near our hotel. By the way, their hamburgers are giant sized and tasty too. I remember eating there several times during our stay in Hanoi.

The next morning, the last day of our visit, we hired a pedicab to take us on a tour of the ancient streets of the old quarter. The driver was a decent fellow and would stop at a moment's notice for us to take photos. He took us through the network of narrow lanes with its sights and sounds of the local scene; we saw countless number of small shops selling just about everything, not to mention the communal houses with many Chinese features, the architectural mixture of French colonial style buildings, government offices and shanty dwellings. This section of Hanoi was certainly very interesting, and I would recommend it for any visitor to this bustling city. However, watch out for those zooming motorcycles that are everywhere, and it can be quite an ordeal to cross a street anywhere in Hanoi!

After our pedicab tour we went back to the lake again. As mentioned previously, this lake is always busy at anytime of the day, and jammed packed with people from all walks of life, especially on weekends. Near the entrance there are young student volunteers who politely ask tourists which countries they are from in order to practice their foreign language skills, be it English, French, German, etc. They also offer free guide services. We crossed the red bridge ($1 fee) to the other side to visit the Ngoc Son Temple which is built on an islet. A preserved example of a giant turtle can be seen at this temple. A free guide is stationed there to explain about the legend of the turtle.

That evening we took in the water puppet show at the Thang Long theater which is just across from the lake. It was a delightful performance with a live traditional music troupe. The puppets were dressed in colorful costumes and their funny, but artistic movements were cute to watch. The show itself lasted about three quarters of an hour. and tells the history of Vietnam and its culture. You can actually see the musicians on a dias above the stage, and the puppeteers in the water just behind a curtain. I don't think there is a show of this kind anywhere in the world, so it is pretty unique.

I mentioned earlier about my surprise at seeing so many tourists visiting the country. A lot of people are discovering the new Socialist Republic of Vietnam after the ravages of war, and as far as tourist numbers are concerned, I think the country is ready to take off, and might even overtake Thailand (which is currently the number 1 destination in Southeast Asia) in a few years time.