It was a very strange experience being in Hanoi for a couple of baby boomers like us. Jack said it best with, “ “I can’t believe we are here. They were the enemy. We bombed the living daylights out of them. “
Yes, true. My husband and I came of age during the Vietnam War (called the American War in Vietnam) when almost two million Vietnamese died and around 58,000 US soldiers were lost. Hanoi and the surrounding environs were a mysterious and some what sinister place. It dominated our college life in Ann Arbor in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Well, that was then and this is now and I wanted to see it.
So, off we went. We didn’t have time to see all of Vietnam so we zeroed in on northern areas. Hanoi. Halong Bay. Sapa.
My first impression was of total chaos. There are very few traffic lights so cars, motorcycles and people go every which way, seemingly without rules. We felt a positive energy, though.
Now let’s put this in perspective. Vietnam has about 85 million people and 35 million motorcycles. When I meandered the Old Quarter I thought they were all pointed at me. Crossing a street was a major accomplishment. Terrifying. I never got used to it.
In fact, we met some tourists from Australia who when I asked if they had been to the major tourist site–the Temple of Literature, the 30-something year old capable male grinned and said with a bit of embarrassment, “Nope. We couldn’t get a across the street.”
You may sneer and say, “What?” but I can totally understand.
The way one crosses the street in Hanoi is to take a deep breath, move into Zen mind zone and slowly and consistently put one foot in front of the other, making your way to the other side, all the while trusting that the motorcycles and many other vehicles will go around you.
“Don’t ever stop or make a sudden movement,” the guides advised. “They are expecting you to keep moving forward at a regular pace. They won’t hit you. “
Well, I wasn’t so sure so each time I’d grip the arm of my guide and send a silent prayer to the heavens to guide me home to my grand daughters. Fortunately my prayers were answered.
But, back to Hanoi. Fascinating place. It’s a huge mix of old, run down buildings from the French period. Traditional Vietnamese structures. Wires, wires, wires everywhere.
I loved seeing the ancient Chinese doors, carved screens, sagging colonial shutters and chipped ocher walls.
The Old Quarter is described by a travel blogger as an overstuffed suitcase and I believe it. Originally a grid of 36 streets, each with its own kind of merchandise, it is now a mix of tourist, local and odd stuff. Mom and Pop shops. Pho Stands and everything you can imagine.
The street peddlers make their way through the chaos selling pop corn, a few flowers, a bit of lettuce or even a broom. Folks carry everything on the backs of those motorcycles from live pigs (saw that so often it stopped gasp-worthy) to huge mattresses, large quantities of wood and even a refrigerator.
We saw very little development and little encroachment of the Western world. A few Kentucky Fried Chicken shops and that was it. Vietnam has only been open to free enterprise for about 20 years.
Mostly the small street food stalls, the open market, the never repaired bridge and the millions of people going about their business in a bustling city.
I was fortunate to have a day with a photographer who took me around the Old Quarter.
What fun that was. We leisurely meandered while looking for great shots and determining exposures and stuff like that.
Later he took me to the Long Bein Bridge. Part of the bridge is still missing. It was bombed in the Vietnam War. We walked across it fascinated with the scenes of daily life.
The photographer and my new friend is Hai Thanh. http://haithanhptw.tumblr.com If you like photography, it is well worth a looksee at his work.
Join me on DesignDestinations.org for more on Hanoi next week and probably the week after. It is a city that will haunt me for a very long time.