My first stop on my Vietnamese trip was Hanoi and after flying into the city, I headed straight to my hotel in the old town to dump my bags and have a quick shower. Then it was time to get my bearings and explore Vietnam’s capital city.
Hanoi’s old town is a maze of narrow streets and on leaving the hotel, I found myself in a narrow alley packed with vendors selling every kind of clothing imaginable, but mostly underwear. Despite its narrowness, there were countless scooters attempting to drive up and down it, much to my amazement.
My destination that afternoon was Hoon Kiem Lake, a large lake in the heart of the city surrounded by parkland. To get to it, I gingerly tagged along behind some locals to cross the busy and chaotic ring-road that encircles it. The first thing that caught my eye was the Den Ngoc Son temple or Jade Mountain temple in the middle of the lake and the long arched red wooden bridge (the Huc or Sunbeam Bridge) that leads up to it.
After taking a few photos, I carried on walking, stopping to admire another structure in the middle of the lake, the Thap Rua or Turtle Tower, a small stone pagoda that represents a local legend. According to the myth, General Le Loi was given a magical sword by a golden turtle that lived in the lake, which he used to banish the Chinese from Hanoi and become emperor. While he was out sailing on the lake a little while later, the turtle reappeared to take back the sword – hence the name of the tower.
The lake was incredibly pretty with lots of people strolling along its paths, as well as vendors selling food, drinks and souvenirs, including delicate paper cards with pop-up origami centres. At the bottom of the lake, I spotted an elderly man doing tai chi, a popular past-time, at the water’s edge. The park was very well maintained, with lots of gardeners, all wearing the traditional conical bamboo hats, hard at work looking after them. After finishing a loop of the park, it was getting late so I headed back to the hotel for a rest before dinner.
I enjoyed my first experience of Vietnam – it was overwhelming, but exhilarating. Hanoi was wealthier than I was expecting and the entrepreneurial spirit rife, with people selling goods everywhere I went. The streets of the old town were packed with shops selling all manner of things, including sellotape (in all sizes and colours), tinsel, Christmas decorations, metal cages, ladders, and loads more. And I was amazed by the number of shops selling the same things, often right next to each other, and the amount of street vendors selling food, including round hard hollow doughnuts, fruits of all description, soft drinks, souvenirs and so on.
I was expecting Hanoi to be busy, but not as busy as it was – there were people everywhere. But the thing that struck me the most was the endless stream of scooters. The roads were relentlessly busy, yet it seemed to be organised chaos. Scooters didn’t stop at pedestrian crossings or traffic lights and there were no road markings, just a vehicular free-for-all and lots of beeping horns. But the Vietnamese appeared to be very skilled drivers; their weaving skills were incredible.
I didn’t have much time to look around on my first day, but the brief glimpse I had of Hanoi left me raring to get back out there and further explore the city.