Like Saigon, Hanoi, is a city that stirs the imagination into over-drive. Saigon is colorful and warm; enveloped in the friendliness a traveler through Asia would come to expect. Hanoi on the other hand is darker; more overcast and shrouded in brooding. It is a city somewhat stuck in the past; lacking the bright lights and glamour of its sister to the south.
In between these two cities is the DMZ; the demilitarized zone that separated north from south during the conflict of the 60’s and 70’s. The DMZ was eventually overrun by the north and Vietnam was reunited as a whole country however the scars which remain are obvious and the cultural differences and attitudes very apparent. Hanoi is one of those cities with an underbelly beckoning. A lure to a side of the city that is best left undisturbed; be enticed by the lure and you will undoubtedly wind up in the company of trouble.
For me, the stories of those seeking to explore the seedier side of Hanoi were enough to keep me on the surface. I had several weeks to travel in this country and I intended to follow through with my plans. For that to happen I required both paperwork and money and back alleys lined with various promises could be left for others.
As you would expect, Hanoi is a chaotic madhouse with motorcycles plying the streets like a river of high-pitched metal and fumes. One of the great things about traveling in places like this is that there is a crazy peculiarity at every turn; a cultural mystery to us that is part of normal life for where ever you may be.
Say you’re walking down Michigan Ave in Chicago or 6th Avenue in New York and you walk past a store. You wouldn’t expect to see the shopkeeper sitting by a baby blue colored bucket washing her hair! In Hanoi it’s possible and I have pictures. Or how about the city traffic jam caused by a turtle that came ashore from the central lake, or the ATM that was not able to be used because a family was cooking their dinner under it; Hanoi is madness, mysterious, interesting, and overwhelming.
Wandering the Old Quarter of Hanoi is a “must do” while in Hanoi. If you are able to look past the traffic laden streets the city of old Hanoi bursts forth and you can easily step back in time. The city can now become a reflection of what your imagination had originally conjured up prior to your arrival. Old stores, city walls, rickshaws, and exotic sounding street signs like Hang Bac, Cau Go, and To Thinh.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter, which began as a swamp and later evolved into a cluster of villages comprised of stilted houses, has a history that spans 2,000 years and represents the soul of the city.
The Old Quarter began to acquire a reputation as a crafts center around the 11th century when King Ly Thai To built his palace there. In the early 13th century, the collection of tiny workshop villages which clustered around the palace walls evolved into craft cooperatives. Skilled craftsmen migrated to the Quarter, and artisan guilds were formed by craftsmen originating from the same village and performing similar services. Members of the guilds worked and lived together, creating a cooperative system for transporting merchandise to the designated streets in the business quarter.
Some streets have risen to fame because of the products sold there. Han Gai Street offers silk clothing ready-made and tailored, embroidery, and silver products. Hang Quat, stuns visitors by its brilliantly colored funeral and festival flags. To Thinh Street connects the above two and is the wood turner’s street. Hang Ma glimmers with shiny paper products, such as gift wrappings, wedding decorations and miniature paper objects to burn for the dead. Lan Ong Street is a sensual delight of textures and smells emanating from the sacks of herbal medicinal products: leaves, roots, barks, and powders.
Hanoi is the center of the Vietnam’s north and there is plenty to see and do in the city itself and the surrounding areas. Just don’t expect too many smiles and wishes of goodwill like you would in Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, or any one of the other south-east Asian countries.