Thursday, September 9, 2010

The day I fell in love with Vietnam...

Despite the information overload on most travel websites describing Vietnam as everything from a country with a war-laden past to a country with quaint, quiet towns with a rich culture - yet, I didnt know what to really expect.

On Day 1 of our stay at Hanoi, we were ready at 6 am (we rarely wake up so early on holidays, but then ‘Ha Long Bay’ was a 3 hour drive-cum-ferry trip off Hanoi - so we had to start early) … and then - our car driver called in late! Wanting to ‘kill the 30 minute wait’, we decided to stroll down the quaint ‘Old Quarter’ area of Hanoi where we (and most 'tourists') stayed.. What would we find at 6 am, we thought – but at least we can take a walk in the fresh air!

To our surprise, the streets of Old Quarter were bustling with two wheelers (people riding to go to work perhaps?), young girls with conical straw hats riding bicycles, middle aged drivers pushing their ‘cyclo’s (cycle rickshaws) down the streets and street vendors carrying their goods in twin baskets hanging across the shoulders on a bamboo pole – selling everything from fresh fruits to rice to utensils and household stuff. All this action was through streets which were lined by a myriad of shops- most with their shutters still down and a canopy of wires ‘meshed’ across electric poles. The shuttered down shops had at their doorstep – little make-shift breakfast stalls. Each stall had 2-3 mini stools for customers to sit on and have breakfast of ‘pho bo’ – the local noodle broth. The breakfast stalls would soon close for the day making way for the shutters to open into book shops, travel shops and plush restaurants serving ‘authentic’ Vietnamese cuisine.

Fruit vendors in the Old Quarter

The 6 am breakfast of 'Pho Bo'

A lady making Rice Paper Sheets (for Rice Paper Rolls)
The morning market in the middle of Old Quarter was equally exciting (and sparklingly clean) – 3 aisles full of vendors selling vegetables, fish, snakes, meat and other raw ingredients that would then get cooked as sumptuous meals around the local restaurants and food stalls. Customers with cloth bags ready for their buy were haggling for their money’s worth.. (this could have well been India - I thought to myself!).

The other side of Old Quarter ended at the main street – a ring road that encircled the Hoan Keim Lake (famous for the legendary golden turtle god).. Local joggers at the lake were brushing past the morning mist that arose above the lake giving the onlooker a gentle peek at the “Turtle Tower” right in the middle of the waters.

Hoan Keim Lake (famous for the legendary Golden Turtle God)

Incense Stick Sellers
Our walk ended with our cabbie’s honk – we then proceeded with our ‘touristy’ adventures and more over the next few days in and around Hanoi...

My list of Top 5 Attractions in and around Hanoi:

  • Ha Long Bay
  • The Perfume Pagoda
  • Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
  • The One Pillar Pagoda
  • The Water Puppet Theatre

Ha Long Bay (which is a UNESCO world heritage sight) with thousands of limestone isles was breathtaking! We waded through the bay waters in a quaint junkboat – riding past floating fishing villages, past little boats selling vegetables and fruits – watching the limestone islets in various shapes, forms and sizes! We wished we had spent more than just a day there!

Fruit Vendor at Ha Long Bay

Our Junk Boat cruising thru Ha Long Bay

The ‘Perfume Pagoda’ – (about a 30 minute drive from Hanoi city) - had an interesting legend: If you rub the cave walls of the Pagoda with currency notes, you will be blessed with more wealth! (We promptly did the needful …!)

The 'Perfume' Pagoda
The journey to the Pagoda – (a boat ride followed by a cable car ride to the top where the Pagoda was), was perhaps more interesting than the Pagoda itself. These boats filled with as many as 20 passengers at times, were all driven by women – most of them who were widows of war-martyrs, we were told. It was amazing how strong - these otherwise frail looking women - really were and we were really humbled by their feat!

A 'Sea' of boats waiting to take us to the Pagoda
Boats steered by women (many of them are widows of war martyrs)
A co passenger smoking a Bamboo Pipe
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum - is a must visit (gives a peak into the life and times of HCM) and so is the One Pillar Pagoda - which is a small pagoda standing on a single pillar in the middle of a pond. This Pagoda is said to have been built by Emperor Ly Thai Tong as a token of gratitude to Avalokiteshvara after his son was born. It is one of the 2 most iconic pagoda in Vietnam (the other one being the Perfume Pagoda).

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The One Pillar Pagoda

The Water Puppet Theatre right in the middle of Hanoi was a cultural treat! Colorful Puppets telling us a Vietnamese legend of kings and farmers and turtles et all – but with a difference – all puppets were ‘dancing’ around on water!

The Water Puppet Show

The Water Puppeteers taking a bow after the show
On our last day at Hanoi - sitting in the balcony of a local Coffee Shop at a busy crossroad, watching the sun go down and busy two wheelers rushing back homewards, we reminisced the days spent there. Hanoi truly had a lot to offer … but what really stayed in our hearts was the first hand experience of what the city really was (at 6 am!) – it reflected the city’s thriftiness, its old-meets-new street scenes, the plush-meets-humble food joints and eventful markets! Sipping the last of our steaming Vietnamese coffee, we stepped out onto the street – bought souvenirs for back home (a conical hat, a mini cyclo and of course tons of sweet memories!)

Bustling Hanoi

What kids will love in Hanoi:

  • The Water Puppet Theatre
  • Cable Car Ride up to the Perfume Pagoda 
  • Cruise along the Ha Long Bay (but the 3-4 hours cruise as the overnight one might get boring for kids)
  • Walk (Run past) the promenade along the Hoan Kiem Lake 
  • Visit the colourful markets of Hanoi

(An extract of this travelogue was published in Hindustan Times HT Cafe on May 1, 2010).