Friday, December 6, 2019

The Charming City of Hanoi, Vietnam

The moment I sat down on my assigned seat, I immediately fell asleep. Our flight took off minutes before five in the morning. I was seated at the window seat, and I thought of waiting for the sunrise at 36,000 feet above sea level. But no, sleep prevailed, and the next thing I knew, we were already on our final approach to Hanoi's Noi Ban International Airport. The queue to immigration and customs weren't that bad. However, it took me a while to realize that our hotel driver was already waiting for us outside the arrival hall! I should've gone there after claiming my local sim card. My bad, my bad.

After a few speed bumps, we finally made it to our hotel safe and sound, albeit sleepy and hungry. Our hotel is located in the old quarter, the heart of Hanoi. Like his southerner brother, Saigon, Hanoi's main streets are narrow, as well as the buildings. The first impression–it was chaotic. It felt like I was walking around during Hanoi's heyday in the early 60s, right before the war. Crossing the pedestrian lanes was a bit challenging as you need to dodge everything on your path–people, rickshaws, motorbikes, crates, cars, SUVs–who are all oblivious about your existence. It wasn't an issue for us to stroll around the old quarter since it was nearing winter. The average temperature was around 17-18 degrees Celsius. Also, it wasn't that humid because it isn't a coastal city.

The sidewalk's purpose, in most countries, is to provide a way for people to walk safely away from the vehicular traffic. However, in Hanoi, it is a different story. Here, the sidewalk is already a part of every local's life–it revolves around their everyday life. Their sidewalk can be an extension of their shops where they put all of their fresh produce, or a dining hall of restaurants with chairs and tables so small that a typical white person can't fit in, or it can function as a parking space for motorbikes. In some cases, it can also be an extension of the road where motorbikes can just freely zoom right past at you.

Hanoian food is quite different from Saigonian cuisine. Here, they use more vegetables, less meat, and the taste is quite bland. When I was in Saigon four years ago, I rarely put hoisin and chili sauce on my food because it's rich in flavors. The regional differences can be traced back to their history. Fifty years ago, there were two Vietnams - the north and the south. The north, where Hanoi is the capital, was influenced by China and the Soviet Union while the south's inclination, where Saigon is located, was more into the USA. Fast forward, the two became one, but some things weren't meant to change.

For starters, Hanoi can be intimidating. While it's less crowded than Saigon, most streets in the old quarter are often littered with trash. Scammers and pickpocketers scatter around the city as if a hunter waiting for its potential prey. But then again, Hanoi is Hanoi. It is what it is. You can't just change its unique character and charm. Hanoi didn't exist to please everybody. If you ask me, I'd love to go back here for food and shopping. And besides, Hanoi is cheap. Your dollars will go a long way.

It really is fun to get lost in Hanoi.

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