We arrived in Hanoi on Friday evening, one night after the military parade celebrating the 40th anniversary of Saigon’s fall and the victory of communism forces that seized control of Vietnam.
Blowing in the hot night wind were bright red banners that decorated the well-lit city streets and highways. I was on a tour bus with a small group of Australian tourists, after asking our guide about these intriguing banners, we were told they read, ‘Long Live the Glorious Party of Vietnam.’
Although the parade was long over, the celebratory spirit lived on. Perhaps it was the decorative metal yellow flowers that were displayed up high on the poles on Trang Tien street or the massive handmade flower arrangements on the ground around Sword Lake or the fact that the Vietnamese were commencing a four-day national holiday – something about the atmosphere in the city made it feel special and we couldn’t wait to explore.
When we first arrived in Vietnam we were fascinated by the number of motorcycles on the road compared to cars and that entire families travelled on them. We quickly became accustomed to the constant sounds of beeping horns, something our tour guide said was “totally normal.”
Although it was the start of a four-day holiday in Hanoi, the streets were lively and alleyways were filled with Vietnamese workers and visitors. The architecture is a reflection of an overcrowded city, with dense buildings and uniquely designed narrow townhouses lining the streets and main roads. In Hanoi it’s all about location and prime real estate is along main roads, new development projects situated away from the city are generally left empty and unable to attract buyers.
Old Quarter: Hanoi’s Old Quarter offers an experience like no other, the bustling streets snake into one another as they display Vietnam’s culturally historic shopping strip of diverse products. From pigeon meat to fake designer handbags, the Old Quarter can be exotically appealing and overwhelming. I found it incredibly difficult to shop there as prices were inflated for tourists and getting a reasonable price for goods was exhausting. But I did appreciate the spirit of the Old Quarter and got lost in it all. The Old Quarter is about 45 minutes away from Noi Bai International Airport and a fifteen-minute walk from where we stayed, the Hanoi Sofitel Metropole or a seven-minute cyclo ride.
Water Puppet Theatre: Hanoi is famous for water puppet theatre and the locals are very proud of this form of art, “everyone has puppets, but in Vietnam we have puppets on water,” one English speaking local boasted. Leaving our tour group, my husband and I decided we had to see what all the fuss was about. We watched a 3pm session at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre and although we knew the plot centered on life in the Red River Delta, not knowing the Vietnamese language was a drawback making the show seem like it dragged. However, seeing the puppet performance over water was incredible and highly recommended. We delved into the experience and the mystical music that played during the show drew us deeper into Hanoi’s rich and complex past.
Village life: We took part in a cycling scenic tour of the countryside at Tay Phuong. The tour was an insight into Vietnamese culture and the simplicity of village life. Located 40km south west of Hanoi, the small settlement is home to an abundance of rice fields that were being harvested by locals donning traditional conical straw hats.
Family chatters can be heard along the passageways, and cyclists are greeted by groups of smiling children giggling the words “Xin Chao” (Hello). Elderly locals also take part in village life – throwing nets into the water streams to catch water snails and in some places farmers with rifles walk by as they attempt to locate birds to shoot and prepare for an evening feast. The mostly flat terrain made our cycling tour an insightful and peaceful one, a real glimpse of village life.
Halong Bay: Escaping the busy capital, we took a helicopter to Halong Bay where a small cruise ship was waiting for us. It took about an hour by bus to get to the helicopter and from there it was about another 45 minutes in the sky but was well worth it.
As our boat, drifted along Halong Bay it was easy to appreciate what felt like a real piece of paradise – sparkling smooth waters, towered by limestone islands. Despite being bombarded by local merchants in canoes who sold us overpriced pearls by shoving fish nets into our boat, our overnight cruise in World Heritage-listed Halong Bay was incredible. Kayaking over the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and enjoying the view was simply breathtaking.
Vietnam is a fascinating place, it boasts immense natural beauty and a city life that is is beyond intriguing. It’s easy to soak up the western luxuries that have found their way into this communist nation, including the delightful French-influenced cuisine, but the best part of Vietnam stems from its rich history, it’s proud and resilient people and of course it’s natural landscape. Watching the way the locals work and live is the best way to get to know Vietnam. If I could use a metaphor to describe Hanoi, it would be that of the electricity cables in the city- chaotic but some how it all works.
Travel verdict: If you’re looking for a cultural adventure and peaceful retreat you’ll love Vietnam.