We arrive in Hanoi at 4.30 in the morning after a 14 hour train journey. We are tired and need to crash for a bit before we are ready to go explore another big city. Hanoi is already awake and the usual sight of Vietnamese exercising greet us as we drive through the city.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and is currently making preparations to celebrate its 1000th birthday! It is the oldest continuing capital in SE Asia. The French colonialist occupied this city back in 1883 and it became the main administrative centre for all of French Indo-China which includes Cambodia and Laos.
We arrange to meet Phouc mid morning for a tour of the Old Quarter. This is quite a historic part of the city and was once referred to as the “Venice of the Far East” by early explorers due to its constant flooding.
The place is teeming with cars, motorcycles and people. There is no side walk and we are constantly dodging cars and motors as we try to walk across this city. Not an easy feat. I learn the Old Quarter has one of the highest population densities in the world with a 100,000 people in 100 hectares! I much prefer the smaller cities in Asia.
We have another authentic Vietnamese experience as Phouc leads us down a narrow alley way to a little hidden coffee shop. We sit down at a miniature tables with chairs to match (miniature furniture is very popular in Vietnam and found on sidewalks and street corners) and look completely awkward. Our frames were just not made to sit on this size furniture. Phouc orders coffee with raw egg…and tries to persuade us to try it. We are not quite ready to get this authentic. We order iced coffees but then get brave enough to taste his dregs..mm…it’s actually quite yummy. Maybe next time…
We bump into Vinh quite by chance, on our way back for an afternoon rest. He walks up to us on the streets of Hanoi and asks if we would like to take a cyclo tour to see the sights. Our instincts tell us this young man is special and we arrange to meet him later in the afternoon at our hotel. His initial quote was really reasonable and after being fleeced in Saigon, we are pleasantly surprised to meet a friendly cyclo driver in Hanoi. He reminds me of my tuk tuk driver Ravi in Cambodia.
He is waiting for us when we rush out a few minutes late for our date and suggests our first stop could be at the Hanoi Hilton! This prison, so named by American POWs has information about both its American prisoners as well as the prisoners during French occupation. The displays suggest the American POWs were treated quite well. There are photos of them playing basket ball and carving turkey for Christmas but of course we realise this could also be a bit of propaganda.
Our next stop is at the Temple of Literature and we feel the buzz in the air as we walk in. This was the place of Vietnam’s first university but it was completely destroyed by
French bombs in 1947. Today, it has been reconstructed and we had walked in on a primary school graduation. We watched the kids dancing around in their caps and gowns, so proud of their achievements already. I was surprised to find that graduation ceremonies for kids as young as this was happening in Vietnam too. I didn’t get to graduate till I completed Uni!
It starts to rain and Vinh pulls the plastic covers all around us. He is so attentive to our every need and doesn’t stop saying “thank you”. He is so sweet and we are so thankful to have found him.
We start chatting to Vinh and learn a little about his family. He looks like a kid to us both but he is actually 35 years old and a father of 3. We are shocked. He doesn’t see his family more than once every 3 months and today is the birthday of one of his kids. He shares pictures of his family with us and shows us some of the correspondence he has received from other travellers.
The reality for many people who work in Asian big cities is that they hardly get to spend time with their families. It is in stark contrast to life in the village where so much time is spent as a family at work and play.
It is time to head back but we will be back in Hanoi after our overnight trip to Halong Bay tomorrow so we arrange to meet again. We had negotiated for a 1 hour cyclo tour but we have spent more than 2 hours with Vinh. He says give me what ever you feel like. We tip him well, so happy our instincts were right about this man and absolutely amazed to find such a soul in the heart of a big city.
That evening we attend a water puppet show, another experience not to be missed in Vietnam and another first for me! The puppet theatre was quite impressive and the show enjoyable.
The puppets move and dance about in the water and it is all good fun and very colourful. The show is accompanied by an orchestra playing instruments we had never seen before. It was too bad we couldn’t follow a word that was being said. Tomorrow morning we leave for Halong Bay but we will be back for the weekend – our last few days in Vietnam before we join a new group for our Laos experience.
“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.” – Bill Bryson