FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF VIETNAM | Sharon Henry
For many of us the sensation of visiting and discovering a new country can sometimes be intimidating yet mixed with an equal measure of excitement.
We feel an intriguing vibe the moment we arrive at Vietnam’s Hanoi airport, like we’re on the cusp of something special. Perhaps it’s the courteous immigration officer who bestows the good omen, the ease of getting new SIM cards, or the fact that we are millionaires before we even leave the airport. The Vietnamese Dong is 33,500 to the pound, exchanging over £30 makes us instant millionaires.
The taxi driver lets the side down when he drops us at the end of the street instead of outside the hotel, leaving us to pick our way through the busy, noisy street with luggage in tow. It feels like a suicide mission stepping into the constant stream of mopeds as the pavements are taken up with overspill from shops and restaurants and parked mopeds. Even so, I feel a thrill.
The good omen continues, however, with the hotel reception staff at Hanoi Chic, who give us the warmest welcome and before long we are back outside to explore this new city.
Hanoi Street Life
There are street food outlets at every corner with customers sitting on tiny plastic stools across the pavements. It seems nobody cooks at home! Shops are EVERYWHERE; t-shirts, lacquer goods, coffee, paintings, silk, sunglasses and all kinds of souvenirs. Female street vendors in coolie hats carry yokes across their shoulders, balancing baskets full of wares.
There’s an army of unsightly electricity poles holding a tangled mess of cables, enough to make any health and safety regulator shudder.
Every street has at least one tour operator offering day trips and excursions to Sapa Valley, Halong Bay and beyond.
Kate Moss Buildings
Karaoke seems extremely popular; entering the city there were karaoke bars every ten buildings. Very particular to Vietnam are the colourfully painted, tall, narrow and skinny buildings. Like supermodels compared to UK’s terraced housing. Apparently the small footprint minimises property tax.
There are ‘doughnut ladies’ who prey on unsuspecting newbies like me; easily duped by a ‘friendly’ gesture. Smiling and bearing a basketful of sugared doughnuts a lady insists I try one for free. Which I do. Then she rapidly fills a bag and hands it to me. I decline thinking of my expanding waistline. But she persists, still smiling. I think to myself, ‘don’t be such an ass, this is her income,’ so take out my wallet filled with high denomination notes and hand over the requested 150,000 dong. Against Darrin’s better judgement I might add. She’s happy and scarpers off. Darrin does a calculation, turns out I paid £4.50 for greasy, stale doughnuts only fit for the bin. We’ll chalk that one up to experience.
Heart of the City
Undeterred, my smile remains and we stroll toward Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake at the centre of the Old Quarter. Scooters buzz past us like flies, with their constant beep-beep, and we realise pedestrian crossings here do not work like the western world. Fully covered riders, with long sleeved jackets, some falling below the knees whiz by, face masks donned to keep themselves pollution free.
Hồ Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a gathering place for Hanoians and is an excellent spot to people watch and gauge the pace of life. We love the friendly atmosphere and do a slow circumnavigation, sitting periodically on the stone benches overlooking the still, green waters. Families, couples, groups of friends and fitness buffs happily enjoy the peaceful setting.
The temperature is gratefully 10 degrees cooler here than Thailand and Cambodia. Such a luxury not to be permanently coated in a sheen of sweat.
Hoards of three wheeled bicycle taxis, known as cyclos, patrol the city centre looking for tourists. It seems near impossible to not be pestered by a driver offering a ‘one hour’ city tour. We politely decline as we prefer to walk.
What No Shopping Malls?
There are no massive shopping centres or multiplexes, instead there are many sprawling individual street shops selling everything imaginable.
I notice the Vietnamese have a distinctive squatting position. It’s very neat and used for fishing, cooking, eating, waiting, reading; everyone does it. The legs are bent, back of the thighs flush with the calves, bum raised just off the floor, all pressure on the feet. I try it back at the hotel and manage to hold a few minutes but get a major head rush when I stand upright. I think the key element besides good flexibility is no tummy. The Vietnamese are very slim people.
Social Media Banned
Free Wi-Fi is now standard in hotels worldwide and Hanoi is no exception. To our dismay we could not gain access to Facebook. Some nifty Googling reveals that Facebook and BBC websites are blocked, apparently the government have unofficially banned them. That said, everyone in Hanoi has a mobile phone and they’re always on Facebook! Obviously there are ways and means around this little hitch.
We think Hanoi could possibly have the highest ratio of beautiful girls in the world (sorry Bangkok)! Elegant and fashionably dressed, it’s clear they take care of their appearance. Plus, it seems impossible for them to have a bad hair day, unlike the rest of us.
The Vietnamese are agricultural people it seems; the drive in from the airport we passed workers in the fields and tending motorway gardens. They are also very enterprising and entrepreneurial; it seems every free inch of pavement in the city is taken up for business. Even storm drains are used as cooking grills. The reality of what life is like in a communist country is completely different to what I had expected.
I’ve Got You Under My Skin
Hanoi is a beautiful city and home to seven million people. It’s absolutely dripping with culture. The locals are extremely friendly and are already making a lasting impression. Patriotic, (Vietnamese flags everywhere), overwhelming, charming, vivacious, noisy, calm, modern and old – for me, Hanoi is all of this wrapped in one package.
Fascination for this city and its people is coursing through my veins; I can’t wait to explore more.