I stayed in Hanoi on three separate occasions for about 8 days in total, and this was the ultimate stop on my Vietnam tour from south to north. While Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) is the commercial capital of the country, Hanoi is its political capital.
When the North took over the South there was quite of lot of relocation of citizens from the north to the south as the north was poorer at the time, and was struggling to accommodate the needs of its population. They relocated entire villages, and you can see hill tribes living in the Central Highlands and the Delta. The city of today is filled with hustle and bustle…which leads to air and noise pollution…particularly in the Old District. The bicycles and cyclos of yonder year have been pushed aside by scooters to the point where there’s a push to get rid of the cyclos altogether as they cause further chaos in the clogged streets. The women carrying the bamboo yokes and baskets quick-step and weave their way through the craziness to carry out their business, and I made it my mission one afternoon to photograph each one I found. It’s interesting to see the variety of what fills their baskets…from live ducks and chickens through to fresh produce and compact food stall set-ups.
Outside of the Old District, Hanoi is starting to take shape of a modern city, although it’s still quite low-rise...and very watery with many lakes and rivers shaping the landscape. It’s a very youthful population, and the expats that I spoke to talked about the energy surging through the city as hope and potential comes to the fore. It certainly feels like a country undergoing change…I just hope they get some money to invest in their transport infrastructure!
I sought out yet another photographer – Mr Thai – who kindly took me out to the pottery village at Bah Trang where I got to see them pouring the liquid ceramic into the large moulds, and preparing the surfaces ready for hand-painting. Unlike the village outside Hoi An where they produced plain fired pottery, in this town the Chinese influence is stronger and they produce the fine white ceramic with the blue hand-painted scenes, and apply a final glaze. Logically, they don’t fire the pottery in the middle of the summer heat, but there would be some amazing photo opportunities during this time. The entire town is dedicated to the production of this high-quality pottery that is sold throughout Vietnam and other Asian countries. [If you’re interested to know, a large vase (approx 1.7m) costs approx USD5,000]. In Vietnam it is common to find villages dedicated to the production of a single craft such as pottery, silk, lacquer paintings, conical hat weaving and so on.
The majority of my time in Hanoi was spent eating and shopping (in that order)! In Saigon I bought a great book about the street food in Hanoi, and it travelled the length of the country before it had a chance to be used. Each day I went in search of the different street stalls and types of food mentioned in the book. It was a perfect way get to know the Old District while I ate my way through Bun Non Nam Bo (rice noodles with beef), Bun Cha (grilled pork with rice noodles), Cha Ca (marinated grilled fish with rice noodles), Pho Bo (noodles soup with beef – national staple), Pho Chien Phong Bo Xao (stir-fried beef with deep-fried noodles), Banh Ran (deep-fried dough filled with mung beans and coconut), Banh Tom (glutinous rice balls with sugar and sesame seeds – my least favourite form of rice…not a fan of the glutinous texture), Banh Xeo (pancake filled with scampi – the southern favourite), Nem Ran (Hanoi spring rolls), Nom Hoa Chuoi Thit Ga (salad of banana blossom and chicken), Pho Cuon (rice paper filled with beef, lettuce and herbs), Che Choi (banana with coconut, tapioca and finely ground ice cubes), Kem Caramel (crème caramel with coconut milk – a French legacy)…and many more dishes I can’t remember! There are 60 different dishes in the book so I’ll have to go back for another round of gorging! By the end I was eating several meals a day just to try as much as I could while I had the chance…I’d sort out the holiday indulgence once I got back home :)
As you’d expect, there are plenty of shops selling a variety of souvenirs targeted at the tourist market. The prices are always a little higher in the main cities compared to what you’d pay closer to the source. My advice to travellers is to buy what you like along the way rather than wait until the end, as Sod’s Law means you won’t find it when you want it. I’ve kicked myself many times for waiting until the end of a trip and not finding the exact item I fell in love with on the way. “Like It Buy It” is my approach these days! This meant that by the time I got to Hanoi I wasn’t in the market for embroidered bags and what not…so I hit the fashion shops instead! There are quite a few nice boutiques around the Cathedral in the Old District where they sell western style clothes in western sizes (!)…for non-western prices! And then I discovered Chula. This Spanish expat couple design the most interesting clothes I’ve seen, and their business supports local hearing impaired people who do a lot of the hand-painting on the silk taffeta garments. It really was an interesting place…and I bought 5 items just to prove how much I liked their style! I’m not one for browsing the shops on a regular basis so I tend to shop in bulk…and I definitely applied “Like It Buy It” that day :)
This brings me to the end of my Vietnamese journey. Six weeks…time flew by as it always does…but I really felt like I got under the surface a little. It’s a fascinating place, and there are plenty of areas I didn’t get to see that I’d love to go back to….although perhaps not in the intense heat and humidity of summer! I think April could be a better time to visit. So…a big sincere ‘Thank You’ to country #66 on my list. You’ve left me with some very fond memories…
…the willingness of local photographers to share their knowledge and take me out shooting…we definitely all taste the same!
…the local people who allowed me into their lives to photograph them
…the smell of fresh rain
…the smell of wood fires for cooking
…being caught in torrential downpours
…being hot and sweaty
…being cool and cozy
…the changing landscapes from urban to rural…from coastal to mountainous
…the sound of roosters crowing at dawn…and all night for some!
…the sound of horns…enough to drive you crazy!
…the traffic…and the art of walking slowly across the road without stopping while everything weaves around you like a river finding a new course
…the poverty…and the resilience of those people to still smile
…the fertility of everything…land…animals…people – there’s now a two-child policy in Vietnam, but previously the families were pretty large
…the markets – the heart and soul of every town
…and of course the food...particularly the freshness of the flavours.
Thank you to those of you who followed my journey from the beginning. I will endeavour to continue to fill the pages of my Blog with interesting stories and images even when I’m not on the road.