I arrived to another world with rice paddies, sampans, lotus blossoms, coconut milk and noodle soups. It’s like time machine travel back to the 15th century in this graceful land that is steeped in history. It is far poorer than I anticipated. There is, however, an alluring charm which is found in the gentility of these people with the sincerest of smiles. I am a fan of the Third World. Hanoi is studded with lakes and shaded by tamarind trees. It is a dichotomy that bustles with Chi-energy and yet is tranquil at the same time.
I checked into the deluxe Sheraton Resort, an oasis of calm amidst the chaos. My fabulous guide, named Hong, was with me for 6 glorious days. His first lesson was in teaching us how to cross the streets. The traffic of 7 lanes is horrendous with 2.4 million motor scooters. “It’s called the Chicken Game,” Hong said. “Don’t run, don’t stop, just walk slowly so drivers can predict your direction.” That afternoon, I stood in fear stranded 20 minutes curbside as this lesson goes against all instincts. There were entire families on a single scooter, called the “Vietnamese sandwich.” Everything is transported on these mopeds, 8 piglets, a dozen chickens upside down, a TV, a tree and more. Pollution is bad. The inner city looks tired and worn. Suddenly there’s a monsoon downpour. People drape ponchos and it becomes raincoat city. It dissipates as quickly as it began and life goes on.
The sun shined on our daily tours which included the Temple of Literature, One Pillar Pagoda, the French Quarter and the memorial to Ho Chi Mihn. I lined up with hundreds of people to enter the tomb where his preserved body is visibly encased just like Lennon in Moscow. Communist armed soldiers commanded us to silent reverence, no cameras, umbrellas, sunglasses and arms at our sides. Later we visited Hoa Lo Prison or Fiery Furnace. Built by the French in 1896, thousands of political prisoners were tortured here until 1954. We viewed the dungeons with leg irons, torture equipment and “head cutting machines.” In the 1960s the Vietcong used this as a prisoner of a war detention centre for American pilots shot down during the Vietnam War. It was our captive pilots that sardonically named this place “The Hanoi Hilton.” We also did a walking tour through the Old Quarter where each narrow lane was named for its ancient craft: Silk St., Coffin St., Grilled Fish St., etc. Hong led us to a food market with turtles, sea slugs, pig heads and other unmentionable creatures for sale. Thit Chow is dog stew which is considered peasant food here. Country rat is ceremoniously served at all birthday parties.
I attended the Water Puppet Show, an ancient art forms unique only to Hanoi. This blend of music and dance on the water was the source of entertainment of villagers long ago. I then scattered to explore the city, Asia’s oldest capital. I have an embroidered silk dress cut to my body in 4 hours for $45. We also visited the handicraft villages for bargains in art, ceramics and lacquerware. The currency was a great challenge for us as $10,500 dong equals 65 cents. I felt like millionaires yet it was disheartening to learn that the annual per capita income is just $320! I tipped generously throughout.
Vietnam’s pulse is found in its cities whereas its decorous grace is found in its villages. I headed out through the countryside for a full day cruise at Halong Bay. The air was fresh as we passed rice paddies, duck and prawn farms. It was rice harvest time and hundreds of rice farmers were bent over their ponds. Timid children waved as we drive by. I arrived at this natural UNESCO World Heritage Site and boarded my private wooden junk boat. Quietly I sailed into a dreamscape that looks surreal. 3,000 islands of sheer limestone cliffs emerge from the emerald sea. There was a timeless, haunting quality to this scenery. Nat. Geo. calls it “magic in stone and water.” We enjoy a seafood lunch with fresh-caught crab and prawns. It’s a perfect day in the sun for escapism and serenity.
I reflect on another journey well done with new insights gained on history and cultures. It was like visiting two different planets within one vacation. This is certainly an Asian affair never to be forgotten.