Our tour of Vietnam begins in the capital, Hanoi, on a hot, hot, hot sunny day in November.
There is a famous saying in Vietnam: “to be as easy-going and open as a Hanoian”. Our first impressions? Well yeah, the saying rings pretty true. People cannot stop smiling at us, and we’re smiling back so much our faces hurt. Something tells me this is going to be a gooooooood trip.
Here are our first impressions:
1. The people
Smiley, friendly, approachable, welcoming, inquisitive. The cliches are true and we’ve made lots of friends already.
2. The rhythm of the city
Breakfast, lunch, dinner… Why stop at just three meals a day when you can have coffee breaks, tea breaks, meet up with friends for snacks between meals or go out for more food after dinner? We’re told that everything here revolves around eating and drinking, and that’s just fine with us.
3. The food
Did I mention the food already? It’s available everywhere, it’s just so fresh and it smells and tastes amazing. So far we’ve tried fresh coriander and cashew nut noodles, steaming pork broth, mung bean deep-fried rice balls and mocha coffee.
4. The traffic chaos
There are motorbikes everywhere and I thought I might never cross the road. But look again and you realise the traffic simply weaves like a shoal of fish making way for pedestrians, minivans, trucks or women balancing baskets of fruit slung across their shoulders like bamboo weighing scales. And nobody gets road rage.
5. The French Quarter…
Different parts of Hanoi have very distinctive flavours. In the French Quarter palm trees line the wide boulevards and the colonial architecture is elegant even where it’s crumbling. The whole district glows an ochre yellow – the official colour of power in Vietnam.
6. …versus The Old Quarter
The Old Quarter is raw, earthy, gritty, a whole lot more down and dirty. We liked the vibrancy of this district a lot. Narrow streets bursting with shops selling everything you can think of from car parts, to flowers, to tacky, shiny shirts and handwoven tapestries. The buildings are all hickelty- pickelty and pop up cafes and streetfood everywhere.
In some countries, daily life is behind close doors. Not in Vietnam. Here everything spills on to the street: open air haircuts, family gatherings on doorsteps, street trading, tiny plastic chairs and tables where you drink your coffee in the road and parked motorbikes with people lying asleep on top. It’s immediately obvious how to get in the fray and interact with the Vietnamese.
8. The lakes
Hanoi sits around seven natural lakes, the best place to catch the breeze, gaze at the pagodas and people watch. Meandering couples, giggling girls in traditional ao doi dresses, huge families eating ice cream and lovely pagodas.
9. The tropical trees
I love a city with palm trees! Toto, we’re not at in Bristol anymore. Bonsai are strangely popular here too.
10. The museums
There are lots of excellent museums here: dedicated to military history, indigenous art and the women of Vietnam to name but a few. We went to the Museum of Ethnology which was excellent, very informative. Here we learnt about the 54 ethnic groups that make up Vietnam, some of whom we hope to meet later on this trip.