We’ve made it through day one in Hanoi, and I think it’s safe to say we’re both a little exhausted. It’s not like we did a whole lot with our day — it’s mostly that Hanoi is overwhelming. What an assault on the senses! Add to that the energy required to be a pedestrian here, and you come back to the hotel in the evening (or even mid-day) feeling like you’ve done a week’s worth of city-seeing.
The day started fairly innocuously as we ventured out to see Hoan Kiem Lake, said to be the spiritual center of the city. The lake’s import comes from a legend about a turtle and a golden sword and a hero who beat China, and this is (or was) the turtle’s home. Here’s the Turtle Tower shrine that sits on a little island in the middle of the lake:
We spent a while at the Jade Mountain Temple at the top of the lake:
It’s one of the most-visited temples in Vietnam, a fact that was reinforced by the hundreds of tiny schoolchildren clustered around our knees:
The kids had their noses pressed right up against the stuffed freshwater turtle display…
…while I was more excited about the cat on a horse:
But for many people, this temple functions as a real place of worship (though some of the kids appeared to appreciate that more than others):
Of course, you’ll find shrines of all sizes all over the place in Vietnam. We found this fairly elaborate set-up in the tiny shop where Prescott ended up buying a shirt:
After our temple visit, we walked along the lakeshore to a cafe. People spend a lot of time in cafes in Hanoi; coffee is big business, and there’s hardly a Starbucks to be found. Then we wandered around for a while, eventually stumbling on this street food place for tofu-noodle soup. Yummy food if you don’t ask about the cleanliness of the restaurant …
We spent a lot of time walking the streets and trying not to get killed. Death is possible in two distinct (but related ways):
- You might get hit crossing the street, because there are almost no intersections (and those that exist are treated by drivers as suggestions rather than as laws). It’s a lot like playing Frogger with your own body. Basically, you just start walking across busy streets and hope no one hits you.
- You might get hit walking parallel to, but not on, the sidewalk. This would happen because sidewalks have a way of disappearing.
Today we hit a new high by finding a full tent taking over the sidewalk:
Also worth noting is that there are motorbikes everywhere here, and they are a law unto themselves. Streets are cluttered with them:
And people use them to transport everything imaginable (note that next to the woman with the flowers below, there’s a guy transporting a full-sized trash can)):
Bicycles are far less common, but when you see them, they’re usually transporting more items than one might think possible (yes, there’s a person in the middle of all of that stuff below):
Speaking of stuff, there’s a awful lot of it here. Vietnam may still be a communist country …
… but capitalism is alive and well. The streets in the Old Quarter run stall after stall after stall, and things of like kinds are usually clustered together. There’s a whole street where you can just buy locks and door handles, a whole street where you can just buy party goods, and a whole street where you can just buy things made out of aluminum:
Stuff is piled floor to ceiling, sidewalk to back walls. It’s amazing and a little daunting from a too-much-commercialism perspective.
The biggest surprise on the streets today might have been this gal:
And her friend:
They looked more comfortable with the whole road situation than we were.
Pres and I did see some important building in our wanderings, including St. Joseph’s Cathedral:
We also walked by the Hanoi prison, which the French built to house prisoners in the early 20th century and was later used to house US aviators during the Vietnam war. We didn’t go in (the guidebooks say it’s mostly filled with torture equipment).
Our afternoon was spent on a crazy mission to the tailor and the fabric market. The less said about this, the better (we both found it way too stressful). The one moment of fun was when I had to hop up and sit on these bolts of fabric to get out of the way of a guy with a handtruck — a fleeting delight, but memorable.
Our evening’s entertainment was water puppet theater, which is a huge amount of fun. What’s a water puppet? Well, it’s an art form that developed in the rice paddies of the Red River Delta, which involves puppeteers behind a screen standing in the water and articulating all sorts of fantastic puppets. There are dragon puppets and people puppets and phoenixes and ducks and water snakes, and it’s all pretty great. This is where they performed last night (it’s hard to see, but there’s a pool of water in front of that temple):
Here’s an example of part of the “fishing” set (it’s a bit fuzzy, but should give the general idea):
And here are the “drummers”:
They also have a terrific orchestra, which includes a woman who played the one-string harp. I’m still trying to figure out how that works.