Remember how I told you guys I had missed my chance to see south east Asia this summer, as there were no more spots available for that Vietnam / Cambodia trip in late August? Turns out there was one left. And I got it. So what happened?
Hanoi is the current capital of Viet Nam, founded in 1010 and with a population of 7.5 million people. After going through several names throughout history, the city finally settled on the present one in 1831, under the guidance of Minh Mang. Because of the French influence – due to colonialism – and its flourishing business, Hanoi is sometimes described as the “Paris of the East”, displaying a vivacity which can hardly be comparable to other places in Indochina.
I fell in love with Hanoi. As we were doing a pretty intense tour, I didn’t get the chance to see much of this city, which frustrated me. We started our day by visiting Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, which gave us the chance to witness the “change of guard” – a rather boring and simplistic display that somehow always manages to attract tourists’ attention in any corner of this world (e.g. London). This building is situated in Ba Dinh Square, a massive space which somehow reminded me of places like Tian An Men (which coincidentally is where the Mao Zedong building is located – communism and massive, spacey squares are clearly a good architectural combo), in Beijing, China.
Fact n.1: The Vietnamese are very much in love with their defunct Communist leader. Ho Chi Minh was a nice little guy with peaceful ideals, responsible for the Declaration of Independence and the creation of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, in 1945. His photos are stored everywhere, from temples, to shops, to people’s own houses, manifesting the population’s adoration for this historical character. To prove this point, the city of Saigon was even renamed after him, turning into what is commonly known worldwide as Ho Chi Minh city. Crazy, right?
Unfortunately, we couldn’t get into the mausoleum as that is only open in the early morning, so we quickly moved onto our second destination – Ho Chi Minh’s presidential palace. This seemed to me like a sort of village with several buildings inside, from the one where the president used to reside, to one for the kitchen, to a pagoda, to meeting rooms to welcome foreign ambassadors and presidents. The cool thing about this place is that some of the constructions are built over the water, making the place sort of magical (and very, very mosquito-friendly, much to our dismay). The insides of the buildings are typical Vietnamese style – sleek, but very basic and straight-to-the-point. The highest concentration of objects is, as always, in the small pagoda, which you can see in the photo below.
Next up was the Temple of Literature: this religious spot is located in the heart of Hanoi, giving us an instant taste of the Vietnamese Confucius culture. Built as early as 1070 under the rule of emperor Ly Thanh Tong, its aim was to welcome pupils from the royal families, as education was deemed very important for their growth. Later on, this was extended to more people as it was in the country’s interest to have wider numbers of educated individuals.
Apparently, students from the city used to visit and pray in the temple in the hopes of succeeding in their education path, even in something as simple as passing an exam. Our tour guide admitted to doing this himself (and it worked!), so we all crossed our fingers and prayed to the divine entities just in case.
Because of its Buddhist input, the temple shows a very heavy Chinese influence, from architectural details to the actual presence of Chinese characters all over it. This made me excited as – despite not really having studied it for years – I could still understand some of the writings on the wall and reminisce about the time I visited China and its stunning temples. It also made me kind of sad about the fact that I let the language go the past few years. Maybe I should give it another try..
After our cultural visits, we finally ventured into the old town, to experience the actual heart of the city and its people. As said at the beginning of the post, I was definitely not disappointed. I mentioned in the past how much I am in love with people, as being surrounded by other human beings gives me energy like nothing else can. It’s not necessarily about talking, but just about merely being enveloped in their personal bubble of energy and being able to observe it from such a close perspective. As soon as we entered the city centre, we were hit by a wave of noise, colours and smell, coming from all directions. Scooters driving in all directions, people honking, laughing and screaming on the street, street vendors trying to sell their products and a general air of vivacity surrounding the whole place. It was the definition of chaos.
Now some people feel overwhelmed by chaos, but others revel in it. I belong to the latter group, because although I do love spending time with myself and chilling alone, there is just a beauty in chaos that always attracts me. The confusion makes for endless possibilities, giving you the chance to focus on anything you want and perhaps notice something peculiar in whatever stands in front of you. It’s a much more interesting way of experiencing something, as people naturally tend to focus on different, specific details depending on their personality. Kinda like with photos – it’s not all about the quality, but also about the subject you choose to capture.
Fact n.2: Vietnamese people drive like absolute maniacs. The person / scooter ratio is kinda like the same as the people / bike ratio in the Netherlands. They are everywhere, and just as its city centre, the driving situation is total chaos. People just drive in any direction they like, on the street, on the sidewalk, on your feet. Doesn’t matter where they are, they will honk at you like hell until you move out of their way, be it on the actual street or in a much more appropriate place, such as a shop (not joking). This made me fairly anxious about crossing the street at all times, so I only did when I was with someone else. Not because I felt safer, but because at least we’d die together. Top tip: choose someone you like to try this experiment.
We concluded our walk in Ngoc Son, a temple in the heart of Hanoi surrounded by a park where young and older people spend their afternoons, playing and chilling together. Our guide showed us a popular game amongst kids called “Mandarin”, where you have a set number of stones and you have to somehow eat all the others through rules of simple mathematics. Don’t ask me – I didn’t really understand it. But it looked like fun and loads of kids were playing it.
In the evening, we had our first Vietnamese pint – rightfully drunk on the street like the locals. Although worried about the possibility of shitting it all out an hour later, I sipped on it happily as I settled into my new surroundings, eager to see more. I went to sleep early that night because my head was bursting – which didn’t give me the chance to see the Hanoi nightlife – but I am fairly sure it’s worth it and I wish I’d seen it.
That’s all for today and day 1. I hope you enjoyed the blog post and I will see you soon on my next one! I wish you all a lovely day and lots of love,