Hanoi – First impressions
Travelling from Hanoi airport into the city what becomes immediately apparent is that the city is surrounded by agricultural lands, mainly geared toward rice production. I pass vast swathes of rice fields with farmers in conical hats, along with buffalo, tending the fields.
The French influence is everywhere – the houses are narrow but tall with verandahs, green wooden window shutters and balustrades.
I am staying at the Hanoi Legend hotel in the heart of the Old Quarter – a quaint warren of tiny streets full of hotels, restaurants, tourist offices and hordes of street vendors selling everything from food to trinkets to old Viet Cong army caps with their Vietnamese red star emblem.
The tourist offices are everywhere selling trips up into the northern mountains, out to the karst rocks of beautiful Halong Bay where, for a $100 or so you can book a two day trip touring the islands, swimming, eating and spending the night on board in splendidly furnished wood panelled bedrooms. You can also book an overnight train south along the coast to the old imperial capital of the Nguyen dynasty at Hue.
In the Old Quarter, there are motorbike taxis, car taxis and cyclos everywhere all looking for your business – “You wan moto bike, you wan taxi”
There are food stalls where you can snatch a quick Beef Pho for 50 cents, order your own sit down BBQ for a little more or simply sit on a street corner bar on foot high tiny plastic stools sipping Bia Hoi, the local draught brew which sells at a mere 15 cents a glass.
And if you want you can go upmarket to a Grafton Street-style area that sells all the top international brands. There you’ll also find five star hotels, excellent restaurants in an area resplendent with attractively dressed men and women driving Porsches and four wheel drives accentuating the obvious gap between rich and poor in this new open market-led economy.
What differentiates Hanoi from HCM city, among others, is its lake system, in particular nearby Hoan Kiem lake, which, as a centre-piece, tends to have an overall calming affect on this teeming city.
This second instalment of my trip will concentrate on environmental issues, meeting up with environmental and forestry expert Dr Phung Tuu Boi at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then a 20 kilometre trip out of the city to visit the Friendship Village, ending with a meeting at the Catholic Relief Services Agency office in the suburbs of the city.