We flew into Hanoi, Vietnam on December 23 to begin our Christmas/New Years vacation. As we rode the airport shuttle into the city, it was obvious that we were entering a world that was entirely foreign to us. Women wearing traditional conical hats worked the fields alongside the road by hand and we saw water buffalo for the first time. As we traveled Vietnam, we saw harvesting being done with small hand scythes and land being cultivated by hand with hoes. Some labourers used old fashioned plows pulled by animal and others had large roto tillers. We saw only a few small tractors.
My first impression of the city itself can only be described as culture shock! I don’t know if there are words to adequately describe the traffic! Hanoi is a city of three and a half million people and most of them appear to be riding small motorcycles! The average annual income in Vietnam is approximately $1000 US so most workers can’t imagine ever being able to afford a car. The motorbike is their family vehicle and it isn’t unusual to see whole families on one bike – three, four or even five people! If there are traffic laws, no one seems to follow them and very few intersections have traffic lights. The only road rule seems to be that small vehicles yield to bigger ones. Roadways are a cacophony of sound as horns honk constantly. No one seems to be honking in impatience or irritation. It’s simply their way of letting one another know where they are which is perhaps a good thing as lanes seem to mean absolutely nothing! Can you imagine crossing the street in such a place? You simply take your life in your hands, step out and the traffic weaves around you! Amazingly, Richard, my small town prairie boy, found this totally exhilarating. He likened it to skiing down a black diamond run – not that he’s ever done that, but he has a good imagination! I, on the other hand, found it quite overwhelming at first. It’s amazing how quickly one adjusts, however.
The other thing that stood out to me was how run down and dirty the city was. In many cases people are living in buildings that seem to be falling down around them and garbage is strewn everywhere. For the most part, however, it doesn’t smell bad. The garbage seems to disappear overnight so I’m assuming that street cleaning provides much needed employment for some.
The airport shuttle dropped us just outside the Old Quarter. Walking through the Quarter to our hotel was quite an adventure. We were constantly approached by taxi drivers of all sorts (car, motorbike, cyclo) and vendors trying to sell us books, maps and postcards. The streets are narrow and crowded and seem to go in every direction. When we finally found our hotel, we discovered that even though we had a reservation, they didn’t have a room for us! They had, however, arranged for us to stay in a similar hotel nearby for our first night and had someone waiting to show us the way and carry our luggage.
After returning to our original hotel for breakfast the following morning, we took a taxi to the Museum of Ethnology about 7 kilometres away. That was another adventure! In spite of the fact that the hotel clerk told the driver where we wanted to go and we showed him in writing, he decided to take us on a circle tour first! When we realized what was happening and protested, he took us directly to our destination but then expected to be paid the full fare on the meter. We refused but ended up paying him more than we should have because we didn’t have smaller change.
The museum itself was very interesting focusing on the many minority groups living in Vietnam. Until recently, many of these people have been living very traditional, quite primitive lifestyles. Many have depended on crafts such as pottery making and basket weaving as their only sources of income. As the market for such items dries up, they are finding it necessary to adjust.
Behind the main museum building is a historical park of sorts featuring traditional houses of various ethnic groups constructed by builders brought into the city from their home villages for that purpose. We found these especially interesting. The one pictured on the left above reminded us of the longhouses built by some of Canada’s native groups.
After eating lunch at a restaurant on the museum grounds that is a branch of Hoa Sua School, set up by a group of retired Vietnamese school teachers to provide training for disadvantaged youth, we took another taxi to the Temple of Literature which was originally dedicated to Confucius and later used as a university. Built in the 11th century, it is a well preserved example of traditional Vietnamese architecture. While there, we had the opportunity to listen to a performance of Vietnamese music played on a variety of traditional instruments. We then walked the couple of kilometers back to our hotel, growing ever more accustomed to crossing the busy streets.
Well this is just a glimpse of our first 24 hours in Vietnam. There is so much more to tell but it will have to wait. We arrived home early this morning after flying through the night so it’s definitely time for some shut eye!