Everyone I met in southern Vietnam warned me about Hanoi.
“It’s so cold!”
“Don’t even bother!”
So I was expecting a windswept tundra with polar bears and maybe a few places to see water puppets.
I was very pleasantly surprised.
The old quarter, where I (and everyone else) stayed, has narrow streets and very small shops, giving the city a much more manageable feel than the wide streets of Ho Chi Minh. (It also makes it much, much easier to cross the street—which is still not an easy proposition given the volume of motorbikes.) The city contains numerous lakes, it’s very walkable, and you can feel the history. (In the old quarter, many streets have sold the same goods for generations. So one street might sell children’s clothes and toys, another lights, another shoes, etc. It’s very charming.
And if people thought Hanoi was cold, they had clearly never spent a winter in Boston. It was probably 60-something degrees Fahrenheit (but admittedly overcast).
After speaking to the people at my hostel I decided to depart that night for a side trip to Sapa, a mountain village on the Chinese border famous for its beauty (not ideal timing, but my friend Ludo from Ho Chi Minh and I had made plans to go to Halong Bay together in a few days’ time, and if I didn’t go to Sapa now, I might not be able to go at all). Because everyone said that Sapa was even colder than Hanoi (the horror!) I decided to buy a winter coat.
I headed to a street close to the city’s largest lake and after pricing a few found a puffy down jacket for $15. (And it looks like it cost $15. Though when Ludo—who is a gym teacher—saw it he was very excited, because apparently the “RF” on it stands for Roger Federer. We both agreed that Roger would be very sad to know how bored I am by tennis.)
I soon discovered that almost all the city’s attractions are closed on Friday afternoons, so I decided to take a long walk. I followed the avenue Dien Bien Phu (the location of Vietnam’s final victory against the French) to Ho Chi Minh’s imposing mausoleum. I admired the pagodas in two of the city’s lakes. (One had many frogs hopping around inside.) I walked around a third, smaller lake which I found very cozy. (A few days later, when I went to the Hanoi Hilton museum, I was shocked to see a photo of local people pulling a young John McCain from his plane in that very lake.)
On the other side of the lake I found myself walking towards a group of moto drivers. One called, “Moto?” I said no. He said it again. I said no again. He crossed the street towards me and said, “Moto?” I smiled and said, “Still no!” I was relieved when the other drivers laughed.
I found myself in a very busy neighborhood full of clothes stores. In a park kids were playing soccer and men were getting their hair cut while holding small mirrors in front of their faces. On the corner a man was making keys for moto drivers who pulled up beside him.
I was getting picked up at 8:30pm for the train to Sapa, so I wandered back to the hostel to ask where I should have dinner. (Because the old quarter is divided by theme, as it were, it is really difficult to find restaurants compared to other cities.) The staff at my hostel suggested a restaurant, but on my way there I found an alley with the ubiquitous plastic tables and chairs and I ended up having a delicious bowl of pho for $1.50. I tried to talk to the family that ran the “restaurant” (it was one table in an alley), but they couldn’t speak English or French. (I was eating with chopsticks, and the mother kept coming over and pointing to the spoon she had left in the bowl. I tried to explain that I make less of a mess with chopsticks, but of course that was not an easy thing to get across! And for the record, the Vietnamese eat pho with chopsticks.)
Here’s a video of rush hour, with more people driving on the sidewalk than in the street!
At the train station I met a delightful older Asian couple who were also going to Sapa. They lived in New Jersey but had foreign accents, and I assumed they must be from elsewhere because the husband told me that he spoke “very bad” Vietnamese. But when I asked how he had learned his bad Vietnamese, he told me, “I’m from here, actually, but I fought for the South and I’m Catholic so I left right after the war and I hadn’t been back until last year.”
“How was it?” I asked.
He paused. “Okay.”
“Did you get to visit your old friends?”
He paused again. “They’re all dead. They all died in the war.”
I hated to ask painful questions, so I waited a while before asking another, but since he had fought for the South I wondered if he had a different perspective. “Do you think that if the United States hadn’t intervened, the war would have happened?”
But his answer was very final. “No.”
“Do you think that if the referendum had happened in 1956 and the North had won, you would have stayed in Vietnam?”
He thought for a moment. “Maybe.”
In case you missed that, even the Southern Catholic thinks we caused a war that killed 3-4 million people and displaced many more, for nothing.
The three of us ended up sharing a room on the train. There are several levels of cars on Vietnamese trains; if you want a bed, you can get either a “hard sleeper” with six beds in one room and harder mattresses, or a “soft sleeper” with four, soft beds. We had the latter. It was very elegant, with wood paneling and very nice metal finishes. But we still had to use the bathroom down the hall which of course had no toilet paper or soap!
I worried about him climbing up to the upper bunk at his age. But when I looked down before I went to sleep, he was curled up next to his wife on her bottom bunk. It was very sweet.
The next morning when I woke up the Vietnamese couple said they thought we had arrived. No one had announced anything, but we quickly put on our shoes and grabbed our bags. I don’t know what would have happened if we hadn’t gotten off the train, and I’m glad I didn’t have to find out!
Next up: Sapa!