Monday, May 20, 2013


Lady fruit sellers wait for customers in Old Town Hanoi
As morning comes in Hanoi, I am rudely awakened at 5 a.m. by a government loudspeaker. It's blaring out their daily propaganda wakeup message. Unfortunately for me, the speaker happens to be located right outside my hotel window. I groan, cover my ears, and try to go back to sleep. I later go down to reception, and switch my room to the back of the hotel so I can be further away from the morning noise. But now I have the opposite problem, the hotel’s back rooms have no windows at all! It’s more of a cave really, it's certainly a fire hazard. Well, at least it’s quiet.

After finding some croissants in a nearby café, I head out for a walk around the city’s old quarter. Hanoi is a city that's 1,000 years old. Although this ancient commercial neighborhood is limited by narrow streets, the business scene here is really bustling. Asian style shophouses are packed tightly together, selling all manner of local and imported goods. Everyone I see in the old town is busy browsing, buying, or trying to make a sale. Street vendors in conical hats sell fresh fruit, while the ever present motorbikes buzz on by.
French colonial architecture in Old Town
Old archway entrance in Hanoi
Crossing many streets in the packed borough, I learn that each road in this area has a product specialty. One street has numerous silk shops, another street is packed with shoe stores, and still another is packed with hair accessories. It seems a counterproductive arrangement for shopkeepers to have their competition all on the same street, but it works in Hanoi, as it has here for centuries.
The Presidential Palace, former home of the French colonial governor.
Following the free market reforms of their Chinese neighbors to the north, capitalism has taken hold in this capital city. But even though this city is Vietnam’s second largest, I notice the pace is different. Looking around the shops, it’s not as noisy and hectic here, as it is in Saigon/HCMC. As compared to the hardworking, dollar chasing southerners, business in the north is conducted in a more restrained fashion. Hanoi has always been more reserved than Saigon, and they endured communist controlled markets far longer than in the south did. As things are now, Saigon may be the center of finance, but Hanoi is still the center of political power.

As I leave the old quarter and explore other areas of the downtown, I find that many of the old French colonial buildings still survive. Close to Hoan Kiem Lake, there are the majestic Opera House, many old restaurants and lovely French villas. Some government offices in Hanoi still work out of old yellow colonial buildings from the French era. The Presidential Palace is immaculate, and
Italian restaurant in Old Town. International eateries are becoming more popular.
looks as though the French governor has just walked out the door. There are far more examples of colonial architecture remaining here, than there are in Saigon, and even pre-colonial Chinese style homes can still be found. This isn’t what I was expecting at all, I'm pleasantly surprised.

Since Hanoi had been bombed so many times during the war with the US, I was imagining that the old city must have been reduced to rubble back then, like Berlin during World War II. I was expecting to find blase communist blocks; I’m surprised to see that so many of Hanoi's old historic buildings have survived. These lovely old neighborhoods give Hanoi a romantic air, a sense of history that is hard to find elsewhere in Vietnam.

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