What is it like to visit Hanoi, Vietnam? How to begin to describe this frightening, wonderfully unique place? First, the people are as friendly and helpful as the scooters are plentiful. The scene here is so different from Shanghai, where we live now. There are hardly any luxury stores or cars here yet the average citizen seems to live well and be very happy. Though we got a few hard stares from the older guys, in general we were accepted and welcomed with open arms. The French influence is strong here in the building architecture that is old and not kept up but still lovely and the jaunty French berets worn by the old gents sitting on the sidewalks.
The women dress to impress as they might in Paris, not in jeans and casual clothes—they wear dresses and heels on those scooters as they speed around. The restaurants here are more formal and have the white tablecloths and more French atmosphere of formality than you see in China. Yet, there is a traditional Vietnamese element prevalent on the streets with the strong ladies wearing their Non La traditional hats and using the poles to balance their heavy load of fruit or vegetables to sell to passersby. One aggressive lady tried to pin me against a street front with her load to try and convince me to buy her bananas and pineapples. Always nimble to stay alive, I dodged her and kept right on walking..being nimble is paramount to living in this part of the world.
Like China, life is lived here on the streets. You see barbers cutting hair and everyone eating on the sidewalks, squatting on small plastic stools as they inhale Pho and rice/vegs/chicken dishes that smell wonderful. We saw chickens running around in the streets by our hotel and meat, including chicken, laid out on the sidewalk, ready to be cooked but certainly not refrigerated or following any Western standards of food safety. Our friend from the cruise likened the street scene to Mumbai where the traffic is insane and the people are out in mass to enjoy socializing and eating. We saw many more Western tourists here in Hanoi than in China, probably due to the ease to enter Vietnam and the low cost. The dong is the currency and 21,000 dong = $1 US. So, we were paying millions of dong for items which was totally weird. I found myself chastising Thom for paying too much for Super Glue to fix my glasses that had inconveniently broken at the start of our trip. Turns out, he paid .50 cents for it…oops-what a bargain! I went crazy buying quilts from a non-profit I could feel good about that helps Vietnamese women make a living and the quality is fabulous. Baby Mia, our first grandchild, will enjoy laying on these gorgeous quilts for many years to come as Papa Thom tells stories of our adventures all over the world. We were enchanted by the bamboo bikes also for sale at the quilt store, www.mekong-quilts-org, including a tricycle that was ADORABLE! Other items you see for sale everywhere are lacquer boxes and bowls, ox horn cutlery, jade and silver jewelry and silk clothing. Very inexpensive and just beautiful…I bought an empty suitcase or two just in case and they will be going back full.
What sets Vietnam apart from China? Well, China does a great job keeping their public areas clean and well manicured with beautiful flowers and plants. Vietnam, does not. There is trash and dirt everywhere, no flower/trees in most public spaces and wires for who knows what are strewn everywhere, hanging between building, trees, poles, you name it-it’s nuts. There are few stop signs or traffic lights to help control traffic. I thought China streets were unsafe until I came here and now I will actually look forward to the quieter, more sane streets of Shanghai. Surprise! There is a place crazier than China when it comes to traffic and it’s Vietnam. I would still encourage you to visit but be prepared to be nimble and have nerves of steel if you want to cross ANY street in Hanoi, Vietnam. A glass or two of wine takes the edge off too!