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Published: October 24th 2014
Our base for this leg of the trip has been right bang in the middle of the bustling old quarter of Hanoi. Fortunately we had arranged a pick up, we would never have found the hotel otherwise. Places like this need time to wander round in order to get a sense of where you are. The old quarter is what it says on the label, the original Hanoi. Narrow streets, jam packed with people, shops, pavement stalls and vehicles. Movement is almost by negotiation, weighing up what is going where before making your move.
Arriving on a Saturday meant that in addition to normal business there was the night market also, with the middle of the roads occupied with market stalls. Obviously mostly geared up for the tourist business with all the usual tat. It's amazing how so many stalls selling the same products make a living, but they obviously do. In amongst the stalls were a vast array of street food, the cheapest way of eating, at least half the price of the permanent eateries and no reduction in food quality. The only drawback (minor) is that to eat you sit on tables and chairs that normally we would
only find in a nursery school - brightly coloured plastic and titchy. After a frenzied first night's skirmish it was good to withdraw to bed. Even though our room was only one floor above street level fortunately the double glazing kept out the noise of it all.
The following morning, refreshed and fuelled we set out to get further afield. Just North of the old quarter is Hoan Kiem lake, a feature in the city since the 15th century. Wandering around there was much less frenetic. Interestingly as we did so we were intercepted several times by young Vietnamese students who wanted to practise their English. "Where are you from, what is your name, how long have you been in Vietnam?" They were keen to learn and a delight to talk to.
The Vietnamese Women's Museum was an interesting place to drop in on. Setting out to show the place of women in Vietnamese society, both now and in the past. Particularly interesting was the explanation around the many women street vendors that are to be seen on a daily basis. Many are from the countryside where life is so poor that families can barely make ends meet.
So, the mums head to the city to try and make money that they send home to support the family. To accomplish this they probably live with several other women in maybe one room, get to a vegetable market at 4.00am, every day, then wander city trying to sell their produce. It is a harsh existence to say the least.
After a few hours R&R our second outing, in the early evening, got us to Friends Travel, a tour operator in the heart of the old quarter. Run by Sydney, Mrs Sydney and Eric. A really friendly and informative operation. We were looking for something that would help us to make sense of this manic city. They suggested their "walkie talkie tour".. This is just as it says, a tour of the city, wearing a walkie, talkie with earpiece, connected up to the tour guide. So in the hustle and bustle of the city you can clearly hear the guide's commentary and ask him questions. As a tour this was a great idea. We were able to learn so much about the old quarter, its layout, architecture and functions. The old quarter had originally been several tiny villages, each with its own temple, housing and function. So one bit would have been the chicken village, another the silver smith village, the medicine village and so on. Today the streets reflect that with pretty much all the shops in one particular street having the same function. The guide was also able to show us the diversity that now exists within the old quarter, where some areas show signs of real prosperity and other areas much poorer.
Friends Travel also gave us heads up on two other worthwhile destinations within Hanoi, The Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Quite a contrast between the two. The Temple dates back to the eleventh century, when it had been dedicated to Confucius, ye ancient university. The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, on the other hand, very much 20th century, considered by many Vietnamese as the holiest of holies. For most of the year the mausoleum holds the body of Ho Chi Minh, in a glass sarcophagus. Our visit fell within the 3 month period that the embalmed body gets taken to Russia for a "holiday". Although the main man wasn't there the museum dedicated to his life and struggle to unify the country and bring peace was fascinating, well worth the time spent wandering around.
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