Hanoi city, the major city in north Vietnam, is an extremely polluted and noisy city, an endless stream of motorbikes. To cross the streets looks like a sure suicide attempt until you realize that you simply have to do it, to take a deep breath and step into the street with full confidence that nothing will happen. And it works. The bikes are simply passing smoothly by in full speed, to the left and to the right, and you arrive to the other side feeling high from having conquered yet another fear.
Once we get used to the massive noise and traffic all around, we start discovering the real pumping energy of Hanoi , The Revolution Lives! Or so it seems like on the billboards and flashing lights of Hanoi, alongside red flags with yellow star or yellow hammer-and-sickle. These are reminders that no matter what economic activity you see going on around you, Vietnam is still a communist state.
Not surprisingly, Hanoi, like the rest of Vietnam, is full of young people. About 70% of the population was born after the end of the war in 1975. With peace came a baby boom. Youth and energy are the signs of the new Vietnam, and this is on display in Hanoi. This may also explain what still seems like a small number of upscale restaurants, shops and bars, although most young people under 33 generally dont earn lots of money, yet they dominate the city and the night life scene that seem very colorful and vivid everywhere, especially in the old quarter.
To broaden our understanding to more than motorcycle culture, we decide to spend one afternoon at the the Ethnic Museum ( www.vme.org.vn )
where we can see and learn about the different traditional ways of living of the 54 separate ethnic groups of Vietnam, most of them located in North Vietnam. Colorful handwoven clothes, handcrafted tools and beautifully crafted houses, especially impressive are the open ones built on massive timber stilts.
The famous water puppet performance (www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org) at thenorthen side of the Ho Hoan Kiem lake in the old quarter is also a special experience, an busy tourists-attraction, but still worth the visit.
It is a very unique North-Vietnamese theatre-art, with colorful wooden puppets appearing in a stage of water which is beautifully lit, accompanied by live traditional music. All puppets are maneuvered with long sticks from under water, by very skilled performers who are standing behind a screen up to their waist in water during the whole play, often 2-3 persons cooperating on moving one Of the huge puppets in order to make its movement as alive as possible. The often funny dramas are based on old traditional legends and historic tales, and the water puppets were originally an important part of festivals celebrating the end of the rice-season, played for the water spirits in the rice-fields.
The old town in the city-centre which is sprawling around the Ho Hoan Kiem Lake is strongly dominated by western exclusive shops, as well as tourist restaurants of all kinds, and this seem to create a common rule to ask for at least double price in general for anything sold on the street or at least if you have a western look. Ok. It is fine and even fair to pay somewhat higher than locals, but its hard to digest 2- 3 times higher then the normal price. But to bargain the price down with 20-30% is far from easy, the Vietnamese are tough traders.
It is still possible though to find cheap food by small local stalls on the street, where you can get tasty noodle-soup and more, feeling like Alice in Wonderland since you eat your food sitting on extremely small childrens chairs and low small tables spread out on the sidewalk. Definitely Vietnamese size.
Getting around in Hanoi centre is possible by foot, the city is not really big. If you need to get a bit further out, taxi is the best option since pulic transport is less accessible. The Hanoi taxis are notorious though for taking tourists on longer rides than necessary, but the companies Hanoi Taxi and May Linh (slightly cheaper) is known to be quite trustworthy.
Saturday evening and the city is bubbling with people, packed everywhere with pedestrians, bicycles, bikes and cars in a big chaos on the street. It turns out it is the celebration of Ho Chi Minh’s birth day, an important figure in the history of Vietnam, being a revolutionary, fighting for independence from the French in 1954.
We are pushed in all directions and try to find a way out, and suddenly Offer discover with a shock that the pouch around his waist is wide open! A women shouts something to us in Vietnamese and points a few meters away where we see our passports spread out on the ground! Hectic search to see if anything is stolen, but luckily enough all is there, the passports were obviously of no interest and quickly thrown away.
Wow! What an incredible luck! This was a huge warning to be more aware, and to carefully close the pouch with a lock in crowded places so it cannot be opened.
Tired of traffic noise and overcharging vendors, we decide that we better get out of the city as soon as possible, far away from the tourist tracks which seems to dominate this part of North Vietnam with everybody going the same route up to Sapa in the North and Halong Bay by the coast. Beautiful places, but totally controlled by the tour-companies with their ready-made packages, and very few travelers seem to dare to do it differently. So, how to find an alternative? We decide to go all the way to very North of Vietnam, Ha Giang, Dong Van and Meo Vac, where permit are still needed and there are hardly any tourist traveling there yet.
Public transport is scarce and not very accessible, the solution seem to be to create our own adventure, to set off with motorbikes! Real freedom.