Hanoi was immediately recognizable as a more modern city than the rest what I've seen of Vietnam. There were many cars on the streets, there were less shanty shacks and more tall buildings, there were large bridges, a railroad, cleaner streets. There were mountains visible in the near distance and I liked it immediately. There was a lot of water, big bodies of water like lakes and wide rivers. There were people hanging around parks, having picnics, fishing from the shore wall, parked with their scooters under shady trees, and I thought that this would be a very fun city to live in. There are less mosquitoes and less geckos.
The building architecture here is as impressive as Saigon, only there's more of it since there are less shacks. I would love to come back some day with a guide and a tilt/shift lens and do a whole book on the architecture of Vietnam. The lines are so clean, the space is more... I don't know how to describe it... less monotonous than even the Victorians of San Francisco, which I love.
Another thing I noticed about Hanoi is there was art. Art had been mostly absent on my journey so far, except mass media like TV and ads which aren't a direct expression of the local people. Other than architecture there have been only small examples of art. Thu's manicure paintings which she had samples of. A man with a flute, a man with a guitar. Tien singing. But here in Hanoi, art is prominent. There are tiled mosaics along boulevards, many Chinese influenced decorations, and martial arts as well, but I'll get to that later.
The Hanoi tour started at the airport with a family of 8 and an older Vietnamese couple from France. I was the only white person, the only English speaker except our guide. He told me that we were going to pick up two more people then head out for some sights. We found our way to a hotel and found our two other people, a Vietnamese man in his 20's and his wife, a drop-dead gorgeous, beautiful Vietnamese girl with a figure that could start wars.
We drove on and came upon an old school of eastern philosophy. Around the outside of the school walls there were men with mirrors hanging off of trees or the wall itself giving people haircuts on the sidewalk. Inside the school there were Vietnamese, French and English translations of plaques describing what the school was about, but all of the original text was in traditional Chinese. I hadn't been aware of the heavy Chinese influence in Vietnamese culture until I came to Vietnam, but it's everywhere.
We went on to have lunch and I was seated at the end of one table. Next to me were the man and his beautiful wife, and to my surprise he greeted me in English. I asked him about it and he said he didn't speak English fluently, but had been living in Florida with his wife for several years. Then she began speaking to me in perfect English. She was a Vietnamese American, born in the south of Vietnam and raised in Miami. She wondered why on earth I joined a tour without a translator and I thought about Tien.
After lunch we went to the hotel. I got my key and went to my room on the second floor and discovered why this tour might have been more expensive than I had thought. This room was nice. It had a refrigerator in it. The refrigerator had beer and coke and bottled water in it. There was a bath tub with warm running water. There was air conditioning, but it didn't seem to be working. In fact nothing electronic except the refrigerator seemed to be working.
I later found out that they have this ingenious mechanism in this hotel where all non-essential electronics are hooked to one circuit and all essential electronics are hooked to another. When you enter the room you insert the room key into a little slot and this turns on the non-essential circuit. When you leave you take your key and all of the lights, TV, fan, etc. turn off. I imagine this is pretty important in a city where the power lines are in such atrocious conditions. I even saw a a power junction pole on fire yesterday.
I didn't know this about the electricity yet though, but that did not stop me from cracking open a Tiger beer, running a hot bath and relaxing in the tub under the light of a LED flashlight that Igor bought for me before I left. It was wonderful. I hadn't had a beer or a bath since before leaving America a week and a half ago.
The tour continued at 4pm and we went to another pagoda with a shrine inside of it. There are shrines everywhere around here. In Binh Hoa I saw something that looked like a doghouse, but really it was a small shrine.
We had dinner on the waterfront at a good restaurant, a modern restaurant, and there was a wedding reception going on. I saw the first Mercedes Benz since I'd been in VN. I walked along the shore wall and found several dead fish floating in the water and was glad I didn't see this before dinner.
After dinner we went back to the hotel and I was thinking about going out on the town for a while. Hanoi is rad and I really wanted to go out and see more of it on my own, but alas the lack of good sleep caught up to me and I drifted off on the king sized bed and slept for nearly 10 hours.
When I awoke at 5am the sun was already up beyond the trees and buildings and morning light was diffusing off the sky into the park across the street where 50 or so people were doing thai chi or some such. I took a shower, took some photos of the building, organized my backpack a little, and looked outside again to see even more people in the park. They were playing badmitton on the sidewalk, doing martial arts, thai chi, and dancing. What an interesting place Hanoi is... I hope to come back some day.
In 30 minutes we will leave for Ha Long bay, which is ~200km away.
I still haven't found free WiFi in Vietnam.