In the wee hours of a November morning, driving through the rain-lashed roads from airport into the city of Hanoi, North Vietnam, the vague sense of familiarity refuses to go. Characterless concrete buildings line the highway. The infrastructure looks modest.
A timeless walk through Hanoi, Vietnam…
A visa can be applied at the Vietnamese consulate or embassy in your country of residence. If you are a busy man or do not have a Vietnamese embassy within reach, you can apply online. The online process takes normally upto a week for visa issue. An alternate site for the online process is www.vietnam-visa.com, however when we checked last Indian nationals are not listed in this site.
The e-visa takes 20$ for service fee by the agency and another 25$ as stamp fee payable at the passport counter. The online process is valid only for those entering visa through an airport. If you intend to enter by land, the former is the only process. Very few countries (mostly South East Asian) have visa on arrival. Please check if you are on the list.Two passport sized photographs of size 4x6 cms are mandatory.
And then, you enter the Old Quarter. Here, Hanoi feels quaint, cheerful and welcoming for a capital city and is best experienced on foot.
Believed to have been in existence since the 11th century, its 36 streets are said to have been bustling with traders, artisans and merchants selling silk, jewelry and other merchandise. Today, colourful bird cages dot its shop fronts. Flower vendors ride the streets in bicycles bursting with exotic flora. On the sidewalks, the Vietnamese play games, sell tea and even run makeshift hair salons as the busy traffic rushes past them. Souvenir shops, restaurants, bars and clothing stores hug the chaotic streets jammed with scooters and motorbikes of all possible makes and models. Walking aimlessly, you take in the smells of Vietnamese cooking that seem to mingle with everything that you see and hear.
History wraps you as you walk past old French buildings towards the city square overlooking the Hoan Kiem Lake. Emerging from the city’s frenzy in the dusky hours, you enter the serene environs of the ancient Ngoc Son Temple along the Lake. Hoan Kiem Lake which means ‘Lake of the Returned Sword’ has its share of legends going back to the 15thcentury. The great turtle and its species, around which the legends revolve, are believed to still reside in the waters of the lake. The only evidence of it is a stuffed turtle placed within the confines of the temple. Sitting in the temple’s courtyard, you transcend time, watching frail old men playing board games or simply staring at the lake and bonsais through clouds of burning incense.
As the evening deepens, go to the Thang Long water puppet theater. Walking along the lake’s bank, it is impossible to not feel classical Europe and ancient China staring down on us from the sides.
Thang Long, one of the few spaces in Vietnam to stage this traditional Vietnamese art form, offers visitors an unforgettable glimpse of rural Vietnam from a bygone time when rains were an integral part of life and the simple Vietnamese invented water puppetry as an art form to complement their living conditions. Through colorful themes and soulful music rendered using traditional instruments, the customs, folklore, festivities and myths of the Vietnamese people are narrated with the aid of wooden puppets in knee-deep water.
As you walk out of the theater late in the evening, awed by the spectacle just witnessed, the Hanoi night life sucks you in. Vibrant and alive with a heady mix of sights, sounds and smells, the pathways entice tourists with delightful street eats and potent local brews.
It is hard to remember the names of dishes. But their konji which is a very close cousin of the South Indian dish kanji, is delicacy and sometimes a relief too for those not into experimenting. Vegetarians will find it hard to find choice in the local menu while non-vegetarians are in for a heavenly treat every day any time of the day. The best options are on the street.
Its famous night market sells everything from clothes to stationery to all kinds of kicks and knacks, not to mention its food quarter selling cheap, delicious local meals and eats. Being a non-English speaking nation, communication takes on a primitive form with the spoken language becoming irrelevant. This makes for exhilarating purchase experiences, not just in Hanoi, but all across Vietnam. Bargains are struck with numbers being frantically punched into calculators by eager buyers and restless sellers. And a lot gets said through vigorous shaking of heads, affirmative nods and broad toothy grins.
A US dollar fetches 21,000 Vietnamese Dong. Hanoi is relatively very cheap to stay and dine. We stayed Hanoi City Hostel in the Old Quarter at less than 10$ per head per day. If you are not into fancy restaurants, one should easily be able pass the day with a satisfied diet with another 10$.
An enduring symbol of Vietnam’s pride in its history is the vast and impressively conceptualized Ho Chi Minh museum set in the vicinity of the city’s well-groomed political and bureaucratic section.
The museum is a part of the Ho Chi Minh complex comprising of the Dinh square, the Presidential Palace, the one-pillar pagoda and the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. A good part of the day can be spent in the complex exploring the life and stature of Vietnam’s most revered revolutionary leader, Ho Chi Minh. The Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first national university and a Confucian temple is now a heritage site. Built in 1070, the temple has passed through several dynasties, borrowing varied architectural influences over the years.
There is more history waiting at the imposing, Gothic-style, St. Joseph’s church, the oldest church in Hanoi believed to have been inspired by the Notre Dame itself. Within its tall confines, as the service ends, the streets start to light up and the pious quietly stream out. With the night setting in, the sidewalks around the church begin to come alive. Makeshift tables and plastic chairs are put out and the air fills with pulsating music, young chatter, the smell of beer and the clinking of tea cups, completely transforming the mood around the church grounds.
Well into the night, stumbling back to the hotel, Hanoi feels like a titillating Asian experience in a forgotten European city, drawing us into a thousand years of mystic past in the modern present.
Recommended Travel in Vietnam – On foot as most things are in and around the Old Quarter.