I love Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam. Like any Indian metropolis, the city’s lively atmosphere full of crowd, chaos and cacophony attracts me the most. The din and buzz teeming from the large human mass out in the streets gives me energy and a strong feel of life, particularly while wandering around Hoan Kiem Lake where Hanoi’s heart races, non-stop day and night. I always stay in this tourist friendly neighbourhood packed with hotels, restaurants and cafes.
At crack of dawn this domain is an open air gym with locals engaged in activities ranging from aerobics, tai chi and yoga to jogging, walking and playing badminton. As the sun rises, the neighbouring streets become food-corners with office goers, schoolchildren, workers and foodies like me sitting on plastic stools around cauldrons of steaming broth and other homemade treats for breakfast. Bustling continues during the day but at a leisurely pace with mothers pushing babies in prams, young couples romancing, seniors resting and busloads of visitors crowding for the lakeside scenery and a visit to the Ngoc Son Temple on a small island connected by the famous red-arched Sunbeam Bridge. Cadence picks up again after sundown when the atmosphere is frenzied with much larger crowd. The venue becomes a picnic ground and open-air stage of entertainment—circus, theatre and music. Party continues until early hours of the morning. Friendly locals welcome visitors to join, though at times language may pose a problem as many Vietnamese are not proficient in English.
Beyond this vibrant setting, what creates impression for me in Hanoi is its great mix of everything from old and new to communism and capitalism; from national hero Ho Chi Minh’s legacy sharing space with that of the French colonial rulers to traditional Vietnamese culture shaking hands with 21st century Western attributes. You can see old street markets pulling similar attention as glittering shopping malls and local culinary delights like rice noodle soup called Pho competing with KFC fried chicken.
This lake neighbourhood is certainly a great location to experience all of these.
For example, Hanoi’s famous old quarter is very close. Established in the 13th century with 36 streets, each selling a particular merchandise, this area still lives up to its reputation as a shoppers’ paradise with an eclectic mix of old-fashioned shops rivalling with new trendy outlets vending everything from clothes, shoes, jewellery, luggage to homeware, electronics, souvenirs and traditional medicines.
Red flag flatters everywhere in Hanoi telling Vietnam is communist, but presence of plush residential condominiums, flashy cars on streets, latest fashion in stores, funky parties at five-star hotels and lifestyle flooded with Gillette, Coke, Samsung, Apple, Nike and many alike create a pleasing contrast to proclaim the nation has moved on. And this feature draws visitors to this exotic destination to experience this transformation of lifestyle, which was totally unthinkable not that long ago.
But does this change make father of the nation Ho Chi Minh happy?
I ask him this question whenever I visit his Mausoleum at the historic Ba Dinh Square, which matches Moscow’s Red Square and Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in status. It was from here in 1945 that Ho Chi Minh declared freedom from the French, thought it didn’t come straightaway. This sprawling site holds many of his memoirs like his “House of Stilts” standing close to Beaux style French Presidential Palace. After his death in 1969, his body was preserved in a glass coffin inside the Mausoleum, a colossal granite structure guarded by white uniformed military. It’s a site of pilgrimage for Vietnamese people and Hanoi’s most tourist haunted location. Public are allowed to go inside for a quick but respectful glimpse. Attired in white clothes, he lies peacefully with his hands cast on his chest and as expected doesn’t answer my question ever. Presumably he thinks I know his answer!
Getting there: Fly Cathay Pacific (cathaypacific.com) via Hong Kong to Hanoi
Accommodation: Plenty of budget choices but to experience survival of colonial grandeur and elegance you must stay at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi (sofitel.com).