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On Missing Hanoi

On Missing Hanoi

*This article was first published in Apr-May 2017 edition of World Travel Magazine.

Hauntingly beautiful Hanoi and Ha Long Bay are brimming memories and nostalgic old-world charm—a last glimpse as Vietnam speeds into the future.

Hanoi offers a rare opportunity to witness old-world charm as it morphs with the future. The bare elements for sustenance—from the nomadic fruit seller to the street cart vendors—remain in the labyrinth tree-lined corridors of the French colonial Old Quarter, as they have for centuries. Meanwhile, if you open the Uber app in the Old Quarter, hundreds of little Uber-mopeds icons swarm like honeybees to your vicinity. But seeing the city of Hanoi is not complete without a drive out to the famous UNESCO Site, Ha Long Bay, to see first hand, the postcard perfect limestone isles of Ha Long Bay.

I first knew Hanoi through my friend, Kim-Ly’s eyes long before I had even Googled the city. She moved from the bustling warmth of Hanoi ten years before to a sleepy suburb in cold Canada and was terribly homesick. She described her hometown with admirable pride and nostalgia: the saturation of colour, the people and vibrancy; the French influence on cuisine, namely the baguette sandwich, reinterpreted as banh mi; and her longing for traditional foods, such as pho, bun nem, or banh tom, prepared on almost every street corner.

When I told her that I would be visiting Hanoi for a few days, she sent me a list of her favourite places: the Old Quarter (Hoan Kiem), the Temple of Literature (Temple of Confucius), Dong Xuan market, Ngoc Son Temple, and the UNESCO site, Ha long Bay. And she wanted a photo of the home she grew up in, the last place she had lived before moving to Canada.

From the airport, Hanoi immediately unfolds with ever more saturated colours the closer you get to the city-center. Storefronts painted in blues, orange, yellows flowed by like a living chromatic filter. Crisscrossing the lush tree-lined streets seemed thousands of people on scooters, bicycles and motorcycles, squeezing between lanes, all in a hurry to start the evening. But all that motion and the exciting, dense and chaotic melting pot of activity suddenly fell away when I arrived at the quiet French colonial splendour of the Sofitel Legend Metropole.

The award winning, neo-classical hotel—noted for its white façade trimmed with green shutters—is one of the top properties to stay at in Hanoi. There were other hotels I was interested in: the lakefront rooms at the Intercontinental Westlake Hanoi, and the 65-story view from contemporary, Lotte Hotel – but I had my heart set on the Metropole located only steps away from the Opera House and Old Quarter.

To my surprise, and Kim Ly’s, many of the streets of Hanoi were filled with new funky coffee shops, fusion restaurants and women dressed in hip outfits. Next door to the Metropole is a Prada store, among other designer shops (very tempting). But I stayed focused. A short walk took me to Hoan Kiem Lake with Ngoc Son Temple, located on a small semi-island, accessible by a bright red bridge. It was such an eye-catching vista I immediately sent a photo to Kim Ly. She replied, disappointed, “Oh, the bridge has been painted…it used to be white.”

The Old Quarter delightfully consumed my first day in Hanoi. It was like stepping back a hundreds years. Here you have the rare luxury of witnessing hints of old world charm – which may sadly give way to relentless modernisation. A condensed cultural enclave, the Old Quarter has about forty narrow tree-lined streets dating back to the 13th century. There are well-preserved shop-houses selling anything from Vietnamese handicrafts, silk—on Silk Street (Hang Gai) – as well as restaurants and bars. There is even an area dedicated to Bamboo. I spent an hour mesmerised by the twenty-foot stalks slouching in massive piles against the storefronts on Ladder Street (Hang Vai). On the way back I made sure to walk past the Opera House, an architectural landmark of French colonialism. Despite having all intentions to continue sightseeing before enjoying a meal at either the Red Bean Trendy Restaurant, or at the newly renovated Press Club’s La Tabl du Chef by 2 Michelin-star chef, Alain Dutourier, I ended up back at the Metropole. Weary from my wanderings, I decided on an early dinner of pizza and tiramisu at the hotel’s Bamboo Bar. Set in the hotel’s lush garden courtyard, with wide fans sweeping above, the Bamboo Bar is reminiscent of days gone by when nineteenth century actors and writers, Charlie Chaplin, Somerset Maugham, and Graham Greene roamed the halls.

A 6am the next morning, I headed out for Ha Long Bay (translation: where the dragon descends into the sea), which is a 3.5 – 4 hour journey from Hanoi. The highway was lined with brightly coloured super-skinny buildings, twenty-stories high, with an occasional unmatched spontaneous structure built on top. These lanky structures marked the orange sunrise skyline like painted piano keys.

Although Kim Ly advised me to hop on a bus for $20, I decided to hire a day-trip private tour—which included an SUV, a driver, a tour guide, and a private boat tour through the bay. There are other options, many people love the overnight luxury boat rides such as Auco, operated by Bhaya Cruise Company, that feature beautifully appointed rooms with your own balcony. For this visit, I wanted to be on the traditional old-style type of boat, which I had all to myself. It was glorious and tranquil.

flower vendor in Old Quarter

However, there’s no way around it, Ha Long Bay is teeming with tourists. Over 6 million visit each year. That’s said, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. Ha Long Bay lived up to every photo I had ever seen. Nearly two thousand jagged limestone karsts and isles dot 1500km2 of the turquoise bay. My favourite spot was at Ti Top Island. After the steep climb, up many steps – probably 50 steps more than I had hoped for – there is a shaded gazebo to enjoy the panoramic view of Ha Long Bay, making the extra effort of lugging a DSLR camera entirely worth it. I watched the boats whiz around the tiny green moss covered rock islands until a haze settled in. It was time to return.

On the way back, I asked my tour guide about the boat people Kim Ly had told me about—a distinct group that live on the water and often come around selling fruit on tiny boats. “They have been moved to the mainland and trained to do other jobs,” he told me, adding, “There is one floating market that is used for selling during the day only, and one last, floating village many hours away.”

Once I got back to the city I had one more thing to do before departing: find Kim Ly’s old apartment building and take a photo. My driver took me to the address, but it was covered with scaffolding—only a shell of a building remained. I took a photo anyway, but paused on sending it.

For my last night in Vietnam, I stayed in West Hanoi, at the five-star JW Marriott, known for its modern design, its popular French Grill restaurant, and its considerable size— enough to host large corporate conferences. Raised on a hill, this striking piece of futuristic architecture offers views of the distant city-center. Before dinner, I walked outside of the hotel for one last look at Hanoi and considered if I should send Kim Ly the photo. Are memories left better intact, especially ones of a childhood home? In the distance I could see a mother and her daughter, passing a local noodle café, wondering if they should stop. Above were blazing smears of a pink and orange sunset stretched across the sky—Kim Ly had said that there was nothing quite like the evening sky in Hanoi—at least that hadn’t changed.


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