We have come to Hanoi for the May Day weekend. For us it is an escape from three days in Singapore where there is not a lot new for us to do. For the Vietnamese it is a celebration of the end of years of war as Saigon fell on 30 April 1974. We were last here ten years ago on a family trip around Vietnam and since then a lot has changed, and not just in our family. There is still the crazy mass of motorbikes, often carrying four passengers, rickshaws and tuc-tucs but there are more cars on the road, the shops are smarter and people seem friendlier.
We have not really come to do anything in particular. A bit of shopping, some tailoring for Vicky, a few presents for friends. What is really fun is immersing ourselves in the life of the city. We are staying in a rather small room in a grand hotel (the Apricot) by the Hoan Kiem lake in the middle of the Old Quarter of the city. Stepping out the door you can either wander around the narrow streets, browsing in the shops, dodging motorbikes on the pavement and dropping into a cafe for a bowl of pho and a beer, or you can stroll around the lake where half of Hanoi appear to have come to relax. There are selfies galore as friends and couples pose in front of the water or the spring flowers, men are pumping iron at a makeshift waterside gym, dudes on guitars are strumming, a group of old women exercising.
Lots of people stop and talk to us. A one legged woman, about our age, who works as a translator and supplements this by selling postcards and guiding at weekends. She tells us that she lost her leg to a bomb in the war. An old man of 92 with his family wishing us luck. People we share benches with try out their English. There are a few hawkers trying to sell us hats or pop-up cards but not aggressively. These are not the aggressive traders that we met in Laos, a couple of hundred km away, or if they are then they are on best holiday behaviour! On Saturday evening we are out again and now it is really packed with families everywhere and big crowds browsing the night market along Hang Dao, north of the lake.
The biggest draw for groups of friends and families alike are the ice cream stalls. Motorbikes pull up on pavements and people crowd around the counters to buy cornets or bright green lollies and then stand around chatting as they eat them. Walking along Trang Tien towards the Opera on Sunday morning we come across a big crowd of ice cream eaters and some stalls down an alley inside the building where people ride in on their bikes and policemen try to make sure that no one gets run over.
When we reach the opera house there is a big crowd of people standing on the steps waving banners. It sounds like bagpipes are playing but on closer inspection it is an old dude with an electric violin. We weave past rather disinterested police and talk to some of the protesters. For the past couple of weeks thousands of dead fish have been washing up along the coast of central Vietnam. Locals think that this is due to contamination from a waste pipe from a Taiwanese company - Formosa Steel. "Formosa get out of Vietnam" say the placards although apparently the accusations may not be solid - the Government is claiming that a red tide - heavy algal blooms that starve the sea of oxygen - may be to blame.
When we were here in 2006 we toured the streets of the old quarter in bicycle rickshaws. We remember the lanes given over to different trades - shoes in one, tin pots and pans in another, gold and silver in another. Much of this appears to have gone as shops have turned to selling tourist goods, fancy brands (some fake some not) or becoming tourist cafes. The silk street still sells and tailors silk and after a few misses we find a very good shop where Vicky gets a jacket copied in 24 hours. We also find a street of bookshops (below) - packed with familes buying books - Vietnam has one of the highest standards of education in the world. "What about a street for jewellery and pearls?" we ask our concierge; "there are a few shops still" she replies "but now most people go to the mall. Just like the rest of Asia.
Food is as important to everyday life in Hanoi as it is elsewhere in Asia. Folks sit on little plastic chairs on pavements eating bowls of Pho - usually beef and noodles in a broth with added herbs, onion, lime and chilli sauce if you want it spicy. For breakfast they add deep fried rice sticks. We visited Pho 10 on Ly Quoc Su - a very popular local joint - twice. We wanted Vietnamese food in a bit more comfort for dinner. Our first shot - Gia Ngu restaurant - was OK but very Westernised. Nicely presented traditional dishes but without much wow factor. On Sunday night we head for Madame Hien - another tourist favourite in a beautifully restored colonial house with courtyard off a side street. Despite the tourists the food, cooked by a former head chef at the famous Metropolitan hotel, was excellent and service and ambiance also great.
So a great long weekend break. A comfortable and relaxing hotel (we have a joint massage and our two masseures chat and giggle quietly as they work), lovely people, interesting streets and shops and good food. Now back to Singapore for a quick turnaround before heading off to work in Sydney for a few days...