The Old Quarter in Hanoi must be what it feels like to live inside a hive. Along these narrow streets lined with hotels, houses, shops and restaurants runs the energetic stream of motorcycles and people – tourists, merchants and residents – in a pace that is constant and vibrant.
Five in the morning and already it is on the move. Store shutters are opening up to reveal elders pushing out their bicycles past people that are gathering in the streets. They sit on little stools and eat Pho in bowls while the steam hides their cheeks and conical hats cover their eyes.
By mid-morning the district is bustling and vendors show us their wares. All the shops are narrow because having a wide house is expensive so they stretch around streets, some just wide enough to fit in three people shoulder to shoulder. Most of them are specialty shops – this shop only sells coffee in jars upon jars and the aroma of the butter roasted beans fills every nook. There is a shop that sells only herbs across a store that has a collection of antique Russian watches. My favorite is the one with old propaganda posters. There are portraits of Uncle Ho here. It is still winter and the fog lingers throughout the day. An outdoor mall built in the mist, what a concept.
Be prepared to haggle because it is perfectly alright. “How much you want? This one, I`ll sell to you for ten dollars. You buy from me because it`s good for me, my first customer and I give you good price.” “How about six dollars?” “Ok, ok, I sell to you for seven, that is good price my friend.” the vendor says with a smile. Not everyone is friendly though like the vendor who sells wonderful little carved stamps. “No, no, no, no, no photos!” She says and then grunts out prices as we ask her how much she sells them for.
The food here is amazing. Some call it one of the best places to dine in the world. There is a strong French influence and there are restaurants that serve Indian, Chinese and European cuisine too. What we came here to try, of course, is Vietnamese food. The Pho, fried rice, shrimp, crispy battered squid, cold chicken, spring rolls, steamed clams in lemongrass. They sell them on the streets and in restaurants with names that I can`t really recall. Pho sot vang, Com chien toi, Muc tam bot chien gion, Ngheu hap xa, something like that. Most of the words are monosyllabic. Hanoi is actually Ha Noi and Vietnam, Viet Nam. We are ignorant foreigners.
To get around, we always walk. And we are always wary of the motorcycle traffic. They gush out of streets and crossings, even through sidewalks. A flood of two-wheeled organisms, honking unceasingly as if bickering and bordering on rage. They tell us to be steadfast, to always move forward and never step back. The motorcycles avoid you, and not the other way around. Even then, I still get brushed by a few motorists, but no big deal, it`s part of the charm.
We visit the temples and learn about their legends including the one about the ancient order of the guardians of Ha Noi, in Bach Ma Temple. They are still here and it is very interesting. They sip tea, smoke incense and stroke their white beards.
It’s the end of the day and we find the Municipal Water Puppet Theatre and buy tickets to the water puppet show. It is an art form made in this part of the world and it is charming and fascinating. Next time we will get tickets for front row, where the puppets are nearer and there is a chance to get splashed.