The Diplomat, Isla, Joshua, and I are off to Hanoi! Vietnam…a land that seeps into the Western consciousness through the Hollywood puff of movies like ‘Apocalypse Now’, ‘Good Morning Vietnam’, ‘Platoon’, ‘Forest Gump’. A country that is still is mired in the self-flagellation of American guilt. Given my burgeoning awareness that Asia isn’t at all like the movies, it was high time we sampled the exquisite delight of a country that, by all reports of those who had recently been, was a fusion of French colonialism and Asian culture, imbued with a strong pot of national pride and a reverence for Ho Chi Minh. Perhaps its streets would be closer to the Bangkok I imagined I would be living in?
Vietnam….a country of soaring mountains, emerald rice paddies of the Mekong, stunning coastline with the prize jewel of Ha Long Bay. A country echoing to the sounds of car horns and mopeds. A land that moves at a slower pace, has great coffee, and a populace that is genuinely friendly. Hanoi, its capital, still clings stubbornly to its role as a grandee of the Orient; the exotic melee of the Old and French quarters hold at bay the consumerist urbanization that has gripped the likes of Bangkok.
It is a place where you can get a croissant as good as any in Paris, stroll through a hotel like the Metropole with its colonial footprint and glittering array of visiting superstars, eat cheaply of passion-fruit, avocado, and pho noodles, and then hop into a cyclo on a grand tour. Why would we not go to such a place? We board an empty Thai Airways flight and head north for 90 minutes. As we fly over the carpet of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam I am able to appreciate a patchwork of ochre fields and green forests. Every so often a ribbon of muddy waters cuts through the landscape.
We arrive at Noi Bai International airport where it is overcast (it remains that way for our entire trip), yet humid, and get ready for a journey to the Old Quarter.The ride makes a journey though Bangkok looks like an advert for H&S. We see two accidents, there is no concept of giving way at junctions. Everyone just rushes in their vehicle for the centre ground, people stopping and honking horns, good-natured nods of the head. Helmets have become the legal norm in this Socialist Republic…trying to keep the number of deaths on the road down. Eventually, we crawl into the old Quarter – a higgedly-piggledly warren of two story buildings – the ground floor is crammed with shop fronts selling everything you want; Western chains are conspicuous by their absence…no MacDonalds, no Starbucks. If you keep your eyes firmly at ground level you are going to be dazzled by a glut of factory made tat mixed in with genuine craft goods. If you walk around with your eyes on the first floor and upwards you’ll see a crumbling facade of colonial architecture crisscrossed with billions of black threads – power lines.
We crawl into the Essence Hotel – the number one hotel on Trip Advisor – for a darn good reason given its centrality, amazing customer service and family feel – three star that feels like four star+ quality. Shrugging off suitcases, car seats et al. we venture out into the honking cacophony of Hanoi, heading straight for Hoan Kiem Lake – the heartland of Hanoi.
Hoan Kiem lake reputedly has a 200+ year old tortoise (named Cu Rua) swimming around in it but, suspiciously, has the appearance rate to match the Loch Ness Monster. Legend purports that in the mid 15th century Emperor Ly Thai To had a sword that he used to force the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day he came across a giant golden tortoise whilst on the lake who grabbed the sword and returned it to the Gods – Hoan Kiem means Lake of the Restored Sword. We run the gauntlet of traffic – the trick in Vietnam is to walk into the traffic slowly but constantly; the vehicles will just go round you. A trifle unnerving for the westerner used to clearly marked crossing and lights but it seems to work well – and have a look at Ngoc Son Temple which is connected to the north-western corner of the lake by a short red arched bridge. It is full of tourists, has a grand temple and the mummified remains of another turtle. A little further on we come across Thap Rua, an inaccessible shrine in the middle of the lake but one which is a common spot for newly weds to be photographed with.
It is time to head to St Joseph’s Cathedral – a Roman Catholic neo-Gothic edifice constructed in 1882, after the French army conquered Hanoi. The cathedral and Nha Chung area were built on the land formerly belonging to Bao Thien pagoda. To get there we jump into a cyclo and take a journey through the streets of Hanoi…it looks a little something like this…
We have arrived at St Joseph’s Cathedral….but that is another story…
Is this what diplomacy is all about?