Motorbike Mayhem and Cultural Pleasantries

It is a spur of the moment decision as four friends decide to go on a jaunt. Destination Vietnam. Objective: Fun times and fab food.

Lời chào. Our local guide, Viet Van (not kidding) greets us as we disembark at the Noi Bai airport in Hanoi, Vietnam’s northern capital. The temperature outside is a cool 18C although the excitement is heating up for us. Determined to make this an adventure of sites, sights and sounds, we are ready to explore.

After checking into the Santa Barbara Hotel, we leave to Hanoi’s famed Old Quarter. But first we battle the motorcycle mayhem. With over five million motorbikes in Hanoi alone, the sight of a swarm of motorbikes coming at me is overwhelming. “Don’t look back. Don’t falter. Just keep walking,” instructs Viet. Easier said than done, I whisper to myself, heart in hand as I cautiously cross the busy street. Remarkably, the riders are so well focused and balanced, that they avoid collisions and sail past. Many balance up to six passengers, dogs, merchandise, babies, baskets and other goods on their bikes.

The Old Quarter or the ‘36 Streets’ is wedged between the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake, the walls of the ancient citadel and the levies of the Red River. It is called 36 Streets because the Quarter was once popular for various commodities sold by businesses down each street: medicine, jewelry, fans, chicken, clothing, copper, lacquerware etc.

With the French colonisation of Vietnam in the late 19th century, there is still a lot of French influence to be seen here. From the architecture to the cuisine, language and dress, France has definitely left its mark on Vietnam. Many of Hanoi’s tree-lined boulevards, the colourful villas, the ornate churches, hotels and grand government buildings have a distinctive French feel, despite the French having left over 50 years ago.

Much to our delight, Vietnamese coffee, which was introduced by the French, has become an integral part of Vietnamese culture now. The local brew is strong and served with a bottom layer of sweet condensed milk. Yum! In fact, Vietnam is the second largest coffee-producing nation in the world.

Taking in all of this information, we head to the Hoan Kiem Lake, located in the Old Quarter. Amass with tourists, this site is obviously a must-see. According to legend, in mid 15th century, heaven sent Emperor Ly Thai To a magical sword, which he used to chase away the Chinese from Vietnam. After the war, a giant golden turtle had grabbed the sword and disappeared into the depths of this lake to restore it to its divine owners. Hence the name Ho Hoan Kiem: the Lake of the Restored Sword.

Apart from the golden Turtle, which represents longevity and perfection, Vietnamese venerate the Dragon, which is considered a symbol of power and nobility, the Unicorn, which represents intelligence and goodness, and the Phoenix considered a paragon of virtue and grace.

We walk along a wooden red bridge known as the Huc Bridge (Morning Sunlight Bridge) to the Jade Island where the Temple of the Jade Mountain (Ngoc Son Temple) lies. Erected in the 18th century, this temple was built to honour a 13th century military leader Tran Hung Dao who fought against the Yuan Dynasty, the scholar Van Xuong, and Confucian master Nguyen Van Sieu.

Despite the crowds, it is easy to feel a sense of peace and contentment in this temple of jade. The burning incense, the piles of ‘dragon’ fruit, the flowers and devout followers tiptoe quietly, enjoying the feeling of blessed contentment. I sit awhile in the garden overlooking the Lake amidst impressive bonsai plants and watch two aged Vietnamese men play a game of ‘Xiangqi’, also known as Chinese chess. Little by little a crowd of onlookers gather around these two strategists as they try to outwit each other.

No visit to Hanoi is complete without a ride through the Old Quarter in an open-air buggy. We wing our way through narrow streets bustling with traders selling everything from Christmas décor to adventure sports goods. The streets were teeming with shoppers, the shops were overflowing with goods, and the goods are in every possible shape, size and colour.

I am amazed at this modern day Vietnam. The people are warm and friendly. The city is bustling at any time of the day. The shopping is amazing. And the food is delectable.

We end our day at a water puppet show, a tradition that dates back to the 11th century where it originated in the villages of the Red River Delta. The wooden puppets are deftly manipulated with large bamboo rods in waist deep water.

Day one has been perfect!

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