Today I arrived in Hanoi – the capital of Vietnam, its second largest city, and a great blend of East and West. “With Chinese influence from centuries of dominance and French design from its colonial past, Hanoi is largely unspoiled by modern architecture of the 1970s and 80s, and is now going through a modernization that is making it a rising star in Southeast Asia.”
The visa process wasn’t as intimidating as Cambodia but you apply in advance and just complete one short form and provide a photo at the airport. It seemed like we went over a ton of bridges on the way to the hotel but it was dark outside and hard to get a real picture of things. People who know Hanoi say it is full of wonderful contrasts including wide boulevards lined by trees and beautiful colonial buildings in the French quarter, a maze of narrow streets in the Old Quarter, and the tranquil lakes. Few buildings in the city center are higher than five stories. Like in Phnom Penh the background noise is the constant buzzing of motorbikes crowding the streets.
In spite of the many battles that took place here Hanoi has remained the capital of Vietnam for more than a thousand years – through “invasions, occupations, restorations, and name changes”. Vietnam’s first western-style universities are in Hanoi and it’s the center of scientific study and research in the country.
“The Old Quarter is second only to Hoi An for uninterrupted stretches of colonial and pre-colonial architecture, well-preserved on dense warrens of narrow, wonderfully atmospheric streets. It trades the commercial boom and sprawl of Ho Chi Minh City in the South for a more understated charm and with countless transport options and travel agents, it makes a perfect base for exploration of the North.”
My hotel is in the Old Quarter and tomorrow I’ll begin exploring the area. The Vietnamese are very friendly and the weather is much cooler than Cambodia so I’m looking forward to a break from heat.
I will spend some time exploring Hanoi and then it’s to Halong Bay on January 3 and on January 7 I take the Unification Express south toward Hue – eventually ending in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City).