Hanoi – more formal than Saigon, retaining its old French quarter

With approximately 8 million people living here, against Saigon’s 12 million, its not the relative scale but apparently the different personality of the people that gives Hanoi a unique feel. This shows in the more formal presentation and language, the less easy friendliness of my guides than experienced in the Sth. And fewer smiles on the face of people in the street, but the smiles are big and genuine when given. I’m told the distinctly different cold winter climate plays a part in this, and also ethnic differences. Certainly Saigon’s architecture and cityscape is more modern, with many more high rise commercial and residential buildings than Hanoi. While the Southerners complain about the imbalance of national development resources being invested heavily in the North (where political power resides), Saigon’s old French quarter is being progressively replaced by modernity.

The dominant Viet people make up 86% of VN’s population, with the balance spread across 53 different ethnic minority’s. Hanoi has an excellent Museum of Ethnology elaborating these differing heritages and cultural practices. Somewhat by chance my guide took me here when I declined the offer of queueing for at least 2 hours to pay my respects to Ho Chí Minh in his mausoleum. He was very impressed to learn that Jenny and I had seen the embalmed body of Lenin in Moscow in 1977. With that I think I trumped him – for while Uncle Ho is revered all over VN, foreigner Lenin is seen here as the all time Communist super star.

When I was driven into town after an evening arrival at the airport, there were many women selling flowers from motor cycles, push bikes and carry baskets. This was because ‘Teachers Day’ was imminent, where current and past students present gifts (at least a bunch of flowers) to teachers who have been significant in their education. My 23 year old guide goes out of his way each year travelling to give a gift to a teacher he says rescued him from a misguided path as a poor student.

Interesting to see Christmas decorations in some hotels and restaurants – I’ve even spotted a larger than life, plastic blowup Santa. As in all VN cities, most shops in any old quarter street specialise in one type of product or other – be it hardware, repairing motor bike seats, leather goods, etc. In one very colourful street, it’s Xmas decorations – presumably mainly catering to the Christian community.

There seem to be many more push bikes being routinely used in Hanoi than I’ve seen in other VN cities. And more ‘cyclo’ pedal bike taxis – catering not just to tourists but locals too. Where as size definitely rules in the law of the traffic jungle, it’s clear the traditional cyclos are respected, and so given right of way even by buses and trucks – this I experienced first hand as a cyclo passenger. As per normal, the margin of vehicle/pedestrian or vehicle/vehicle passing clearance is often just a couple of centimetres – seriously!

I’ve only seen old men reading newspapers. Everyone else has an iPhone or Android, if not conversing then seemingly constantly online – school kids, even many elderly people as they squat on the pavement – people as they drive their various vehicles one handed – police on guard duty at government buildings and soldiers at military bases. With 93 million people in the country the mind boggles imagining how many mobiles are out there. Generally, the internet network coverage and speed is excellent. And unlike in Australia – it’s free in all hotels, restaurants, shops, tourist transit vehicles – everywhere.

Passing the Australian Embassy, the outer wall displays posters of ‘Australiana’, including several still featuring our most recently deposed Prime Minister shown together with his local counterpart. ‘Scomo’ hasn’t made an impression up here yet.

One night I imagined people must be celebrating a religious feast day or significant political anniversary, as for several hours there were very excited and vocal people on motor bikes roaming the street in convoy, constantly tooting horns, all waving VN flags. Turns out that VN had just defeated Malaysia in a football match. I’m told they patriotically perform this way even when the national team loose a match! Our own excessively nationalistic Aussie Tennis Open ‘Fanatics’ are by comparison a non-event.

Thought I’d won a jackpot when I found a 2,000 denomination money note in the street today, till I realised its worth less than 10 cents Australian. No one else could be bothered picking it up.


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