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“Don’t panic,” I tell myself as I watch what seems to be an endless wall of unyielding scooters rushing down the boulevard. Crossing a road seems to be impossible from a visitors perspective, but is easily manageable once you get used to the insane traffic that has Hanoi’s streets firmly in its grip.
I step into the road tentatively and then slowly make my way across as vehicles swerve around me like currents around a rock. I feel like Moses parting the sea.
I didn’t choose to visit Vietnam for the power surge you get each time you cross a road successfully, but for another particular reason: After a few too many weeks spent in Indonesia, I was quite sick of Southeast Asia and while I was and am determined to stick it out on the continent, I needed a change, a break. Vietnam was as far away from my original plans as I dared stray and about as far north as I was able to go. Hanoi proved to be the perfect mixture of culture shock, chaos, a slight Chinese touch and a fabulous cuisine that made me appreciate travelling in the region again.
I stay in the middle of the Old Quarter, a maze of 40 or so streets dating back hundreds of years, when artisans clustered around certain roads according to their trades. In the process of getting thoroughly lost whenever I venture out into this labyrinth, I manage to see most of them. Flower Street. Candy Street. Silver Street. A street with cages and baskets, another one with coats and one selling only colourful Chinese lanterns.
Although Hanoi is cold as well as drizzly in February and everything has a slightly dark and grim look to it, the city is alive. Streetfood stalls and small restaurants, where locals crowd around steaming plates on little plastic stools, line the roads. In Vietnam, certain foods are allotted to certain times of the day, or even seasons, and the little open air restaurants usually only offer one dish. Pho for breakfast, Bun Cha for lunch, Hotpots for dinner. There are secret alleyways everywhere, leading to amazing cafés, tucked away where one would only suspect homes and backyards. One of them being the popular Cafe Giang, hidden down a long dark tunnel and up some stairs, where people sit around the wooden miniature tables, crack sunflower seeds and sip on Cà Phê Trung – Vietnamese egg coffee.
Women in cone hats balance heavy loads on baskets strung to poles and men on scooters sell their services as moto-taxis. The pineapple lady has her strategy perfected. She waits on busy street corners, looking innocent enough, but when she spots a target, she acts lightning fast. If someone isn’t paying attention, they will find themselves suddenly wearing her cone hat and having the pole thrown over their shoulders. “You take photo now,” she says while smiling disarmingly. After all that, you kind of have to buy that pineapple from her.
In the center of the buzzing and honking chaos lies a quiet haven of ancient culture. The Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius, is a colourful and otherworldly place of green courtyards, red pillars and buildings filled with swirling incense smoke. Bright red and gold altars are covered in flowers and offerings, in the middle usually a big statue of Confucius, sometimes of a king and once even of a revered rector. A thousand years ago, this was the location of the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first university, but nowadays students come here to write little prayers in calligraphy on pieces of paper and to wish for good grades and success in their studies.
I walk through gates with such poetic names as “Great Success”, “Crystallization of Letters” and “Golden Sound”, along the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” and through the “House of Ceremonies”. Statues of turtles – one of Vietnams four holy creatures – carry steles with the names of those who were successful in the royal exams.
But the Temple of Literature isn’t the only quiet spot in town. I’m in Hanoi during Valentines Day and as I follow a big bouquet of balloons down a road, I happen upon a serene lake. Hoàn Kiếm is a scenic spot in the middle of the busy city and is a popular hangout spot for the locals. According to a legend, it was here that the Turtle God demanded his magic sword back from emperor Lê Lợi, which he had given him to defeat the Chinese.
In the middle of the lake lie the Turtle Tower (not accessible) and the Temple of the Jade Mountain (accessible by a bridge). The temple is crowded, but luckily, Valentines Day provides me with ample people watching opportunities during my walk around the lake. The day of love seems to have drawn a lot of couples of all ages, families and groups of friends to the lake for a stroll. A young man serenades a girl with a violin, an old couple embraces on a bench and several people have photo shoots on the waterfront. But most people seem to, just like me, simply enjoy the day and each others company.