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Hanoi, the old lady of the orient
Ninh Binh (Vietnam), August 11th 2009

Last one and a half years, while travelling through the south-eastern part of Asia, we often said to each other that it is a pity that so few cities in this region still have the traditional Asian atmosphere of the past. Small hazy alleys, the preparing of the food on the streets, the non-motorised traffic, and the colourful and aromatic markets are replaced by the modern way of life. Big and modern shopping malls, shiny motorcycles and hi-tech mobile phones are what you see nowadays in these cities. And that is a pity. It is not that we don‘t want the Asian people to make progress in their development, but it is a pity that the traditional way of living is disappearing as snow for the sun.

But that is not entirely the case. At least, not yet. Whereas you won’t find a lot of the former atmosphere in most south-eastern Asian cities like Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Manila and Singapore, there are some cities left where you can still experience some of the Asia of the past. At the beginning of this year we were already in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, and a couple of days ago we brought a visit to the graceful city of Hanoi, capital of Vietnam. But also in Hanoi, progress is made. While motorised traffic was still a rarity at the beginning of the 1990’s, you are now almost constantly run over by these fuming mosquitoes of the city. But even with these small inconveniences, Hanoi is still a city well-worth visiting. But be quick, because the city is changing is a rapid pace.

The railway track through central Hanoi

The most elegant part of the city is the so-called old quarter. This part of the city is characterised by atmospheric streets that are named after the guilds that are present in that particular street, and alleys that are too small for cars. This is the Asia that we dreamt of. The old quarter bubbles with commerce, buzzes with motorcycles and is rich in exotic scents. You need both of your eyes to cross the streets safely, to be sure not to be overrun by one of the thousands of motorcycles that cruise the city, often packed with merchandise. But be sure to look also around once in a while, because through the daily chaos of the local economy going on, you can still see great architecture of the past. Hawkers pound the streets with sizzling and smoking baskets that hide cheap meals for the locals. Every street has some small café’s where people take a break and sip a local coffee, and often something stronger; a ‘bia hoi’ (local draft beer).

One of the greatest things you can do in Hanoi is walking around. Many visitors to Hanoi spend a significant part of their time in the city, in one of the beautiful air-conditioned museums. However, exploring the streets on foot is much more fun. This is where you meet the local people, and where you can observe how they make their daily living. The guilds are still grouped in streets. You can for example bring a visit to ‘P Hang Bac’, what literally means Silversmith Street. Many of the shops are modernised over time, but there are still a lot of shops where time didn’t change a thing. Seeing the Blacksmith’s for example, doing their work, is something that you can see in Europe only in the historical open air museum. In Hanoi, it is daily life.

One of the many small eateries in central Hanoi
Also a visit to one of the traditional markets, like the Dong Xuan Market, is a must-do activity. Unfortunately, vast parts of the market are now occupied by shops selling cheap made-in-Chine cloths, but if you wander a little bit further in the market, you probably will find the more traditional section. This is not only the section where you can find spices that you never saw before, but it is also the place to see the traditional Chinese medicine on sale. We saw for example bags of dried sea horses, and bottles of rice wine in where they put snakes and scorpions for extra medicinal strength.

But as mentioned before, you can’t wait much longer. Like other parts of Asia, also Vietnam, including Hanoi, is changing rapidly. Big parts of the old city are already ‘polluted’ by restaurants, guesthouses, travel agencies, galleries and even boutiques that serve the ever growing number of visitors. And that is just the beginning. There are for certain many property developers that smelled the dollars and can’t wait to develop also the other parts of the city. Hanoi is developing, but in contrast to many other capital cities in this part of the world, you won’t see big advancing shopping malls yet. But that is just for the time being, because also the Vietnamese people want to shop in the future in an air-conditioned shopping mall where they can also enjoy a hamburger at one of the fast food chains. So, book now if you don’t want to miss the Asian experience that the city still has to offer.

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