I recently spent a few days in Hanoi, my first visit to the capital in over a year and a half. I was up there to do a bit of reporting, but I also gave myself some time to just enjoy the city like a local. I had been there several times previously, but three of those visits were for the start of H2H, which didn't allow for any time to explore.
I was hoping to enjoy some cooler northern weather, but sadly Hanoi was in between cold fronts so I had no need for the sweatshirt I brought along. I decided to go with an AirBnB for this trip, as the budget 'tube' hotels in the Old Quarter are all equally mediocre. This was a great decision, as my tidy apartment was located deep in an old residential building, giving me a glimpse into the lives of people who have lived there for decades. The place was an incredible fire hazard, with exposed wiring and piping all over the place, not to mention rickety staircases and dark hallways, but seeing this slice of throwback Hanoi life was very interesting. Plus, the unit was set far enough back from the chaotic Old Quarter street out front that I couldn't here a peep.
Recently the city government decided to turn the streets lining Hoan Kiem Lake into pedestrian-only zones on weekends, so I wandered down there to see what it's like. Whichever official came up with this idea should be commended, because the result is amazing. Ambling around the lake without having to worry about traffic is heavenly, especially given the utter chaos of the surrounding streets.
I also spotted a restaurant that is doing some serious piggybacking off of President Obama's visit earlier in the year. It didn't seem to be helping business though, as the place was deserted every time I walked by. Perhaps people are just too disgusted by what's going on in America right now.
Hanoi is known as the cultural center of Vietnam, and there happened to be several events of interest going on while I was there. I checked out a photography exhibition at Vietnam In Focus featuring the work of Daniel Friedman, a French photographer, printed on traditional do paper, which created some amazing colors.
Casa Italia, meanwhile, was hosting the Vietnam Eye exhibition, a contemporary art program that started in South Korea and has spread to several other Asian countries. This is the first time it is taking place in Vietnam. I'm not usually much of an art person, and a few of the pieces went right over my head, but several were very well done, and it's great to see Vietnamese artists gaining recognition.
|Very well done.|
|Right over my head.|
Finally, one evening I visited the Hanoi Cinematheque, a legendary indie movie house that I only recently heard about. Sadly, the venue is closing by the end of the month as the proprietor has tired of dealing with government censorship. I went for The Onion Cellar's final screening at the Cinematheque - INNI, a concert film by Sigur Ros, the incredible Icelandic post-rock band. This is the type of place I would frequent if Saigon had such a venue, as it's tough to find independent films here, and even the big cinema chains don't distribute a lot of movies that I'd like to see. (I'm extremely annoyed that "Arrival" isn't getting released here.) It's a shame to know that the Cinematheque will soon be no more, but I was glad I had the chance to see it once.
Of course, it's also impossible not to notice the French influence on the city:
I also did a lot of general walking and eating while in town, which resulted in this amazing sunset over West Lake:
As well as several excellent bun cha meals, a specialty of Hanoi:
I thoroughly enjoyed this visit to Hanoi, as it basically acted as a "staycation," even though I obviously don't live there. Granted, the traffic is insane and the air quality is terrible, but the same is true here in Saigon. I ate well, and I managed to pack more cultural excursions into a three-day span than I do in most three-month periods here in the steamy south - sounds good to me.