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  • Writer's pictureEliane Bowden

Hà Nội - A Cacophonous Welcome

Dustin was right – you only need three days in Hanoi before it gets old. It’s the morning of our fourth day, and we’re already excited to leave for somewhere quieter. The clock reads 5:50 AM – which I count as a success, as I’ve been rocked by jet lag since arriving, and already I can hear traffic picking up outside our window. Luckily the horns are muffled and coming from a few streets over for now.

As Jared sleeps soundly (the lucky bastard has ironically been having fantastic sleeps since arriving), I’m thinking of mom right now – who laughed when we talked about Hanoi. Said if we thought our street on 20th in Vancouver was noisy, she didn’t know how we would last very long here. She wasn’t wrong either.

Sunrise is unremarkable again – I think the smog is too dense for anything spectacular to break through. I wonder if we’ll head to the same chicken pho place we discovered yesterday morning. Low metal tables and stools, six menu items basically just differentiating the different parts of the chicken you’ll receive with your noodles, fluorescent lights bouncing off the deep robin-egg-blue walls, and house-made sriracha that doesn’t hold a candle to the stuff that’s currently sold out back home. Yes, I think we’ll head there before coffee.

I would argue that one could spend longer in Hanoi if determined to visit more historical attractions, as we’ve only managed to see a few: St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Nhà thờ Lớn Hà Nội), the Hỏa Lò Prison (Nhà tù Hỏa Lò aka the Hanoi Hilton), and the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu). We didn’t even go to check out Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, but I’ll give us a pass because even my eye bags have bags, and I know that we’ll simply walk around it and wonder if it was worth the trip anyways.

Funnily enough, we weren’t aware that St. Joseph’s was an attraction as we spotted the burnt-looking facade over our afternoon coffees on the second floor of Cộng Cà Phê. The cafe is a chain and was recommended for their shaved ice coconut coffee (which didn’t disappoint). However, we’re surprised to discover the intensely communist theme inside – from the Russian decorative literature lining the walls and army green paint, to the Viet Cong army fatigues the employees are wearing and tin metal lamp shades. Apparently people love the chain as it has over 58 locations in and out of Vietnam. St. Jospeh’s itself was one of the first structures built by the French colonial government in French Indochina when the church opened in December 1886. It is the oldest church in Hanoi. Modelled after the Notre Dame in Paris, I’d say it has some way to go, but then again it is a long way from home.

Hỏa Lò Prison Museum was a fascinating experience. Though much of it was demolished in 1990, the main gatehouse was kept and turned into a museum. The museum is split into two sections: the first chronicling Vietnamese oppression, imprisonment, and eventual victory during the French Occupation, and the second part recounting subsequent use housing American POWs during the Vietnam War. I found it interesting (though unsurprising) to observe the clearly subjective and sympathetic lenses used to paint history in their favour. Here’s an excerpt from one of the plaques speaking of French imprisonment of Vietnam’s rebellious and political prisoners:

In 1896, French colonist built the prison, the court of assizes and the secret agent office on the land area of Phu Khanh village, forming up a complete autocratic ruling system to aid their domination and oppression against the patriotic and revolutionary movements of the Vietnamese people.
Despite the difficult prison life, constant challenges and the atrocious cunning enemy, Vietnamese patriotic and revolutionary fighters were not discouraged and still remained their will to fight, keep fighting until their last breath.

Meanwhile, here’s how they spoke of their treatment of American POWs while showcasing pictures of smiling American soldiers playing volleyball in the main courtyard and eating Christmas dinners.

Behind the stone walls of the place known as the "Hilton - Hanoi", these pilots took a moment to comtemplate the war they fought and see life through the lens of the Vietnamese people.

Of course there was no mention of the intense torture that POWs experienced, the infested gruel they were fed, or the unsanitary conditions in which they were kept. Just American smiles and many pictures of the atrocities that were committed against the Vietnamese people (rightly so, I suppose).

Over bia hơi on our last night, deep in the Old Quarters and just off the road closed for the night market, we met a group of Brits. One of them a history teacher expat. After a little encouragement, he told us an interesting piece of history about Vietnam. Turns out the French occupation in 1864 came only a few decades after the final annexation of the last remaining Champa Kingdom in 1832 – the final stage of a slow genocide beginning in 800 CE of the Cham people who occupied the south of what is now known as Vietnam. Little is left of the remaining Chams, who fled to Hainan, Malaysia, and Cambodia (only to be severely persecuted during Pol Pot’s Cambodian genocide). But you’ll not find mention of the Cham people anywhere.

History is truly written by the victors, heh?

On a lighter note, we learned from our British compatriots that we sat in one of the last two remaining bia hơi locations in the Old Quarter. A great spot where you can sit in rows of tiny plastic chairs facing the street, drink a beer, have a smoke, and eat some sunflower seeds. “Beer Street” used to be packed with these spots, serving up bia hơi – meaning “fresh beer” – a non-pasteurized alcohol popular in northern Vietnam which is brewed and matured for short periods, then delivered to each bar daily. Half a pint costs a trifling ₫10,000 VND or $0.56 CAD. Unfortunately, bars caught on that they could charge westerners quadruple the price, and so gone are many of the traditional bia hơi spots.

Jared and I called it a night and head back to our hotel - exhausted from the exhaust, the humidity, and noises. The city seems to have expanded over the last few days, ramping up to a crescendo this Saturday to an almost unbearable cacophony – the number of people, vendors, and scooters seeming to have doubled.

We certainly saw evidence of that when we stumbled for the second time into a more local food market tucked away in the Old Quarter earlier that day which racketed up in intensity from even the previous day. You could almost miss the entrances, but there’s more than what is exposed on the street. Ducking down the dark alley, the market continues on, surprising in its depths. The stalls crammed together with seafood of all kinds wriggling and frothing in brightly coloured plastic baskets, ladies chopping red meats, bounties of fresh produce piled high and laid out on the ground. The smell of exposed flesh, sewage, seafood, flowers, and gasoline singeing my nose, as people whip by on scooters even in the narrow corridors. There’s even more dimly lit stalls further back - a barber shop; a nail salon; a stall that just seems to sell paper towel products. I work up the courage to ask one of the women for an orange. She tries to sell one to me for ₫40,000 VND or $2.25 CAD. That’s the price of a Banh Mi! A steep foreigner’s tax indeed.

It seems Jared and I threw ourselves in the deep end, starting in Hà Nội. But why not? After abusing our five senses, we travel by bus to the quieter (but likely no less touristy) land of Cát Bà Island.


Tracey Wilkinson
Tracey Wilkinson
Oct 18, 2023

Well written. I really enjoyed this! 😀


Chris Davis
Chris Davis
Oct 17, 2023

Fantastic Eliane ! I thoroughly enjoyed that.


Mary Bowden
Mary Bowden
Oct 17, 2023

Finally! But well worth the wait

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