As a first-timer to Asia, Hanoi seemed the perfect pick for my PARALLAXploration: manageable, not overly-touristy, and with a rich culture and history. For four days I immersed myself in this chaotic yet charming capital, with its tree-lined streets and French colonial architecture. The streets of Hanoi are sensory overload – colorful shops, flowers, and lanterns everywhere, the ubiquitous low plastic bright blue stools that clutter the sidewalks outside storefronts and pubs, non-stop beep-beeps from countless scooters clogging the streets from every direction, and delicious smells wafting from street vendors’ tiny makeshift grills. Old and new collide everywhere. It’s common to see a rural woman in traditional clothing and the classic conical hat selling fruit or vegetables from her bike, right smack in front of a hipster coffee bar or swanky spa. High-rise office buildings inone neighborhood compete with temples dating back almost a 1,000 years in another — tradition and history still have a grip thankfully.
My first morning I woke up quite early expecting to find deserted streets as I went on a search for coffee at 6am. As I approached the renowned Hoan Kiem Lake, I noticed the street had been blocked off. I turned the corner to see literally hundreds of Hanoians of all ages taking part in various dance, tai chi, or exercise groups. This went on for blocks – group after group, some in matching uniforms, doing everything from line dances (yes, the Macarena is alive and well in Hanoi), to hip-hop aerobics, ballroom dancing, or Vietnamese Zumba right there in the street, at the crack of dawn. I later learned this is a daily occurrence from 6:00 to 7:00am sharp, as Hanoians are a very disciplined bunch. Once the clock strikes seven, roadblocks are removed, and the nonstop scooter insanity ensues for the day.
My days in Hanoi were spent visiting the Ethnology Museum and the Women’s Museum, eating amazingly fresh (and cheap) food, and spending countless hours walking the Old Quarter, where each of the 36 streets is dedicated to a specific trade or product. I spent a day with 20-year-old An from Hanoi Kids, a student-run organization that offers tours to English-speaking visitors in exchange for practicing their English. An gave me a fascinating glimpse of the city from a young woman’s eyes and a real window into Vietnamese life and culture, still very patriarchal, old-fashioned and full of traditions and beliefs.
I spent two nights on an eight-cabin junk boat cruise of Ha Long Bay, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site about three hours from Hanoi with dramatic limestone karsts jutting out of emerald green water. This was a nice departure from the bustle of the city. I toured caves and a pearl farm, hiked, kayaked, and visited one of the remaining working floating fishing villages which completely blew me away.
My six-day PARALLAXploration flew by, but this part of the world left an indelible mark on my heart – not simply because of its stunning natural beauty, mouthwatering cuisine, or rich history and traditions – but because of its people. No matter what social strata, Hanoians seem to have a good outlook on life. Life is simpler and slower-paced, and the focus is on family and friends.
As a solo female traveler, I thought I’d be on edge in Southeast Asia. Reality: I felt safer there than I do in my urban San Diego neighborhood. The Hanoians I came across were a respectful and incredibly kind bunch. On my last day, a front desk person at my hotel noticed I was limping from a slight ankle sprain the night before. She insisted on walking with me (slowly) several blocks to the nearest pharmacy so she could translate and make sure I got proper medication. That was a typical gesture.
Overall, my PARALLAXploration was a bit of a reset for me personally – a reminder to slow down, really see things, and appreciate, even consider, a different outlook or way of doing things. That’s the cool thing about travel – nothing breaks down intellectual barriers and preconceived notions faster than being in a new place or culture. But perhaps most important of all, my time in Hanoi was a reminder that now more than ever, a little civility and gratitude go a long way.