VIETNAM – A DAY IN THE LIFE
Vietnam’s capital city of Hanoi has been in existence for more then 1000 years. It hasn’t always been the capital in this once-divided country, but it has always played an important role in the region. Modern Hanoi is a bustling cosmopolitan city with beautiful historic hotels, great French-inspired cuisine, and local designer shopping boutiques. Spending a day in Hanoi requires a curious mind, good walking shoes, a hearty appetite and plenty of space on your camera memory card. Walk with me, as we spend a day in Hanoi.
Hoàn Kiêm Lake
Near the center of the city, lies Hoàn Kiêm Lake, which acts like a magnet attracting Hanoians to its water’s edge all day. We begin our day walking around this lake, and we also end our day the same way. As photographers, it’s not unusual for us to start our days early, because that’s often the best light of the day for landscapes. But in this case, we start our day with shooting street photos of the crowds that gather around the lake as the sun rises. So we hit the lake at 5:30 am.
The lake is where a lot of Hanoians like to exercise early in the morning before work, and it’s also the place they like to hang out at the end of the day. We take our time walking around the lake, stopping often to observe the activities that take place early in the morning.
Hanoians of all ages take part in many types of activities, some of which are done in large groups. Often as I walk the lake, I have been encouraged to join in the fun. There will always be people practicing Tai Chi in groups or individually. Sometimes there will be men exercising with weights at a makeshift gym. And there will usually be groups of women performing dance routines. You can never predict what you’ll see, as it’s a different experience each time.
Normally, it takes about 90 minutes to circumnavigate the lake, and that would put us back to our hotel in time for a wonderful breakfast. In Hanoi, we stay at the 115-year-old Metropole Hotel, part of Sofitel’s exclusive Legends Group. Built in 1901, it has been host to a long list of celebrities, royalty, intellectuals and some famous pacifists. It’s been named the best hotel in Vietnam by Condé Nast Traveler Magazine. Upon stepping in to the lobby of the hotel, you’ll instantly understand how that decision, and ours, was made.
The Old Quarter
After breakfast and freshening up, we venture into Hanoi’s “Old Quarter”, which is a labyrinth of twisting streets hosting vendors of all kinds. The Old Quarter is called this because it has functioned as a marketplace for as long as Hanoi has existed. Originally, the market was home to 36 different Guilds, each occupying one specific street. It’s grown a lot since those early days, but the concept of market segregation still exists.
As we walk the market, we can see that the shops on each street typically sell the same products, and each street has it’s own theme. If you want to buy silk you would know which street to go to. The same would apply if you want to buy fish, or silver, or bamboo, etc. It’s well organized, even though it appears to be quite chaotic.
The Old Quarter is where locals shop for everything they need, so the crowds can be intense sometimes. I’ve never managed to walk through the market streets in under 3 hours, since there is so much to see, photograph and eat!
In addition to shopping for basic household supplies, the Old Quarter is a great place to eat. And since we’re in Vietnam, it’s a good idea to try the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup called Pho. This soup is served in every restaurant and home in the country, and comes in several varieties. We usually look for small and busy shops with a line up. That means the soup is well known to be good, and probably cheap.
The Temple of Literature
After our stop for soup, we change gears from the busy streets to the quite relaxation of the Temple of Literature. This temple, dedicated to Confucius, was built in 1070 and was Hanoi’s first university. The grounds are beautifully structured, and the historic buildings hold important artifacts that are many centuries old. The Temple of Literature is the traditional place for university students to visit on the day they graduate. It’s humbling to step inside the complex and witness a millennium of history, knowing that there just aren’t that many places in the world where you can do this anymore.
Hanoi has plenty of temples, of course. But the Temple of Literature is one of the best-preserved temples in all of South East Asia. Both the interior and exterior of the buildings showcase the traditional architectural style that was common a thousand years ago. It’s fascinating to see how buildings were constructed without modern tools and techniques, yet remain intact after centuries.
After the Sun Sets
We return to the Metropole Hotel for a wonderful dinner at Le Beaulieu, it’s fine French restaurant. It’s important to note that Vietnam was once a French colony, and you’ll see the influence of French culture everywhere. The wide boulevards, the architecture, the street names, and the cuisine all provide daily reminders of the colonial past. Even Gustav Eiffel himself designed many famous buildings in Vietnam that are still in use today.
Just as the morning gave rise to a flurry of activity at Hoàn Kiêm Lake, the crowds come back when the sun begins to set and the cooler weather arrives. In the evening it’s a very different vibe than in the morning.
At night, young lovers come for a stroll along the lake path. Dozens of wedding couples pose for photographs taken by their professional photographers. The lake plays an important role in the lives of all Hanoians, proven by the important events that are observed near it. Seeing the contrast of different crowds from morning and night is a great way to bookend our day in Hanoi.
Vietnam is one of those countries that everyone should visit in their lifetime. The country is opening up to tourism, with many incredible hotels and restaurants. Hanoi will eventually emerge as one of Asia’s key cities, and after you spend a couple of days here, it will be clear why.
Join us for a day in Hanoi on one of our Vietnam Photo Adventures. Our stops include Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Hoi An, Hanoi and the mountain village of Sapa. And you can extend the trip with a 2-night cruise on the beautiful Ha Long Bay, on a special replica junk cruise ship.