Hanoi offers tourists both ancient and infamous sites

The din begins at first light. Hanoi is a street level city (most buildings are two to four storeys high) and, as day breaks, the considerable energy of its million plus inhabitants begins vibrating through its tree-canopied boulevards and narrow streets. Trucks, cars and motor scooters sound a quick ‘beep beep’ as they overtake one another. Cyclos – three-wheeled pedicabs – and bicycles add to the clamour with ringing bells. If your hotel room faces the street, you won’t need a wakeup call from the front desk. But then it’s not a place where you’d really want to stay in bed.

In the park across the street, a group of elders practises a form of tai chi; pajama-clad women in conical straw hats hasten by, fruit piled cone-like on baskets dangling from each end of a bamboo pole balanced over one shoulder. Slim women in ao dais (the national dress) pedal by, their arms swathed in long gloves, faces hidden by kerchiefs to block traffic fumes.

Cyclo drivers take you anywhere
Step outside the hotel and a cadre of cyclo drivers descends, eager to take you anywhere you desire. Youngsters, many from the surroundg countryside, each with an armload of paperbacks, persistently ask "Buy postcards? Only one dollar." So you buy a map or a package of postcards, recognizing with a pang close to guilt, that in comparison, you are so very rich.

Arthur Frommer, the American doyen of travel writers, notes that "To me today, travel in all price ranges is scarcely worth the effort unless it is associated with people, with learning and ideas." If you’re Frommer’s kind of adventurous traveller – and according to a Lou Harris poll, 40 per cent of vacationers these days are – you’ll find plenty to relish in Vietnam.

Book your visit through a small-group tour company that has operated in the country for some time and you not only get to know other interesting tourists, you benefit from the operator’s knowledge of local customs, the best places to exchange your dollars – and what are reasonable prices. You’ll also meet the local people on whom the tour operator relies, and often their families. And the tour leader will deal with the red tape that’s part of the fabric of this communist country. Most importantly, they know the best places to eat – and Vietnamese food is very tasty indeed.

Walk about to find Hanoi’s people
But your trip will be incomplete unless you get out and walk around. Take to the sidewalks and parks as long as it’s not pouring rain — it’s where you’ll find Hanoi’s people.

Of course you’ll first have to cross the streets — a daunting task for the first-time visitor. The oncoming flow of motor scooters, bicycles, cyclos and the odd motor vehicle never lets up. There’s nothing for it but to think like Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and "boldly go". Traffic will flow safely around you if you’re purposeful. Don’t stop suddenly and above all — don’t run. Cars and trucks have priority — wait for them to pass.

Hanoi, more than 1,000 years old, is battered and war-worn but it’s a city in transition. It’s heartening to see restoration of some of the venerable ochre French colonial-style buildings in the Old Quarter surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake — the heart of Hanoi.

The government has spent $14 million US on the nearly 90-year old Opera House, a salute, they claim, to both the Vietnamese who built and renewed it and to those who defended it with their lives against the French in 1946. It’s also recognition that the country’s past is a powerful and unique draw for western tourists and unfortunately, the area’s ambiance is already under threat. At least four multi-storey buildings tower over the area and many more received approval before restrictions on height were legislated.

Before heading off to find souvenirs, curious travellers often prefer to see some of the city’s most famous – or infamous – sights.

Grim prison visit
For almost nine years, Hoa Lo Prison was a grim home to American pilots shot down in what the Vietnamese call the American war. Better known to North Americans as the Hanoi Hilton, it’s a must-see. Not much of the original site remains, most of it having been razed to make way for a tall (by Vietnamese standards) commercial building. What’s left is chilling. The prison was built by the French in 1896 to house no more than 500 rebellious Vietnamese, but by the 1930s it held nearly 2,000. Ironically, the prisoners turned the cruel place into a virtual school for revolutionaries. Visitors can view cells where people were shackled to wooden beds, shudder at the guillotine, and see the sparse cells that later held the Americans. Displays in English are minimal.

Old quarter shopping
There’s no mall shopping here, but then it’s a lot more fun to take a cyclo to the Old Quarter where 36 little streets bear the names of the goods they once stocked. Times have changed and so have the goods, although wonderful silks can still be found on Hang Gai (Silk St.). Prices are extraordinarily reasonable, making silk — from scarves and shirts to sheets — great presents for the folks back home. Go early enough in your stay and order custom-fitted jackets, skirts, slacks – whatever suits your fancy. Check out the same street for embroidery and lacquerware. Canadians will find their knowledge of French a bonus here. There’s a good chance of communicating in one of Canada’s official languages.

Being a tourist in a city like Hanoi is so pleasurable because it’s both old and fresh. You can step off a bustling city street, through the gates of the 1,000-year-old Temple of Literature and into the world of an ancient Confucian scholar. Every place of learning should have, as this one does, a well of Heavenly Clarity. For almost 800 years, the place was also the National University and 82 treasured stone stelae (slabs) mounted on the backs of stone tortoises salute graduating doctors. Contemporary university students practise English by guiding tourists through the historic site.