Strange as it may seem, Hanoi is a city obsessed with ice cream!
We decamped here on a whim to take advantage of the May Day weekend, only to discover it is a very significant holiday here: the 42 anniversary of the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1974. The streets are festooned with flags and teeming with people, mostly on their scooters, coming at you from all directions. The picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake is packed with families and lovers taking advantage of the balmy weather. Wedding couples pose coyly by the water and near the Metropole Hotel.
We have no plans, having done the tourist sites 10 years ago when we visited with Tommy and Louise and some other family friends, apart from a couple of specific shopping lists: to get a jacket copied for a wedding; to buy a present for said wedding and to replace some earrings for cousin Christine.
This gives us the perfect excuse to wander round the streets of the old town, ending up by the lake along with everyone else. Compared to 10 years ago, we find people extremely friendly and noticeably more prosperous. Last time we were here we saw no dogs, for instance, and were told that dogs cost too much money to feed. Now there are people parading their toy Chihuahuas and other coiffed pets; and there are larger dogs too. I even see a woman carting her enormous fluffy white hound astride her scooter. Everyone is immaculately turned out, as is always the case in SE Asia, but it should not be a surprise here, as Vietnam is one of the world’s great garment manufacturers, and we see no beggars.
People are happy to come and chat. There’s the one-legged postcard seller, who comes up and asks about my leg in good English. I tell her about my cancer, and feel emboldened by her directness to return the question. She lost her’s to a bomb in the war, when she was very young. She graduated in languages in 1981 and does translations for newspapers and sometimes acts as a tour guide. We felt a bit mean we didn’t really want a guide on this trip, but we do buy some of the lovely cut paper card they specialise in here.
Then there is a bizarre encounter with a delightful old man; he is sitting next to a man who is having his grey hairs plucked out by his wife and two children. ‘How old are you,’ demands the old boy. ‘Very old,’ he replies when I tell him, before telling us proudly he is 93, ‘but tomorrow I die. Not resist, everyone must die.’ He giggles.
‘But you look so strong!’ He laughs. ‘May you live to be 100,’ we say as we move on.
In amongst the beautifully-tended gardens – marigolds, azaleas, begonia, aurum lilies – we are surrounded by people taking selfies or photos of their children. One young mum proudly shows us her fair-skinned son, ‘Father Australian,’ she explains. ‘Where is father?’ I enquire. ‘Oh father at home!’ I am relieved as I wondered if she had been abandoned.
There is also a group of elderly ladies doing a form of Qi Dong, which mainly consists of beating their tummies very fiercely. Even the policeman seems to be doing his exercise routine when he thinks no one is looking, swinging his arms about wildly; nearby there is a group of half naked men exercising on the outdoor gym, doing crazy bench curls, pull-ups and lifting weights.
As in India, once we have had a chat, our new friends are keen to have photos taken with us. This is so different from before.
On Sunday morning we take a stroll down to the opera – still in search of the wedding present. We thought we had imagined hearing bag pipes early in the morning, but as we draw near we see a great crowd on the Opera step, waving banners, shouting, and a cacophony of musical instruments (bag pipes included) trying to be heard above the yelling.
A young man takes us on one side and explains that this is an environmental demo against a Taiwanese conglomerate-owned steel company, Formosa steel, whose effluents have contaminated the water supply and is responsible for the poisoning of millions of fish and thousands of people losing their livelihoods. But the government is doing nothing, they claim it is Red Tide, so it is their duty to make their voices heard. Interestingly the police are standing idly by. It’s hard to remember this is a communist country.
Back to ice cream: Sunday is obviously ice cream treat day, and we stroll past what I can only describe as ice cream central – a whole block of ice cream stalls that even penetrate into the underground car park of the building. In true communist style there are officious uniformed men with whistles who a re-directing all the scooters who are piling in, the family all aboard, to queue up for their favourite flavour. Outside the pavements are littered with scooters, parked willy-nilly while their owners and friends are slurping their chock sticks, vanilla scoops or lurid green lollies. It’s the same story round the lake – wherever you see a crowd, you can bet you’ll find an ice cream stall.
On our last evening we have some cocktails in a little bar round the comer, sharing it with a young nouveau family and their small son, who is tucking into a plate of chips. As we head off for a Vietnamese/French fusion dinner at Madame Tien’s, nestled between the street food hawker stalls selling noodles and bbq meats, we reflect on how much has changed here over the past 10 years.
In Hanoi we stayed at the Apricot Hotel, supposedly 5 star, but more like 4, but comfortable and well situated in the old town and by the lake. Lunches we went local (Bun Bo Nam Bo and 10, a local pho place, and dinners we tended to go somewhere a bit more relaxing, but its hard to find authentic good Vietnamese food on TripAdvisor, for instance Gia Ngu (highly recommended) which was not good.