Old times coming alive

I passed under the railway in Old Hanoi and turned left, and suddenly I was no longer in a normal busy street but in an unusual busy street: quite a few people were dressed up, everyone seemed to be in a very happy mood and was holding a smartphone or a camera (or both), and those who were behind the lens one minute were in front of it the next. The result needed careful examination:

The reason for this photographic excitement and general delight is street art, a recent joint project between Vietnam and Korea, I learned. The walls between the railway arches have been turned into colourful murals, many of which are trompe l’oeil, that depict scenes from old times in Hanoi and Vietnam.

People like to be photographed not only next to or in front of the murals, but to act as though they were really in them, part of them.

There are also some artefacts that were commonly used in the old days. And again people don’t just look at these things but act as though they were using them, some maybe remembering how they actually did use them back then.

One lady in particular caught my eye: she wore a beautiful ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress, whose colours went so well with the street car in front of which she was posing.

At one point she noticed me and I got a slight fright since I had taken quite a few photos of her without asking. But I could relax: she asked in a friendly way, in perfect English, if I had been taking photos of her. I immediately admitted that this was the case, and we started talking. Her name was Ms Ngoc, and like most people she wasn’t just a passer-by but had come with her husband to enjoy the scenes from times gone by and, of course, to take photos.

Street art at its best, I would say.

Who can say no to happy water?

We stopped in a small village near Ha Giang in northern Vietnam for no other reason than to see if there was anyone around who would invite us in so that I could get some insight into village life in these parts.

My guide, Hung, who had a great talent for immediately connecting with people, spotted a lady working in front of her house.

Although we were clearly disturbing her, she greeted us kindly and invited us to stay. She continued with her chores though and called her husband who was on his way out anyway, having heard unknown voices.

He didn’t seem surprised to suddenly have complete strangers at his door, greeted us with a big smile and asked us in. He headed straight towards some big plastic cans at the back of the room and got a bowl out. He filled it from one of these cans and offered it to us: it was his home-made happy water, distilled rice wine. I’m not so fond of strong alcohol, so I was a little hesitant – I certainly didn’t want to offend this kind man by declining a sip, but at the same time I was afraid that I might make some kind of grimace against my will when I got the drink in my mouth.

But I needn’t have feared anything: his happy water wasn’t at all sharp and it had a nice soft taste. I didn’t have to be persuaded to have a second sip (we all drank from the same bowl).

I asked about a photo on the wall, and it was, as I had thought, the couple’s wedding photo.

They looked very happy on the photo (as people usually do, luckily), and they seemed to be just as happy today. Before we left, the man filled an empty soft drink bottle with his happy water and handed it to me as a farewell gift. What hospitality!

A morning cycling tour in Hanoi

It was a dreary morning with grey skies and some drizzle and I was to cycle 17 km, around the West Lake in Hanoi. “Would you like a helmet?” my guide Hung asked when we picked up the rental bikes, and for unknown reasons I declined.

Anyway, the ride to the first stop, the Tran Quoc pagoda, the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, was quite short. The temple area is always crowded, but particularly so this morning: the Vietnamese New Year celebrations were just coming to an end and it was the day of the full moon. But people still found peace.

I felt that I was constantly in somebody’s way until I found this tranquil spot:

We still had some 16 km to go, so it was time to move on.

As we were back on the bikes, sweat broke out on my forehead not because of the physical exercise but because of what I saw that we were headed for: a very busy road with trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes galore, cyclists, pedestrians and street vendors. I had no helmet. I still wasn’t used to the bike with its handbrakes (I learned cycling on a bike with foot brakes and have used such bikes ever since). It was only my second day in Hanoi and I certainly wasn’t used to the traffic intensity, rhythm and style. And it was a bit slippery due to the drizzle.

I decided to adopt the style of other two-wheel riders I had observed: I cycled as fast as I could and looked neither left nor right as I turned onto the heavily trafficked road. It worked.

Luckily we soon turned off into a much calmer and narrower road that followed the lake shore. Still I felt a bit uneasy with honking cars in front and behind and motorbikes and scooters on my heels. As the ride continued to the north and northeast side of the lake, traffic became much less intense and I picked up confidence too. In fact, I started enjoying the ride very much indeed!

We stopped for a rest in a small café on the lake from where the view was great in spite of the grey clouds:

And the coffee, Vietnamese of course, with condensed milk, was fabulous!