Friday, September 24, 2010

Hanoi: First Impressions


Hanoi, Vietnam

-- Some powerful people here get it.

The bane of eastern Asian city planning is the willingness to destroy old buildings, some of which are beautiful or historic, to build a large drab box. The new construction enriches the developers, generates work for the contracters and increases tax revenues. The new construction also makes the streets less appealing and often creates blank-walled eyesores.

Hanoi said No. The French Quarter, where I'm staying, is exactly what you'd expect from the name. Most of the buildings are three or four storeys, and the streets are lined with shade trees. Many of the government buildings appear to be refurbished French mansions or grand hotels. Newer buildings, like the Ministry of Finance, reflect and augment the neighborhood aesthetic.

The outskirts of Hanoi, from what I could see transfering in from the airport, have their share of ugly new construction. But the powers that be in Hanoi have decided, to their lustrous credit, that the best way to make money from the French Quarter is to let it remain the French Quarter.

-- There's something about sidewalk cafes that immediately makes a city more enjoyable.

-- The touts here in Hanoi are nowhere near as bad as they were in Saigon. Like many travellers, my first experience in Saigon was unwisely selecting a hotel in the travellers' ghetto of Pham Ngu Lao and then being badgered, prodded, yelled at, pulled, exhorted, blocked and manhandled by peddlers every few feet throughout the district. Some people are shellshocked after a spell in Saigon; in my case, it was bad enough that I switched hotels after a filthy encounter with a six-year-old girl.

The little I've seen of Hanoi is world's away. The French Quarter has few obnoxious touts; mostly it's motorcycle guys who call out to you but leave you alone when you ignore them. The pitchmen in the Old Quarter, where a lot of the backpackers' lodgings are located, were not bothersome, physical or nagging.

Walking down a touristy street in Hanoi is far more pleasant than in Saigon.

-- The transcription of Vietnamese into Roman characters is huge. You can read street signs, you can translate menus, you can match sounds to letters. You're not at sea without a rudder, as is often the case in Thailand and China.

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