Having lived in Hanoi for a few years, I'd like to share some of the exciting things that I have had the joy of experiencing.
Some are unique and so unexpected that the images linger on for days. I do enjoy walking the streets in Hanoi's Old Quarter, and, on the weekends, Grumpy joins me. Here starts the fun. Grumpy is unstoppable.
Inside the Temples in Hanoi
Once, while walking towards the Dong Xuan market, one of the biggest in Hanoi's Old Quarter, we passed by a temple, and seeing that something was going on, Grumpy poked his neck in and beckoned me to follow.
It was a prayer ceremony for the dead. Family members gathered in the temple, white cloth tied around their heads and offering incense, fruits, and sweets. The singing started and one of the well-fed grandkids seeing how closely he imaged in the older version of Grumpy, gave us some attention.
The parents lost some of their shyness and offered to share the ceremony. So we ended up sitting on the temple floor, feeling like part of a ceremony we had never seen before. At one point in the ceremony, the monk danced in a meditative act. I wish we understood more of what was going on, but we were happy just to be sharing with the family.
Have Tea at Dinh Co Vu Temple
When shopping in Hang Gai St., you will not miss this temple. It is at 85 Hang Gai. When you go in there, the ladies usually invite you for tea, and their stories can be enjoyable when you listen to them trying their English out. It was one of those charming experiences in a crowded shopping street.
Street Vendors in Hanoi
Another activity I enjoy is buying flowers or fruits from street vendors. I don't speak any Vietnamese, nor do they speak any English but communication is no problem. Goodwill, smiles, and patience overcome most language barriers.
There's also the chance of drawing in a passing student who has fun using her English and sometimes even gives advice on prices. The vendor always takes out her calculator and shows me the amount. I then say No and put in the amount I am willing to pay, and negotiation takes place until we reach an agreement. Often, the vendors remember me in the streets I frequent, so they give a better price.
Street Food in Hanoi
Often, we pass by a group enjoying their breakfast at one of the street stalls. Street food is trendy in Hanoi, and many streets are packed, especially on weekends. Families have cups of coffee, tea, or a bowl of Pho (Vietnam's noodle soup).
One of these cafes is exceptional. It doesn't seem to have a name, but everyone knows the place. You can find iT near Hle Lake on Tran Bin Trong Street. It is where the Songbird owners gather to let their birds have a singing competition and enjoy each other's company.
The birds are very social and love to be there to the delight of their owners. Some owners bring three cages at a time and use their well-plumaged wives perched on the back of the moto as bird cage holders. Mind you, a friend of mine has 11 cages in her house.
In this cafe, there's a line where bird owners hang the cages, and the birds tweet their hearts out. We walked to this place one day and stayed almost the whole morning as the bird owners kept coming, and the morning became more interesting.
One of them spoke English, and immediately, we became part of the group with the owners competing to educate us about these birds. I can't stop Grumpy from joining in the birds singing with his off-key whistle. He became attractive as the birds tried to plug their ears with their wings.
For us, this Songbird Cafe is an example of what makes a city like Hanoi unique. It is a clear mark of a culture's underlying decency and permanence.
The songbirds whistling their hearts out made us all look up, and while we certainly didn't become St Francis, we all heard the same songs, and we all smiled at each other at a level well above any language barriers.
Mosque in Hanoi
One of my latest discoveries in Hanoi is the Mosque. I was exploring one day, and I happened to see this place with its open gates. Being a woman, I did not go in to show respect.
Maybe, I haven't explored this street before, but I sure was happy to find this. It intrigued me, and now, I am starting to learn more about the Muslims here.
The Heart of Intelligent Tourism
Tourist authorities have a difficult time promoting hidden backwaters. And yet, as the world becomes more homogenized and television gives us all the same Prada shoes and imitation Ferragamo bags, the backwaters underline how great it is to be different.
Sunday morning with the family songbird in a singing competition or Sunday afternoon at a football game howling Go. Big Red. How different can we be? And what a celebration it is.
Learning new things is essential, but reflecting on what makes us different and what makes us the same is the heart of intelligent tourism.
Is there a Hanoi secret you want to share?