Shoe Shopping in the Old Quarter
Having left Ngoc Son Temple and Hoan Kiem Lake behind we made our way into the Old Town of Hanoi. Strolling along Hang Dau we were sorely tempted by the many shoe shops that lined the street on either side. I am a confessed shoe addict and can rarely get past a store without having a look at least, however most of these shops only sold trainers by famous American brands and therefore were not quite my cup of tea. On the other hand Jerome very much likes Vans and we soon found a pair that caught his eye. Do not expect these goods to be the authentic thing, and having worked in fashion for a long time I always feel bad about supporting plagiarism. If you still want to make a bargain purchase be prepared to haggle as the wares do not have any price tags. Think beforehand how much you are willing to pay for each item, especially check the item for quality as not all fakes are alike, and tell the vendor your initial offer, perhaps try for half of your target price. Stick with your maximum offer and pay the price if you can come to an agreement, do not be tempted to go too high. The pair we bought was about 10USD, a great deal, especially knowing that Jerome would wear them until they either fall apart or do not fit him anymore.
Outdoor Clothing Shops
The stores changed from selling shoes to outdoor wear and we quickly lost interest. Although if we had have been planning a trip into the mountains picking up cags, fleeces or walking trousers here would have been a cost effective way to kit out for a hike. The shops are worth a browse if you are headed to Sapa or some other remote destinations in the Vietnamese mountains and countryside.
In fact there was so much more to see than shops. The area is known for its tunnel houses due to the narrow fronts and long rooms. They were built in this style to avoid taxes as in the past they were charged in accordance to the width of their street frontage. This makes the alleyways between the houses very narrow and dark, almost like a tube. The facades were irregular, the heights of neighbouring building could vary a lot, which made them look like a child had built a Lego house. Most apartments had balconies and colourful washing lines were a common sight. Before coming to Hanoi I had always wanted to see the bustle on the streets from above. Luckily there are plenty of cafes and restaurants with balconies that overlook the streets. Old Hanoi Restaurant appealed to us thanks to its colourful lanterns and bamboo cladding with a wide balcony above the busy street.
Savouring the Street View from Above
It seemed to be our lucky day and we were able to grab front line seats on the balcony. With a cool drink in hand we started to watch the world below on the hectic streets of Old Hanoi. There is so much to see and gaze at that we could have spend hours if not days in this spot. There was a group of men playing on their mobile phones, in fact one thing I had already noticed in the short time in Vietnam, was, that a proportion of the male population appeared to be rather lazy compared to their female counterparts, working like busy bees. In many cases it seemed men would sit and drink tea or coffee, play cards or other games, watch TV, while the women were doing the work. Correct me if I am wrong but this was a perception I had throughout our entire stay.
Returning to the street scenes below, we saw women with their baskets, sometimes two balanced on a shoulder-carrying pole, others on bikes piled high with fruit and other delicious treats. A large number wore the Vietnamese straw hats, called Non La, which are such a common sight on Vietnam everywhere. Another surprising feature was the ninja style clothes Vietnamese women wear when riding on motorbikes, especially among the younger population. Sometimes they would cover their legs with an apron like blanket and even the hands would be covered to protect them from the sun. The face would be hidden behind a mask and only leave a slit for the eyes. I was hot in my thin silk dresses and cannot even imagine the heat they must endure in their ninja outfits just to avoid a heavier sun tan. We have witnessed a similar form of sun protection during our stays in Japan but being naturally darker I would have never expected that Vietnamese women would be so afraid to tan? Out of the sun they are relaxed in much less clothing so covering up is purely a cosmetic demand.
What you Can Load Onto the Back of a Bike or Moped
Jerome found it fascinating to observe the many different loads people would have on the backs of their motorbikes. I have already mentioned that we have spied whole families with up to six members on a scooter, including babies and small children. The loads of these motorbikes were at times hair-raising and we could only wonder how they would get them safely to their intended destination. Balloons, stacks of toilet paper, furniture and even live animals were among the most compelling ones. No load appeared to be too big or heavy for them. The cycle rickshaws were still void of tourists, most were probably still enjoying exploring by foot and not too tired to be in need of their service yet, but their bells added to the din of the street below.
The Cat on the Rooftop
Across the road was a residential apartment block, with balconies and washing lines. Chris noticed a little kitty jump up and down between the various buildings and flats running along the narrow pipes, before it finally disappeared on the rooftop. Jerome hoped it would return again but sadly it did not.
The Maze of Specialised Shopping Streets
While we could have sat gazing at the world below for longer we had to move on to pay for the balance of our cruise in Ha Long Bay. The office of Indochina Junk was located in a little side street by St. Joseph’s Cathedral. On our walk there we passed some of the streets that specialise in certain products, similar to the souks in Marrakesh. There were shops laden with zips, lace, bra pads and every essential imaginable needed for tailors. Rows upon rows of toy stores, stuffed with cuddly toys, cars, dolls…anything a kid would call heaven. Despite Jerome being too old for most of the toys he was drawn to them like a magnet. We promised to return later on. Next up was a street lined on both sides with shops selling religious artefacts: Buddhist flags, incense sticks, fake money and shrines that the locals keep in their homes to worship their ancestors. Glancing down other streets we could see hardware, metalwork, electrical goods and many others, each with its own group of specialist traders. We would see more of that in our later explorations in the afternoon, but we had to reach our appointment at the agents first to pay the final instalment for our cruise.
The Bird Cages
The road leading to St. Joseph’s Cathedral had many cafes and backpacker hotels, plus a vast number of tour companies offering their trips to sights all over Vietnam. Jerome noticed some cages with birds, we had seen a few of them around on our walks through Hanoi already. We stopped and listened to their exotic songs and Jerome, as usual, would have liked to set them free. In one of the empty cafes we saw a man lie on his motorbike, asleep, curious how he managed to lie there and not fall off, we wandered on.
St Joseph Cathedral
Shortly after we arrived at the impressive St Joseph’s cathedral facing a small plaza. The neo-gothic church features two bell towers and is accessible through a side door, in case you want to see the elaborate altar and stained glass windows. A group of local kids were playing football on the square, every now and then the ball would roll over towards us and Jerome or I would kick it back to them. To our surprise, the ball was made of hard plastic, unlike Western, rubber footballs.
Time to Explore the Street Markets
With our cruise paid for at the Indochina Junk office near the cathedral, and a stop for some friendly advice from them, we then were free again to explore more of the old town – so we headed for an afternoon stroll through the colourful street markets of Hanoi….
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