What transfixed me with fascination about Hanoi, the centuries-old capital of Vietnam, are its many lakes lying at the very heart of the city and the piety with which locals embrace them.
The lakes are surrounded by beautiful gardens, slap-up hotels and a litany of mythical stories to boot. Hanoi is a city synonymous with water as its name suggests.
‘Ha’ is water in Vietnamese and Noi means interior as in away from the sea. Lake Hoan Kiem is spectacular by its glassy waters which conspire with lights at night to create exquisitely beautiful scenes.
It is home to rare, revered great turtles associated with luck and ancient pagodas sitting on tiny islands popular with tourists and locals alike.
Its tree lined shores are a haven for early morning physical exercise enthusiasts of all ages.
They walk, jog and limber up in the gentle light of dawn.
Come evenings and old men take to playing chess in the halcyon breeze as young couples seek twilight privacy, half hidden among the willows and other riparian vegetation.
Not far from Hoan Kiem Lake is West Lake or Ho Tay, a misty sheet of fresh water that is the largest in Hanoi and, like Hoan Kiem, is believed to have broken off the Hong (Red) River that flows majestically through the city en route to the South China sea.
Its waters have a red hue of mud, washed from the hills of South Western China in Yunnan Province where it originates.
The lake’s shoreline is 17 kilometres of panoramic scenes comprising beautiful gardens, the nation’s oldest pagoda dating back to the 6th century and four ancient temples.
Towering in the foreground as if competing for attention are hotels, restaurants and several entertainment centres. Numerous benches dot the lake’s shoreline for people wishing to relax from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Once the sun sets, the benches get occupied by love seekers who are seen in pairs drenching in the breeze they believe has the power to strengthen relationships.
To the locals, West Lake water is holy, period. It is not uncommon to see folks buying tiny turtles at the shoreline and tossing them into the tranquil water to carry the burden of their sins to the gods in the deeps.
The smallest of the lakes, Truc Bach, is the one into which the fighter plane of United States Senator John McCain of Arizona crashed when it was shot down during the Vietnam War in 1967.
Truc Bach Lake nudges West Lake’s western shore. A monument built by the lakeside to commemorate the shooting down of the US plane contains a text in Vietnamese that reads in part: “Lt John McCain in his A4 B1 jet fighter was shot down in this lake on October 26, 1967”.
Four milion motorcycles
The monument depicts McCain with his hands raised in surrender.
Away from Hanoi’s holy lakes and the mighty Red River that with its tributaries is its lifeline, the city’s motorcycles, that number in their millions are a tourist attraction in their own right.
I had never seen so many motorcycles in my life. Statistics have it that the city has over four million motorcycles, almost half its population.
The two wheelers have stolen the thunder from urban public transport that seems non-existent. Personal cars are few and matatus as we know them are absent, thanks to high taxes imposed by the government to thin out cars. And the trick has worked.
Traffic snarl ups are rare. Confusion reigns at peak hours alright and crossing roads can be a nightmare when millions of cyclists hit the roads, but traffic gridlocks are nowhere near Nairobi’s maddening levels.
Road users obey traffic lights and zebra crossings are not treated as mere decorations. A tour of Hanoi is incomplete without a visit to the war museum where tools used to defeat Americans, and the French and Japanese before them are displayed. Even McCain’s downed fighter bomber is there.
Destroyed tanks and aircraft bearing the US flag litter the museum where Russian MiG jets and small weapons that helped them win the 18 year old war are proudly displayed.
Also on display are statues of national war heroes such as Ho Chi Minh who led the independence movement for the then North Viet Nam and defeated the French Union to become the first President of North Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City, the commercial capital formerly called Saigon, is named in his honour.
At night, Hanoi’s equivalent of Nairobi’s River Road boils with activity, albeit minus the menace of muggers, ill-mannered street people, urchins or gun-totting police officers.
Locals and foreigners sit by the road side on squat stools while sipping low alcohol beer which sell at a dollar for four glasses.
Peddlers, selling everything from cooked and roasted pork, beef, mutton and fish, peppered skewers, to juices, fruits, water and numerous other food items unknown in our part of the world, have a field day.
Girls of the night in short dresses slink by or ride on the motorcycles, perched provocatively on their small seats, seeking customers.
Back streets are the place to be after nightfall for a true taste of fun, Hanoi style.
Excitement for the first batch of passengers and crew of a scheduled African airline to fly into Vietnam surged with the emergence from the clouds of Dreamliner Flight KQ870 over the hazy skies of Hanoi, to land at Noi Bai International Airport, nine hours from takeoff at Nairobi’s JKIA.
Through the mist that seemed to touch the ground, first to pop out were several brown waterways meandering around paddy fields and human settlements.
Then a huge river panned into view, red water in its snaky path.
For one arriving from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital named after a stream now turned into a sewer, the mighty river that hugs Hanoi is spell binding.
Once on the ground, excitement turned into disillusionment when visa acquisition seemed to take a lifetime, but resumed and the 45-kilometre drive into town started on a well-paved six-lane express way free of traffic jams.
On both sides of the road, rice paddies fan out over wide stretches right to the state-of-the-art Nhat Tan Bridge across the Red River that commands entry into the city.
The bridge is 33 metres wide and has provisions for pedestrians.
Long before entering the city, it is easy to notice that motorcycles outnumber automobiles by a big percentage.
Roundabouts that have played havoc on Nairobi traffic are unknown in Hanoi as flyovers and underpasses dominate the roads profile.
The Vietnamese adore decorations, a trait reflected on virtually all the roads.