Admittedly, before going to Vietnam, my impressions of the country were largely shaped by what I knew about the wars there, supplemented by a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain's various shows. Historically, Hanoi was a city steeped in French colonial history, and then became the capital of the communist north. Saigon was the capital of the capitalist south, and had been a much more international, cosmopolitan, and even decadent place, with lots of American influence and investment during the 20 years that the south was an independent country. But that was 43 years ago. Surely, the country had evolved since then, right? Turns out, not as much as you think...
In many ways, it was exactly how I had imagined it. I went to Hanoi first. It felt like a crumbling old French colonial city, being overtaken by nature.
As a child of the Vietnam war, Hanoi still - to my ears, at least - has an ominous air to it, and a sense of foreboding. Yes, I know that the world has moved on from the Vietnam War, and the city has been open to investment and tourism since the mid-90s. But the idea of visiting this city still seemed a bit strange to me.
There are many buildings from the French colonial area, which still define the urban fabric and infrastructure of this place.
And there were also other cultural monuments, such as the Temple of Literature. The temple was founded in 1070 by the Ly Dynasty, as a sort of university for higher learning, based on the teachings of Confucius.
But the city is also teeming with a young, dynamic population - all trying to get somewhere in a hurry (usually on a scooter). It is difficult to walk in the center of Hanoi. There is a constant, chaotic flood of scooters and cars (regardless of what the traffic lights are doing). The sidewalks are generally very narrow, if they exist at all, and are reserved for scooter parking, cooking, appliance repair, and dining - but rarely walking...
Everyone is in a hurry, darting about in every direction on scooters and cars, often ignoring basic traffic laws and even driving the wrong way down streets. Walking around the center of Hanoi is a dangerous, disorienting, noisy, and exhausting experience. Whatever you do, do not walk absent-mindedly with earbuds, listening to music while staring at your phone. You will die.
Despite all we've heard and read about Vietnam as an Asian economic tiger, with lots of investment and development, Hanoi and its environs seems for the most part to have been left out of much of that - at least in the old city. Or to put it differently, that investment hasn't yet translated into significant redevelopment of the urban core.
The outskirts of Hanoi are ringed with ginormous, gleaming new high-tech factories from companies like Foxconn, Samsung, Hyundai, and Toyota.
But the city center is a labyrinth of narrow, historical streets lined with often crumbling buildings and infrastructure largely left over from the French colonial period, or built by the Soviets in the Cold-war era.
What new development does exist seems to reflect a marked preference for gaudy, French baroque-inspired bling architecture that would make Donald Trump feel right at home.