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.
I had hoped that this lack of recent development would translate into lots of opportunities to photograph Mid-Century Modern architecture that had been preserved largely untouched since it was built. But between the dense foliage, the signage, and the steel cage-like balconies and other bits that have been hung off of these buildings in the intervening years, it was often difficult or impossible to photograph anything of note.
There are also a few Soviet-era brutalist monuments and buildings.
There is definitely evidence of development and investment in Hanoi, especially in the outer districts of the city. And even in the core, there is the occasional new glass high-rise.
But it's minor. For the most part, Hanoi still feels like a trip back in time. And it's a wonderful thing to experience.
Of course, the people were wonderful as well, and very welcoming. Getting into stereotypes is always dangerous territory, but we do it anyway because humans like to categorize things to more easily understand them. Most people in Hanoi and the north, in general, consider themselves to be more reserved, quieter, cultured, and intellectual than the southerners.
People in Hanoi told me that the southerners are loud, rude, brash, and had funny accents. My guide, who was born and raised in Hanoi and had worked for an international aid agency prior to becoming a travel guide, explained to me that he had previously had a fiancée who was from Saigon. But they had to split up because she was unable to move to the north with her job and family, and that there was no way he could ever live in the south. He visibly shuddered at the idea.
While in Hanoi, the people there unanimously criticized Saigon, explaining that it was an ugly city, not worth spending any time to visit. The northerners all warned me multiple times that Saigon was a crime-ridden, polluted, den of thieves, and that I should not even carry my camera out in the open or it would be stolen immediately. When they learned that I was planning to spend a few days there, they all - and I literally mean all - told me that I should instead go to the Mekong Delta, or Da Lat, or some other more agreeable place. Certainly NOT Saigon, though...
Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Saigon, I was terrified. So it was a shock to me to instead find a gleaming, modern city with wide boulevards, promenades, and leafy parks.