Climbing to the Northern buttes of Vietnam, I have wondered whether weighing Hanoi against Saigon would be of a similar outcome to my reflections of Barcelona and Madrid. However, Alex and I have visited both cities of Spain separately and reached entirely different conclusions.
Not at all culture vultures in real life (i.e. when we are not travelling), Alex and I seem to reach a similar conclusion about cities - judging their merits on ambience, authenticity and adventure. So why he thought Madrid was a better spot than Barcelona, I have absolutely no idea.
For me, a city needs to be steeped in history - you should be able to walk the walls and simultaneously turn back the clock to a different age. Be graced by architecture which celebrates that passage of time. Enjoy the promise of hidden walkways where unexpected local pleasures can capture the eye. Eclectic cafes are a must - where one can watch the world go by at one's feet and lastly, there has to be a sleepy buzz about the place but with a compelling lilting hum rising above it. Hanoi scored full marks on all fronts, from both of us.
Hanoi means the 'city inside rivers', however its historic and formal name Thang Long, has a more bad-ass meaning 'ascending dragon'. One sees the two come together in the beautiful surroundings of Hoam Kiem Lake, striking in the centre of ancient Hanoi and where the Turtle Temple almost rises out of the lake in splendour.
Unlike Saigon, Hanoi is more of a phrontistery - a thinking place, though it is slightly harder to ponder when wading through its hazardous traffic, where bikes run amok. The Temple of Literature, built in honour of Confucius, celebrates this with a series of courtyards hosting porticos and pavilions with the usual dog and dragon statues standing at each entrance. The botanical gardens are splendid - serene beauty with water fountains; it was a bemusing contrast seeing soldiers practising their parade march through the middle.
The Old Quarter, where we stayed, remains true to the architecture of Hanoi from the early 20th century. Storekeepers in the Old Quarter were taxed according to the width of their shopfronts, the long and narrow buildings often called 'tube houses'. Typical measurements are 3 metres wide by 60 metres long. The Old Quarter is made up of 36 streets, each dedicated to a different skill or trade, and so we wandered down Hang Giay (stationary), Hang Quat (coffins), Hang Ma (decorations), Hang Be (bamboo), Hang Ga (chicken) and Gia Ngu Street (underwear). We also renamed these, for our own entertainment - Jotter Junction, Dead Man's Drive, Tinsel Town, Bamboo Boulevard, Chicken Run and the Bra Bazaar. I think we might have done better. I claim all proprietary rights to the 'Bra Bazaar'.
Every alley, path and street corner has cafes where one can pull up a plastic chair and dine on whatever the daily special is. Particular lautitious feasts were enjoyed at the Tasty Restaurant, where we ate Bun Cha Ha Noi - a dish of grilled pork burgers and noodles, served with greens and a bowl of light dipping sauce. Nem (spring rolls) are also served with it, and the meal should be savoured alongside a large Tiger beer. At the Green Lizard, we got barbecued spare ribs, fried rice and greens served in a plastic tray all for 40,000 dong (£1). Pho fans out there, nothing is better than sitting out in the open with locals, any place will do, served alongside the cheapest beer in the world - Bia Hoi (25p per litre).
For those in favour of adventure, walking down the train tracks, you will come to Ray Quan - a restaurant where the trains pass so close, you can almost chink your beer against its metal carriages. One of our favourite images of Vietnam which was given to us by the lovely Deb Bakker, who supports Deaf Craft - an organisation run by deaf orphans in Hanoi and who we met on the train up to Sapa. Deb also brought us to meet the people who work at Deaf Craft and we spent a wonderful afternoon seeing them work and attempting rudimentary sign language with them.
A special place found down one back alley was the Shot Cafe, one of the most comfortable and architecturally pleasing buildings I have ever been in. Spread over two floors and made nearly entirely out of wood, with an entresol level garden, a piano to play and beanbags and rocking chairs to lounge in under the high ceilings. If you come in the early evening, musicians come to borrow the guitars and piano, taking it in turns to perform local Vietnamese songs. As a pastime, for simple enjoyment - not for performance. It's difficult to describe it to justice. Alex spent hours drawing townhouses that could reflect the design of it.
Vietnam, in its beauty and meandering pace, has enchanted us for a month. A month into our year of travelling and we are refreshed, feeling creative in abundance, able to absorb and appreciate the smaller things in life in the midst of looking at the bigger picture. The frugality of our budget means we have cherished every penny spent. One could go on, endlessly soaking, Vietnam up - the vitality of Saigon, the charm of Hoi An, the ancient Citadel in Hue, the coruscating hills of Sapa, the soaring karsts of Lan Ha Bay and the seductive bustle of the streets of Hanoi. A special adventure to be remembered, as we go on to places new.