The Old Quarter of Hanoi is a paradox. It is the only place I know of that is both exhilarating and exhausting
at the same time. The shady tree lined streets belie the frenzy of activity that exists below. Everyday we stepped
out of our hotel in the middle of the Old Quarter we were immediately overwhelmed with the hubbub of life. Right
outside our hotel door we encountered the first of several hundred makeshift cafes set up on the sidewalk. The
plastic tables and chairs looked like they came from Toys ’R Us…none of them rose more than a foot and a half off
the ground. But the delectable smells emanating from the large wok-like pot were so enticing that we soon found
ourselves squeezing into two of the elf-sized chairs. From here we had a fantastic perspective to view the never
ending flow of traffic zipping by just inches from our protruding knees
and elbows. By far the most popular form of transportation in Hanoi is
the moped. The first time we saw three adults squeezed on to one
moped fly past uswe were amazed. By the time we finished our meal
we were accustomed to seeing families of five, including tiny infants,
packed onto a single moped. And then there was the foot traffic. In
the short time we sat in the mini chairs we had the opportunity to buy
a book, a basket, lettuce, flowers, oranges and cigarettes from
walking saleswomen. These were no ordinary saleswoman. Clad in
pajamas and slippers (we have no idea why this was the chosen
attire) these women balanced a long, thin pole across their shoulders.
From the pole, two large baskets filled with goods dangled from each
end. They plied the entire city hawking their goods from sun up until
sundown. Once we managed to extract ourselves from our chairs we
ventured down the street to see what else the Old Quarter offered. It
was then that we were struck by the second paradox of this city. It
seemed to us that the Old Quarter preserved the ancient traditions
and way of life of the locals while simultaneously embracing the ever
expanding tourism market.  
Help him! He's stuck in an elf's chair!!
These saleswomen are a common sight on the streets of Hanoi's Old Quarter. Anyone need lettuce? How about a rose?
    Historically, the Old Quarter of Hanoi was laid out with its streets bearing the names of the goods
manufactured on them. For example, an entire street would contain nothing but bamboo. The next street would
sell only tin products. Remnants of this system still remain. We passed an entire block with store after store filled
with shoes. Only shoes. The shoes reached from the floor to the ceiling and then spilled out on to the sidewalk.
The next block was fascinating. Several shops were devoted to producing tombstones. Again, these were no
ordinary tombstones. The hand chiseled blocks of stone included a headshot of the deceased. The constant
cacophony of the tombstone carvers at work took the roar coming from the mopeds to the next level. Yet
another block was home to shops selling piles of counterfeit money. Counterfeit money is burned at Buddhist
altars as an offering to the spirits. After wandering up and down a few more blocks we noticed another common
sight. Small shops with the sign “bia hoi” interspersed every so often. And they were always full. This is because
bia hoi translates to “fresh beer”. Bia hoi is the microbrew of Vietnam and it is cheap. Ludicrously cheap. A cold
mug of this above average beer will set you back 2000 dong, which is equivalent to about $0.15. As a side note,
the name of Vietnamese currency is dong. Don’t think that didn’t translate into endless jokes. But back to the
beer. The only negative I can think of is that once again we found ourselves squeezed into plastic chairs made
for kindergarteners. Strangely enough, after two or three bia hoi’s they became comfortable.  At this point we
were no more than five blocks from our hotel and already we could have eaten, bought a book, drank a beer and
had a custom tombstone engraved. We felt certain Hanoi was going to be nothing if not interesting.
    We spent the remainder of our time in Hanoi enjoying
more of the traditional sights and also the plethora of
shops geared solely to tourists. The traditional sights
included the Ngoc Son Temple located on an island in the
middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, the ancient Temple of Literature,
the many neighborhood food markets, and a performance
at the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. This is a
really unique performance which originated in the Red River
Delta during the monsoon season. The puppet show takes
place on top of water. The puppets are controlled by a long
pole which is hidden underwater and held by a puppeteer
hiding behind a curtain draped across the body of water.
The effect is that these puppets dance, sing and play on
top of the water. It was a way for people to entertain
themselves during the rainy season long ago. It is amazing
how creative people were before television!
    The tourist shops included store after store of
interesting lacquerware. I’m not talking about your 1980’s
lacquerware. This was cool stuff. Vases, serving dishes,
jewelry boxes—you name it, they make it out of lacquer. It
is a good thing that we can only buy what we can fit into
our backpack. Otherwise there is a high probability that our
future home would be dominated by lacquerware. We also
spent a good deal of time digging through the stacks of
pirated DVD’s. For $1.50 each any movie or TV series can be
yours. The temptation was too great—we stocked up on
some our favorite TV shows that we have missed as we
traveled the past year. We are now in possession of the
entire series of the Soprano’s (don’t tell us how it ends!),
24, and Rome.
A tombstone maker hard at work in Hanoi's Old Quarter.
Notice the portraits that are a part of the tombstones.
    We found that after a few hours on the frenetic streets in the Old Quarter we were anxious to escape to the
peace and quiet of our hotel room. However, the second we stepped inside and closed the door we were
curious about what might be taking place outside that we were missing out on. That is the paradox of the
exhilarating yet exhausting city that is Hanoi.
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Hanoi's Old Quarter
Mopeds in Hanoi