11 Dec 2008

Hanoi, Vietnam

I'm in Hanoi and right now am taking a break in the Intercontinental after a morning of walking around the city. Its a lovely city, if you forget about the dust and the dirt and the traffic. It has a slightly European ambiance about it, though frayed at the edges. Like an elegant old lady who is still beautiful despite the lines and look of tiredness, Hanoi has a charm that is different from other Southeast Asian cities. There are lots of trees and there are parks at almost every corner, forming a cool avenue for pedestrians. Underneath the brassy look of the newer buildings - all glass and modern high tech - the older Vietnam peeks through and this has a charm reminiscent of the French Quarter. The roads are very narrow with thin ,tall houses on both sides. Land is at a premium I heard and that is why most of the shops are narrow and go upwards. We walked through the market street ( can't spell out the Vietnamese name) and gawk at the wares for sale. At the fresh produce section there are all kinds of fruits and flowers - they are so colourful. There are huge bunches of orchids, you wouldn't believe they are so cheap. I notice strawberries in large baskets and ask where they are from. The only time I've seen strawberries in baskets that big was in LA - at the 32nd Street Market. And that was in Spring only. The guide tells me they are from thenorthern part of Vietnam, where it is cooler. There are passion fruit, ciku (brownish oval fruits that we can also get in Malaysia), mangoes, rambutans, all kinds of oranges or citrus fruits - large ones, very small seedless ones and even oval ones. There is also a fruit - a hybrid - that is a mixture of pear and apple. It looks like a pear (oval) but tastes a bit like an apple.

Hanoi is also called City of lakes because there are many many lakes all over the city. Our hotel, the Intercontinental, sits on one of the largest lakes in Hanoi, the West lake. There is an East Lake and a South lake. The Westlake is so big, I thought at first it was the sea. You can't see its banks. On our walking tour this morning we came across at least 3 other lakes - still fairly large by my own standards. And all these lakes are surrounded by parks and beautiful walkways. But as I mentioned earlier the dust, dirt and traffic sort of dulls the beauty of the city.

This is our second day here. When we first arrived yesterday we were met by the dapper Mr Ben Taat, a Malaysian entrepreneur residing in Vietnam and married to a Vietnamese. A gentle, soft spoken man he is the one who is organising meetings with various agencies for OUM. Today they met with the President of a tea exporting company as well as some members of a private university. Mr Ben Taat owns a restaurant here in Hanoi among other things, and we have been eating at his place. Food is delicious and very Malaysian ( so typical of us - we always want our own food when we go abroad). Its easier anyway because of the halal thing.

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