The difference between Laos and Vietnam is startling.
Day to day in Laos’ small capital Vientiane was docile and relaxed, and considering it was the capital, weirdly quiet. Most days were spent languidly walking between coffee shops, and along the banks of the Mekong which offered a clear view of Thailand on the other side. It seemed odd that just across that stretch of water, a society which prized commercialism and progression thrived and yet here a country existed which put limits on trade and ownership, leading to a much more basic lifestyle.
Laos people are quiet, they don’t call out, shout or prompt tourists to see their wares, instead they level a granite stare and wait for you to initiate proceedings. At midnight a country-wide curfew comes into effect and the streets clear completely, adding to that sense of stillness. After a month in Laos I was feeling fractious and bored, and longed to get back into the thick of it.
Arriving at Hanoi was a breath of fresh air (pollution notwithstanding). The city was large, with sprawling districts cut up by multi-laned roads and a constant stream of two-wheelers weaving in and out of the less frequent car, sometimes they rode up onto pavements and past pedestrians who seemed unphased by their mechanised antics.
Road-works thundered in the background along with the hooting of horns, and street traders would accost us with a shout of “Hey you, you buy?” In some ways it was like being back in India, with the constant hubbub. Indeed one of the best things is just being able to watch ordinary citizens going about their business; a natural modern city abides here, not one where everyone waits and contests for the business of tourists, but one where tourists fade into the background as yet ‘just another person’. Unlike India however, the Vietnamese are heavily into fashion. Everywhere you look, clothing stores hang a vast range of items on petite mannequins, and the people here have stark individual style – this being in contrast to Thailand where a homogeneous fashion presides. Dogs seem to be a particular accessory, with many small, fluffy-haired, rat-like creatures being led around on coloured leashes.
Walking around Hanoi shows a sense of pride. From the many flags hanging from homes and businesses, to the cleanliness of streets – where armies of street cleaners are out in force, and men with pressure washers keep the pavements in check, you see a city that the inhabitants are proud of, and one that they care for.
So far I love this city, full-on as it is. The Vietnamese have been incredibly welcoming, and always make an effort to ensure you are well. Over the next few days we will explore the many local attractions, including the traditional water puppetry – which imports from the countryside, the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh and the military citadel, which all add to the distinct flavour and feel of the city.