My wife and I continue to explore the city of Hanoi as part of our “inspircation”—a vacation that involves research and world-building inspiration.
In particular, I’ve come to Vietnam to gather ideas for an upcoming book in my writing schedule (part of the new Zoone series that I’m working on with HarperCollins).
The day did not disappoint, as I found plenty of inspiration . . .
We began our itinerary by venturing out into the spiderweb of streets radiating out from our hotel. Nothing makes you feel as alive as navigating the whirling, buzzing, roaring streets of Hanoi. Back home, I see people crossing the busiest of intersections with their noses firmly planted in their phones, but such habits would lead to certain injury here!
The sidewalks are a maze of people socializing, cooking, selling wares, entreating you for your custom. It’s also not uncommon to suddenly hear a scooter humming from behind you! The paving stones are often uneven and broken. At one point, a car turned into an alley and struck a block of stone fallen away from the sidewalk. The driver did not discern what was going on, so kept pressing the accelerator—only to have the wedge-shaped stone suddenly spit out across the alley like the payload of some ancient catapult. This created quite a stir amongst the onlookers!
There is always something different to see here. At one moment, you happen upon the most derelict door . . . the next a French Colonial building, painted in bright colours and sharp trim. Then, suddenly, a beautiful tree has insinuated itself into the architecture, its roots and vines twisting upwards through electrical cables.
The collision of past and present is very apparent here. The scooters weave in and out, but it’s not uncommon to see the riders wearing nón lá (traditional Vietnamese hats), or to suddenly espy a woman wandering along, carrying a quang ganh (two baskets on either end of a bamboo stick).
So many sights, smells and sounds. Especially sounds. The cacophony of the traffic noise is relentless. Honking is a way of life here. I have fantasies of discovering a shop that specializes entirely in installing, enhancing, and fixing car horns.
Yet . . . these are all things I love about this city. You certainly feel alive. Some people like to go for a beach holiday, but to me, nothing makes me feel more present and clear than exploring a city like this.
In just one day, we’ve become pretty adept at crossing the streets here, drawing on our previous practice in Bangkok. The trick is timing the scooters, cars, tuk tuks, and buses—all coming straight at you at different speeds and angles, and often swerving as they approach.
I should add that most intersections don’t have lights. The ones that do are a bit more manageable, but the ones that don’t—there’s some mystery at play here as to how the drivers and riders on the different intersecting routes sort themselves out. As a pedestrian, there is no opportune moment to cross—you just have to go for it. The key, is never stop moving. You stop, you juke, you jag . . . you’re probably done for.
Eventually, we did require a break from the din, so we ducked inside the palatial gardens of the National Library of Vietnam. The library was originally founded by the French Colonial government, and it shows in the very European layout of the place. It was amazing to take a few steps off the street and suddenly find ourselves in a place where the traffic was muted and the birds were squawking.
The library itself featured many old texts and newspapers, many of them in French.
After the library, we found our way to the Museum of History. We purchased our tickets for a humble fee of 40,000 dong (less than 2 US dollars) and began exploring the gardens. There were many statues here, interspersed with beautiful bonsai-type trees.
The trees gave me unexpected inspiration for a different world I’m building for Zoone, but I was most intrigued by the statues . . .
That last one is a mythical tiger. Mythical, I suppose, because of that mischievous grin!
After we had our fill of the gardens, we went inside the museum itself. The museum covers the history of Vietnam from the prehistoric age, through the middle ages of repelling Chinese incursions, to French Colonization.
A couple pieces in particular caught our eye . . .
This pair of whips jumped out at me (once again, for world-building purposes):
One is made of bones, the other a manta ray tail.
After a quick lunch, we back-tracked through the city to the Women’s Museum. This is a unique exhibit chronicling the contribution of women in all aspects of Vietnamese society—from child-rearing, textiles, food preparation, agriculture, and even war. There’s a different floor to cover each aspect.
The museum is designed around a central installation of these beautifully decorated nón lá:
I found a lot of unexpected inspiration here—unexpected because so many of the traditions and customs had been previously unfamiliar to me and they really helped me consider some angles for the world I’m building. In particular, I was quite interested to learn that many of the ethnic groups within Vietnam employed a matriarchal approach. So, instead of the woman going to live with the husband’s family, the reverse was the case.
Marcie and I were very captivated by the floor dedicated to women’s involvement in the Vietnam War. They were truly instrumental in that conflict; their strength, determination, and zeal really comes across in the exhibit.
The museum is very modern, incorporating a lot of multimedia, but, for me, I’m always the most attracted to the physical items. Here are some of my favourites that caught my eye . . .
After the museums, we were pretty tuckered out, so we slogged back to our hotel and arranged traditional Vietnamese massages.
We’ve made arrangements for a tour of Halong Bay towards the end of the week—as for tomorrow, we’ve left it wide open for more exploration and discovery.