It takes about a minute from the time we exit the airport until we see people in conical hats moving through lush green rice paddies. The view right out the minibus window seems ready to appear on a postcard. It dawns on us that we've stepped into an entirely new environment.
We only have a few seconds to marvel at the serenity, however, before we're distracted by the chaos taking place on the road around us. Swarms of scooters buzz inches away from us, some moving directly against the traffic flow. Pedestrians spill out onto the street, and our driver frequently straddles the center of the road, only to retreat just before a collision with an oncoming truck. Hundreds of horns compete for our attention - some blaring insistently, others playing cheerful melodies.
In Hanoi, we finally sit down to enjoy our first pho, a soup that you can find on just about any street corner in the country. In the north, it's basically noodles and a few pieces of beef in clear broth, but for some reason it's quite satisfying, and we end up eating one almost every day.
After lunch, we wander off through Hanoi's old quarter, where you can buy pretty much anything. Colorful fruits entice us into the food market, where we quickly lose our appetites, as fish, crabs, and various other creatures transition from life form to food at the hands of the cheerful vendors. Even though the alleyways are only shoulder-width or so, the scooters somehow manage to follow us in here, keeping us on our toes.
As the sun starts to go down, we arrive at Ho Tay (West Lake), where we see Vietnamese couples out on the water in swan boats. The tranquility is really inviting, so we buy a ticket and join them. Once on the water, we make two observations:
- The swan boats are actually chicken boats.
- If your chicken floats past a row of flags, an angry Vietnamese man with a megaphone comes racing towards you in a motorboat.