Two and a half years ago Brad and I arrived in Hanoi at the end of three weeks travelling around Vietnam. It was dirty and chaotic and difficult to get around. We stayed only two nights, and moved on as fast as we could to the peace and spectacular beauty of Ha Long Bay. We told other people ‘Vietnam is wonderful, it’s beautiful, but Hanoi… meh.’ We came back because Brad’s sister and her boyfriend would be here and while we were exceptionally excited to see them the thought of returning to Hanoi itself didn’t particularly excite us.
I would like to take this opportunity to apologise to Hanoi. It’s still dirty and chaotic and the constant cacophony of sounds and smells is overwhelming, but boy does this city have charm. Perhaps less like the charm of old European cobblestoned cities and more like the unique charm of an aging eccentric relative that occasionally says something wildly inappropriate.
Hanoi is not a place you can watch from the outside. You have to throw yourself headfirst into the sea of motorbikes and disorder and fold yourself into tiny plastic chairs in the middle of the street and eat whatever is handed to you. Hanoi does not embrace you with open arms like other cities but it also doesn’t chase you away with wide-eyed stares and constant hawkers. There are a few people that follow you down the street asking to polish your flip flops, and a couple of women that will pin you against a wall in an attempt to force the bamboo poles they carry on your shoulder (so they can then charge you for a photograph) and of course every taxi driver in the city looks at you with dollar sign eyes, but for the most part Hanoi doesn’t give a shit that you’re there and it isn’t trying to impress you.
We spent a few days wandering around falling in love with the city we were reluctant even to like. Best of all we got to wander around with people we loved.
On Sunday we made the 120km trek out to Cuc Phuong National Park using public transport. We didn’t see much of the enormous national park, which is Vietnam’s oldest, because by the time we had spent about 3 hours navigating ourselves out there we only had a couple of hours before we had to start heading back. Of course if you went on one of the many tours that leave from Hanoi to the park you would have time to see a lot more, but you wouldn’t get to squish with 38 other people into a 24 seated local bus. Pros and cons. We did get to see the Endangered Primate Rescue Centre (which to be honest was all we were there for) and the Turtle Conservation Centre. The Primate Centre was worth the trek. It is an initiative of the Frankfurt Zoological Society and clearly the focus of the Centre is not tourism but conservation and rehabilitation. You are not permitted to enter the centre without a local guide, and while I believe the primary role of the guide is so you don’t wander off the designated path and disturb the primates, our guide was lovely and very knowledgeable. At the centre we saw (from a distance) 15 different species of langurs and gibbons, of which 6 species are not found anywhere else in captivity.
The following day we went to the Hanoi Zoo, which was a far cry from the conservation efforts we had witnessed the day before. They say you get what you pay for and the Zoo cost 40c to enter. While you get to see tigers very, very close up they were kept on display in enclosures not much bigger than a standard sized bedroom with nothing to stimulate them. Their fur was in knots and they were clearly distressed, pacing back and forth along the fence. There was also an Asian Black Bear that stood against the fence stepping from side to side and thrashing its head back and forth. Any excitement at seeing such spectacular animals so closely was immediately overwhelmed by sadness at the conditions that they were kept in. There were lots and lots of animals but seemingly no staff around to stop people from violently shaking the fencing of the enclosures to get the attention of the animals, or passing bottles of water and chip packets through to the monkeys.
In conclusion; Hanoi is wonderful, and you should go to the Primate Centre at Cuc Phuong (preferably by local bus). Do not go to the Zoo. The below photo pretty much sums up the Zoo: the saddest monkey in the world, and one with plastic in its mouth.