Every single pre-conceived idea I'd harboured about Vietnam vanished the moment I set foot in Hanoi. I'm not sure why, but I didn't expect a communist country to be quite so enterprising and quite so capitalist in feel. There were shops and stalls everywhere and the locals were very engaging, quite keen to practise their English, and in some cases offering to buy us a soft drink in exchange for a bit of conversation.
Hanoi felt so very exotic, and was a lovely blend of Eastern culture with hints of its French colonial past. We drank locally-brewed beer at the Bia Hoi stalls on the street corners, ate delicious Pho in ramshackle stalls with the locals, queued for hours to see an embalmed Ho Chi Minh, and risked life and limb by crossing very busy streets into oncoming moped traffic!
We took a day trip to Halong Bay and were blown away by the beauty of the James Bond villain-esque limestone islets. These were declared a World Heritage Site in 1994 and it is easy to see why. Our boat took us between the islands, into tiny caves and onward to visit a little boating community that had settled in the bay. The views were simply breathtaking and I felt very sad when we had to leave.
Next we boarded an overnight train and headed north, close to the Chinese border to the mountainous hill station of Sapa. Here rice paddies flanked the mountains and despite the rainy season being very present, we spent a few days trekking, popping into some hill tribe settlements on our way. Our 17 year old guide, a local schoolgirl on her summer break, was fascinating to talk to. She had big plans to be a doctor, and her insights into tribal life, the options open to her and her peers and the role of women in the hill tribes really opened our eyes to her culture.
After a few days, we returned to Hanoi and after a bit of sightseeing and more Bia Hoi we finally made our way to the train station via moped taxis. Traffic in Hanoi is scary at the best of times, but this felt like a fitting way to further experience the pace of life in the city. I loved the north of Vietnam so much. It confounded so many of my expectations. The people were welcoming and open, the food was delicious and while the trauma of the past was in evidence the country was very forward-looking. The history and culture were very rich, and I felt as if I was only scratching the surface.