Tag Archives: urban exploring

Hanoi, Vietnam

My ten-day* visit to Vietnam began in Hanoi. Upon arrival I noticed a completely different feel from anywhere I’d been before. Heading into the city at night from the airport, it was difficult to get a good view, however, it was quite easy to hear the noises of the metropolis. With roughly eight million people calling Hanoi home, the city is very much alive: talking, shouting, laughing, honking, screeching, music booming and roosters crowing. Even so, I enjoyed my short introduction to Vietnam; meeting other travelers was very easy and visiting alone worked perfectly. The city is full of exceptionally outgoing people and most days I was invited to a beer, dinner or coffee by a total stranger. *I loved my short visit so much that I soon returned for a road trip across the country – an experience I’ll write about soon.

Trying to piece together a vision of Hanoi before visiting was difficult. Easy-to-find information for prospective travelers is, unfortunately, repetitive and covers narrow ground; doing a circuit of war museums, gawking at the famous train street or grabbing bún chả where President Obama and Anthony Bourdain dined. I also found an appalling amount of “tip” sites exclusively directed at men focused on when and how to pick up drunk or drugged female backpackers or how to buy local women (tourists’ feelings of entitlement in Asia can be extreme and alarming)I filled information gaps with stories and pictures from small travel/personal blogs run by women, travelers living outside the U.S. and Australia, and Vietnamese people traveling their own country. Some of this was found on WordPress but many social media channels were used. After a bit of work I had a simple list of activities and places unique to Hanoi that would get me out and about and getting to see things for myself. In reality, it was challenging to actually follow the plan because of how social other travelers and local people turned out to be. Everyone wanted to chat, hang out, show me something or go exploring. I’m always a concerned while traveling alone that there may be times when I feel lonely or bored but I think it might have been impossible for that to happen in Hanoi.

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Rooftop view.

The first day I simply wandered the streets and alleys stopping when anything delicious came into view (or, as a coffee addict, the aroma of roasting beans hung in the air). Common Vietnamese dishes known to westerners – phở, chả cá, bánh mi, cốm and bún cha are easy to spot, as well as traditional, and all sorts of fusion and foreign eateries, including American fast food. During meal times groups of people just take over the sidewalk, and on occasion the street, with little plastic chairs and tables to sit outside for talking and eating (peoplewatching is top-notch in Hanoi). With so many people around it was fun to ask for recommendations for bars, coffee or snacks. One evening, after speaking with three different groups of people, the same corner was mentioned twice (a noodle stall served there) so I decided to find it. I ended up wandering the same few crowded and noisy blocks for about an hour before finding the place. While I had a big bowl of pho, I talked to the very friendly young lady running things. She laughed after I told her all the trouble that went into finding her place and informed me that Americans sometimes pronounce the Vietnamese word phở as they should for the word “đường phố, which means “street.” Apparently, when I thought I was asking for the nearby pho shop, I sounded like I was asking where the street was.

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Egg coffee and pho.

Getting around the city, even on foot, was an adventure in some of the busier neighborhoods. Nicer motorbikes and cars get parked on any empty patch of sidewalk available and people often converge on curbs and street side restaurants during meal times or just drink in hand, pushing walking traffic into the roadway. From the little alleys to main thoroughfares, everything turns into a gridlocked mess in the evening and traffic looked heavy most of the time. In the French Quarter the madness sometimes worked in my favor, allowing me to slowly walk into what looked like a parking lot and push through. When things weren’t jammed, I watched amazed at how effortlessly Vietnamese drivers just flow through the streets on scooters like a school of fish. They can avoid bicyclists, snail-paced walkers, buses, and opposite traffic even in nightmarish seven-way intersections; I don’t know how it’s possible. Although the tourist area is compact and very walkable, when it made sense to use wheels I found rides on the ride share app Grab – this way I didn’t have to haggle or negotiate a fare. (After Thailand, I never want to haggle again. Ever.) Buses were great for longer trips, though I was very dependent on my hosts to locate the correct pick up spot.

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The long history of the Vietnamese capital, and the almost constant attempts by outsiders to influence and control the country going back millennia, can be read through examining the architecture and layout; Taoist temples and other remnants from Chinese rule, French colonial buildings and related Haussamannization, the modernist-Soviet style monuments and squares, Vietnamese flags in every public place, pro-state propaganda with military imagery, run-of-the-mill modern office buildings, hip eateries and luxury apartment complexes are all mixed together. Going into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum was interesting as well as visiting historically and politically significant places; seeing how the Vietnamese state defines itself verses the American-approved narrative of Vietnam’s history is illuminating and will be interpreted by each foreign visitor differently. It’s useful to seek out these different visual representations of some elements of modern Vietnamese life. However, the distinct atmosphere and many essential features of the culture will elude travelers that stick to museums and monuments; you will get a much more thorough feel for the city if you can ditch the tours and guides and get out into real life.

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Temple of Literature & National University, originally built as a university in 1070 CE and dedicated to Confucius and scholars. This temple is also  on the back of the 100,000 dong banknote.

Many aspects of life in Hanoi are very modern yet in many places the people face clear development issues. To a visitor on the street sanitation and infrastructure challenges are apparent. Hanoi air is usually of poor quality and it can really knock you on your ass if you are fortunate enough to have lived your life in a place with very clean air – I noticed travel forums and bloggers mentioned this frequently – be prepared, should you visit. Even though I was warned about public health problems and tried my best to take care of myself, after just three days I was struck with both pink eye and a respiratory infection. I will say, treating my conditions was easy with basic pharmacies all over the city, and exceptionally cheap while effective medications. Looking and sounding a bit ghoulish made it harder to make new friends but didn’t get in the way of enjoying the city – no grudge held!

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The fans!

On my final day in Hanoi, the Vietnamese men’s football team played in the Championship match for the AFC U-23 tournament. That morning the city erupted into a football frenzy with people driving slowly down the streets, blasting music, waving flags and wearing all kinds of red and yellow decorations, creating an infectious excitement. By afternoon televisions and radios had been rounded up and brought into any and all bars and cafes for public viewings of the match. Not wanting to miss out on watching, I ducked into a packed coffee house to watch the first half of the game among many families and children. During the half break I ran to a main street and found a bar with three huge screens outside and about 200 views jammed around little plastic tables covered with beer glasses and plates of food. Viewers even spread out into the road with a small clearing for delivery drivers, taxis, policemen and other people at work who wanted to pull over for a game update. Everyone was in a good mood and I was immediately offered a spot to sit with a group of strangers. My new friends didn’t hesitate to keep my beer glass full and filled me in on the team so much as language barriers would allow. As the game progressed the crowd erupted into different cheers and songs in several languages. Even though Vietnam would lose the match to Uzbekistan, it was some of the most fun I’ve had watching football and was yet another personal experience hinged on the friendliness and welcoming attitude Vietnamese people show towards visitors.

After the game I would catch an overnight bus to Cao Bằng, to the north, for a lovely few days exploring the rugged nature along the border with China.

Thanks for reading!

 

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Ghent is bigger, noisier and more colorful than Bruges, where I stopped earlier in the day.

A mixture of historical elements, the existence of multiple breweries and colorful street art scene brought me to Gent for a half day. I arrived in the afternoon directly from Bruges, another beautiful old city perfect for touring on foot.

As an American, I was familiar with the name of the Belgian city and vaguely aware of it’s prominence in the Middle Ages but had no idea it was a colorful busy place. Although initially interested in wandering through the well-preserved historical town, I was put on to the local street art scene by a friend from Paris who recommended I check it out.

Did you know Gent has a Graffiti Street? It connects Hoogpoort and Onderstraat and many mural however many works can be found in the old city area. From the north side enter via tunnel that will be exploding with color. Inside, a little walled street with graffiti covering every inch of surface. This space is for artists to use openly and has existed as a designated street art canvass for twenty years.

There are a lot of paid walking and biking tours of both the current street art scene and the historical architecture but they may not be necessary, especially if you are already a seasoned urban explorer.  A good tour guide should be able to recognize the work of local artists and able to point them out and also explain why a certain area is chosen to display a mural or art. A poorly run tour will just take you to street art hot spots and offer no context or show you reoccurring themes or local artists. Be wise should you go this route.

An entry to “Graffiti Street.”

As for a self tour, I would recommend searching online for “street art map Gent” and pulling the most recent dated maps. These stops can easily be layered on top of the “fixed” historical buildings and squares that are just as colorful and whimsical. A building still stands in Gent from each of the last several centuries. Seeing the well preserved and beautiful layers of different architectural styles was really amazing for my American eyes. Not since I visited Barcelona had I come across so much color and careful detail densely packed into a European city.

From Gent-Sint-Pieters station walk north along Elisabethlaan to the intersection with Kortrijksesteenweg. Take a left and follow the winding road which will move to the Leie canal and into the old city. The name of the road will change several times but a tram goes up and down the street making it easy to find a way back to the station.

I moved in a counter-clockwise direction around the compact old town past Sint-Michielsbrug bridge to Korenmarkt and then through Graffiti street and into Friday Market. From there I visited the Gruut Brewery and then crossed over the canal at Krommewal and roamed around the smaller streets near the canal until finally passing by Gravensteen Castle.

Multiple trains run daily between Ghent and Brussels and buying a ticket is as easy as just showing up at the beautiful central train station. All the medium sized cities in Belgium are connected with a web of rail lines, making car free exploration simple for a foreigner.

Thanks for reading,

Ruby

Massive Fun in Berlin

Berlin was so engaging there wasn’t any time for me to think about a post. Now that I’m waiting for my flight to Brussels, here are some highlights:

Obviously I drank a lot of beer. This is at Brauhaus Lemke in Mitte.

  • Exploring the different neighborhoods and parks. I really liked Mitte, Kreuzberg, and the area around the East Side Gallery. At night I went to a cool bar on the east side of town with a hip hop show that was so much fun!
  • Cycling. I was able to get a bike thanks to the BikeSurf community, which provides shared bikes at a pay-what-you-want rate. Berlin is safe and friendly for bikers and as someone who cycles around at home, it felt really comforting and natural to zoom around all day.
  • Food! I ate so much for so cheap. I had tons of coffee and a lot of Turkish food. You could go out for every meal and never get tired of your options. 
  • Green space. Berlin has lots of parks around the city and ACTUAL trees. Amsterdam was making me feel claustrophobic with all the pavement. I noticed the difference in the atmosphere as soon as I arrived in Berlin. Viktoria Park is especially pretty and has a large hill offering a great view if the city. Just sitting in the grass there was so restoritive and badly needed after 3 days of running around. 

Sunset along the Spree

  • The art was great and there are too many things to say about it for this post. The street art, the independent galleries, the public exhibitions and sculptures. The city changes visually everyday. And then there are all the museums I didn’t even set foot in.
  • The people! Really friendly people were everywhere and very interested in chatting if it was possible (I don’t really know German). I had conversations with people from every continent and hearing what brought them to the city and why they like it was amazing. There were a lot of smiles and lots of laughter.

I think I will need to go back for more someday. 
Thanks for reading,

Ruby

Cycling New Cities

A treat waiting for me in every major city of my upcoming trip: a bike tour or bike for borrowing! I could not be more excited to see Amsterdam, Berlin and Brussels from a bike seat.

The first time I took to the streets of a new city by bicycle was on an autumn trip to Los Angeles with my mom. She picked out an amazing bike tour of L.A. public and street art, which became private tour as everyone else in the group dropped out due to threat of rain.

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View of Madrid bike lanes at night

Our guide was young and completely immersed in the art scene and did a fabulous job taking us 10 miles or so around the city over the course of 4 hours (more about that tour here). He got a bit carried away with his own enthusiasm for his city, and also took us to see historical buildings and even tried to sneak into a studio of a well-known former street artist – and I mean literally sneak in. Maybe because we could have so easily fled on our bikes if we were seen? It was a ton of fun and revealed a side of the city that we did not know was there.

Because we were a group of three, all cyclists, we were a nimble and compact group able to zoom through traffic and across neighborhoods of every kind. My mom and I got the feeling that we had seen the city in a way we could never have just on foot or by using a car. Biking gave us freedom of movement while also keeping us open to the noise, smells and sights of the city.

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An afternoon ride in rainy Tacoma

Since then, I’ve had the privilege of cycling in several American and European cities, usually with a bike sharing program or simply borrowing one from an Air BNB or other host. It’s always been a lovely way to get to know a place and very useful in dense urban areas.

At home in Minneapolis I’m a part-time bike commuter, bike for transportation to social commitments and spend time with friends on random rides around the city in a cycle-friendly wardrobe.

Thank you for reading,

Ruby

 

Steets of Los Angeles: A Wonderland of Public Art

Los Angeles is a wonderland of street art and state-commissioned public art pieces. The city hosts world-class art museums such as The Getty, LACMA and Hammer Museum. However, one could spend an entire weekend discovering public art treasures and the ever-changing street art scene (particularly around Alameda Street and the Arts District).

One of my favorite public art pieces from a recent trip to Los Angeles is this mural by internationally known Chicano artist Frank Ramero, created for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. “Going to the Olympics,” about 100 ft. in length, consists of five pastel cars driving against a background of hearts and trees.  It is located on Highway 101, near Alameda Street, and it brings incredible brightness and beauty to the dull concrete. This piece, along with many others along Highway 101, has an interesting history and was restored in 2013, just in time for the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

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Going to the Olympics by Frank Romero

Los Angeles is a must for any art lover.

Thank you for reading,

Ruby