The grass is always greener on the other side, as they say. In Vietnam you would do best to appreciate the grass you’re standing on, as getting to the other side might just kill you. While travelling through China, it became apparent quite quickly that traffic laws operate a little differently in Asia. However, nothing could have prepared us for what seemed to be millions of mopeds cruising down the road (and sometimes the sidewalk) in Hanoi, through cross walks and red lights alike without a hint of slowing down. As the streets are narrow, with no shoulder, anyone who needs to dismount their scooters will need to park them on the sidewalk so as to be out of traffic’s way. This means that you, the measly pedestrian, are forced to walk the street… where as I mentioned before, there are a steady stream of non-stop mini-motorcycles barreling directly toward you. When landing in Hanoi and searching for your hostel, this will be your introduction to the city (and country if Hanoi is your first stop in Vietnam). Just as quickly as you learn how to safely cross the street, you will discover that Hanoi is a city full of charm and unbelievably inexpensive frills.
*** Tip: Crossing the street in Vietnam is easy, once you get the hang of it. Step in to the street when there is a bit of a gap between you and the traffic, or about 30′ from where you will be standing once on the street and the closest moped or bicycle that would come in to contact with you if it does not slow down, stop, or swerve to avoid you. Step on to the street. Watch the traffic very carefully and walk forward. Those on mopeds or bicycles will judge how fast you are walking to decide which way they need to swerve in order to avoid you. Keep walking. If you see a bus or a car coming, don’t walk in front of them. Mopeds can swerve to avoid you, but the streets in Vietnam are small, and a bus or car won’t really have anywhere to go. Generally mopeds, bicycles, and pedestrians all yield to trucks, buses, and cars.
The city is beautiful, in its own way. The Old Quarter is a collection of narrow three storey buildings that contain apartments, hostels, restaurants, bars, and shops. Walking through the streets of Hanoi, it’s impossible not to notice the impact that the French have had upon life in Vietnam. The tiny faux balconies lining the outside of most windows on each building are reminiscent of the architecture in Paris, and baguettes are truly a staple in the daily diet of the average tourist and local alike. Most common is Bahn My, a type of Vietnamese sandwich that is made using these baguettes. The fillings will include a pate (again, borrowing from the French) as well as carrots, egg, lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and a sweet chili sauce. I’ve never tasted anything like it. It’s delicious, and it’s a true combination of Vietnamese and French culture on a bun… sorry, in a baguette. Of course, while in Hanoi it’s also imperative that you eat as much Pho (Vietnamese soup) and as many spring rolls as possible. Both are especially good in the north of Vietnam, and Hanoi has plenty of options to choose from for cheap Pho stalls and restaurants.
On our first night in Vietnam, we were lucky enough to have met a British guy at our hostel (which served FREE BEER from 7:30pm-8:30pm: Central Backpackers Hostel) who had been living in Hanoi for about 4 months. Thus, he knew the ins and outs, the good places and the hidden gems. After leading us through the maze that is the Vietnam street map, he took a group of us to a local restaurant that served these little pork bites that you dipped in fish sauce, as well as cheese sticks. Apparently these are quite common in Hanoi, and they were amazing. Better yet, we ordered a bottle of Vodka which came out to about $0.20 each and had at least 5 rounds of shots between 10 people or so. All the while, we were seated on tiny little plastic stools in front of the restaurant, just steps away from the street where mopeds hurtled along. Very cool experience, and anyone who visits Hanoi hasn’t truly seen the city until they’ve grabbed a bite at one of these local restaurants and been seated on the plastic stools along the sidewalk.
Afterwards, we got a taste for the Hanoi nightlife as the British guy knocked on what seemed to be a completely random metal door which swung open and revealed a packed, loud, crazy-ass nightclub. No cover, underground beats (with a few Gangnam Style re-mixes thrown in there), and buckets filled to the brim with enough Red Bull and some sort of alcohol to get 4 heavy drinkers decently buzzed, for as little as $1 each.
Hanoi can be hectic, but it can also be incredibly relaxing. A stroll along the Hoan Kiem Lake at the heart of the Old Quarter offers up a good view of the Turtle Tower, a popular temple visited by tourists and religious locals alike. The lake is also lined with a number of good restaurants and a few cafes to enjoy the scenery. Jamie and I stopped at one particular spot that was located directly next to the lake and offered up some seriously good coffee mixed with ice cream for as little as $3. The coffee tastes as if were sitting at Parisian cafe… but with ice cream in the middle of it. GOD DAMN, was it good!
While in Hanoi, we visited a number of attractions including the Temple of Literature, a really cool and beautiful shrine that outlines the long history of academia in Hanoi, as well as some of the teachings of Confucianism. Despite the name, it’s definitely a temple and not a university. Just as interesting, in my opinion, were the dozens of makeshift badminton courts on the outside walls of the temple. All that you need is a net, two rackets, and a birdie in order to set up your game, as the lines for hte court are painted onto the cobblestone sidewalk. Another good temple to check out (sans badminton courts), is the Turtle Temple that I mentioned before, located roughly in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake. Entrance to each temple is about $1 per person. If you’re going to check out one museum in Hanoi, make sure that it’s the Hanoi Museum, which outlines the details of the revolution against French colonial rule, the battles with the Japanese in World War II, and of course the Vietnam-American War. Entrance to the Hanoi Museum, like the temples, is only about $1.
Hanoi is a city full of fascinating historical sights, beautiful architecture, insane nightlife, incredible food, and truly terrifying traffic. This has been one of Jamie and my favourite cities on our trip thus far, and if in Southeast Asia you’d truly be missing out without a stop in Vietnam’s capital.