Loud. Hectic. Smoggy air and mish-mashed criss-crossing of motorbikes and pedestrians. Exhaust fumes infused with the smell of roasting meat and squid over coal fires and hand-held fans. Motorbike engines revving, street vendors calling out, cacophonous honking. Grimy shop fronts with grimier and once-colourful French colonial facades of upper levels dripping with climbing vines.
These are the senses I first recall about Hanoi. Crossing an intersection there for the first time.. I’ve never felt such trepidation (there is no pedestrian crossing or traffic light that doesn’t serve as meaningless decoration..so there is no real safe time to cross! The trick is to just go as soon as there’s any gap between motorbikes, and maintain a slow, steady pace. Drivers generally weave around you while honking to signify their presence. Don’t forget to say your prayers lol)!
The Old Quarter has largely been unchanged since the period of French colonisation, hence the name, and you can see an intriguing harmony of historic architecture and nature. Roots meshing with rusty gates, cracking through pavement, cascading leaves and vines near verandahs. Near Hoan Kiem Lake there are modern hotels and a luxury department store but I loved exploring the old streets and especially Ancient House, which is the oldest house in Hanoi and beautifully preserved. It stirs the imagination as to what life may have been like during times of French colonisation, and there are artefacts of daily life on display.
This is the city that I first rode behind someone on a motorbike and scooter (I hitch-hiked the first time :D), and it was so exhilarating and then relaxing to cruise around the lake at night with many lights illuminating buildings and the path surrounding it. A few locals I met found my excitement about motorbikes amusing, and took me out for joy-rides. I saw toddlers sandwiched between parents on bikes, students stuck together riding three at a time on one scooter with bags of take-away coffees hanging from handles and chatting with their friends on the scooter next to them, girls in tight dresses and heels wrapping their arms around the waist of their beau while resting their head on his back, hair fluttering out.
I found the incessant noise pollution very stressful.. I didn’t enjoy the city in that aspect. Hanoi-ians kind of reminded me of Seoulites – busy, keeping to themselves, conscious of others and staying out of people’s ways. But loud.
You don’t need long here, 2-3 days maybe, it served me as a central point to arrive in Vietnam then go to Sapa and Ha Long Bay like it does for most people.
Top 3 To Do:
- Book yourself into Hanoi Brother Inn! It’s the first hostel I’ve ever stayed at and they’ve honestly ruined me for hostels.. 5 star hotels may have immaculate service but I think these guys do it better, because they honestly go beyond faultless professionalism – they treat you as a valued friend or family member. The staff call each other “brother” and ask things like, “How did you sleep? Was the shower and Wifi okay?”, “What would you like for breakfast? My brother will make it right away”, “Where will you go today? Do you need my brother to book anything for you?” Always a warm smile on their face! They organised my itinerary and booked my overnight trip to Sa Pa and Ha Long Bay, and when I left Hanoi at 5:30AM for a flight (I know.. wtf was I thinking?!) they woke up earlier than me to make me a hardy breakfast to have in the taxi they also called in. So touched! [Michael, if you ever read this, I’m so grateful to you and the team! I miss eating soft-boiled eggs with that chili sauce with you and thank you for lending your motorbike! I forgot to buy the chili sauce I’m so sad!] I wasn’t the only one impressed with their service because look at their Superb Rating on Hostelworld and #2 Rank in Hanoi on TripAdvisor!
- Have THE BEST pho, banh mi, and kem xoi! PHO: Don’t know the exact location but when you walk out of Hanoi Brother Inn, turn left and walk down along Bat Dan street until you see two pho shops next to each other. You wanna go into the first one / one on the left – AMAZING broth that had this unique smoky, charred, super umami flavour! BANH MI: Anthony Bourdain claims Banh Mi Phuong in Hoi An is the best in Vietnam but that’s because he hasn’t tried Bami Bread lulz. Sit down on one of the tiny plastic seats in or outside the cosy shop and prepare be to tastebud-blown. As soon as you bite the bread, the top layer shatters into crispy smithereens and your brain registers the sound and deems it delicious even before you taste the soft bread underneath hugging the deliciously marinated meat and fresh veggies! The sauce is crazy delicious and addictive! Only complaint: it needs to be 5x bigger! Several locations on their FB. KEM XOI: I was brought to this place by a cool local who knows the owner when I asked where the best kem xoi (sticky rice dessert with condensed milk and varied toppings) is. Super popular place with a huge range of desserts to eat and drink! I wanted to try one of everything! The kem xoi we got was deliciously textured sticky rice well balanced with sweet and salty, a juicy cheek of mango finely sliced with a drizzle of condensed milk, dried coconut shavings, and vanilla ice cream on top! [Thanks Hahai! *NOM] LOCATION HERE.
- Day vs Night moseying: During the day wander around the streets of Old Town, there are lots of shops selling art, textiles, and coffee beans. Ancient House is definitely worth a snoop. Plenty of cafes to relax in with air-con and free wifi! At night check out the Night Market (not open on all nights) and go for a walk or motorbike ride around Hoan Kiem Lake.
Thank me later guys, enjoy! 😉