I arrived at Hanoi late at night by myself after 20 hours of flying and met up with some of the people from our group. At night, Hanoi is pretty dead. Everything is dark, and hardly any people are roaming the streets. This city shuts down very early – a standard thing in communist Vietnam. However, what greeted us in the morning was a whole different picture. Hustle and bustle starting at 5-6 am, people gathering to eat pho (Vietnamese soup) at street stalls, grilling all kinds of meat on the streets, rushing to work, motorbikes everywhere, children running to school, honking, bicycle vendors selling everything from balloons to floor lams, noise, humidity, honking, honking…. That’s Hanoi, and if I may say it gently…. This place is not for a delicate novice traveler.
We were staying at the Old Quarter, which means the space on the street is even tighter (than in the fancier French Quarter). All the life happens on the sidewalks here (from selling to eating to manufacturing and repairing), and each street is dedicated to one type of product is sells. Here’s, for example a toy street:
Also, anything and everything can be sold or transported on a bike (or a motorbike). This lady is selling all kinds of flowers, but we observed much crazier things too. Like, fence… or other motorbikes… strapped to the guy’s back as he tried to balance on the street. Maybe I should consider displaying my art on a bike and rolling with it through downtown Chicago?… Just a thought.
If you’re a pedestrian in Hanoi, you’re kind of have to make your own walking path. Streets are full of cars, motorbikes and the occasional bicycles (oh, I wish I came to Vietnam at a time when bicycles still ruled!). Sidewalks are used for parking those motorbikes, selling food and goods, and eating. So you are forced to walk on the edge of the street but you have to watch your footing so you don’t trip over a parked bike or an occasional dog or child, and you have to watch the road so you don’t collide with a random motorist. And somehow, day after day, this flow works for everybody.
Ironically, the very first statue I saw in Vietnam was a statue of Lenin! For a second, it felt like I was back in the communist USSR. …and not too far, was a Ukrainian consulate.
After out first morning of exploring Hanoi (which meant endlessly walking the streets to get familiar with the city) we were a bit exhausted. Central Hanoi is rather small though, and even though the streets of the Old Quarter seemed incomprehensible and confusing at first, by the end of the 1st day I could make my way around without looking at the map too much. But our lungs got overwhelmed by the fumes of the motorbikes, and it was a welcome break to sit down for lunch at an air conditioned cozy restaurant. For locals, such restaurants are a luxury, and it felt a bit odd to see these places full of white tourists. Locals mostly eat at street stalls. (however, read the comments for more on this topic). But, we shamelessly enjoyed our “expensive” and relaxing $5 meals.
Later on our first day we couldn’t resist a spa. 1 hour massage for a mere $10….need I say more?
After a day in Hanoi, we took a 2-day trip to Ha Long Bay, and then returned to the crazy city for a couple more days, at which point Kurt joined us.
We spent much time walking around the central lake. As central Hanoi doesn’t have much green space, the lake is the Old Quarter’s only oasis, and locals come here in droves to do their morning tai-chi, their evening runs, for romantic dates, and for wedding photos.
This is the temple on the lake:
We also very much enjoyed viewing paintings at Hanoi’s Art Museum (or officially called Vietnam Fine Art Museum). Heavy on communist and war themes, Vietnam’s historic specialty is lacquer paintings, and I found their colors, blends and details to be fun and refreshing. Unlike the air in the museum, which was hot and humid (with the exception of a couple of fans) – but I highly recommend the museum anyway.
On our last day, we spent much time walking around French Quarter. In comparison with Old Quarter, it is a much calmer area with wider streets, fancier hotels and shops, and art galleries. It look
s and feels more like Europe. Here’s the Opera House:
I don’t remember the name of this hole-in-the-wall but Kurt and I enjoyed sipping our morning coffee here and watching all kinds of characters and Hanoi life unfold on the street:
And this electrical wiring… reminds me of the favelas in Brazil. Not a big deal though, our Chicago alley wiring is only a tad bit less messy.
Last but not least: during the first couple of days each of us learned quite a lot about Vietnam traffic. First, there are no (or barely any) traffic lights. At the intersections, vehicles just… avoid each other. Miraculously, swarms of motorbikes usually don’t collide. But if you are a pedestrian, trying to cross the street, you may think you need nerves of steel. But the formula is simple: just go! Don’t even look too much – there is always a motorbike coming right at you – just start walking. But once you are walking, whatever you do, do NOT stop. They know how to avoid you if you keep moving, but if you stop, you confuse them. I saw may near misses between tourists and bikes or cars simply because they were not walking consistently. Ok, I admit. Often I was one of those tourists.
Bye, Hanoi! It was so fun to meet you.