Hanoi is 1,000 years old and therefore deserves to be called an ancient city. Despite the busy hustle and bustle, Hanoi has a calm peacefulness about it, from it’s wooden staircases crafted centuries ago, to it’s dollhouse-sized terrace houses. A beautiful serene lake, complete with a picturesque temple built in the centre, provides a lovely scenic green space in the city and is also the focal point for many public events.
Hanoi is famous for it’s street dining, which seemingly operates twenty-four hours a day. Small-framed diminutive Vietnamese customers squat on child-size blue plastic chairs while they eat, drink, chat, laugh and smoke, all at the same time.
Small cookers start firing up in the early hours of the morning and serve the staple dish Pho Bo (rice noodle soup), accompanied by an array of sumptuous temptations like sweet sticky rice cakes or spicy pork wrapped in banana leaves. The vendors busy themselves grilling, frying, boiling or sauteing a variety of food, all of which is cooked fresh, right in front of you. As you walk the streets the air is delicately tinged with a hint of tamarind, garlic, lemongrass and chilli. It simply makes you hungry all day.
A small bucket is all that is needed for washing up which is done on the pavement and the dishes are quickly recycled for the next happy customer. Added to this is a constant flow of sweeping, tidying and wiping. Rubbish is disposed of efficiently as the street-cart wheelie foot brigade takes it away as fast as it is created. The benefit is that you never see litter.
The street vendors with their makeshift portable restaurants are all part of the sidewalk dodge, which provides a very colourful, absorbing experience for the Western traveler. It’s a never-ending education, which throws unpredictable, amusing delights in front of you as you traverse the city.
The restaurant and cafe selection in Hanoi is overwhelming. Many of the second level terraced restaurants display the local Bia Hoi (draught beer) sign. It seems like every street is Eat Street and the selection includes Italian, Mexican, French, Lebanese, American and Indian, to name a few. Every cuisine and food taste is catered for in Hanoi. Think spring rolls and think Vietnam. This is the home of the Vietnamese spring roll, served fresh, wrapped in whisper-thin rice paper and tied with a ribbon of lemongrass.
The French cultural influence is not only reflected in the colonial architecture in Hanoi, but also in the food. French bread rolls and baguettes are available fresh every day and are offered to you from the local neighbourhood shoulder pole vendor. Vietnamese coffee is addictive and is served sixteen different ways.
A great way to spend an afternoon in Hanoi is to sit perched on a small wooden terraced restaurant balcony high above street level. As you look down on the mass of black electricity cables, threading across the street, dangling like black straps of liquorice you can easily lose yourself in the very essence of Hanoi. Every second roof seems to have a cat sitting on a tin roof watching in unison, as the street scene below fascinates and beguiles both animal and human at the same time.
The colour and life on the streets include flower sellers peddling their wares, vegetable, fruit and herb sellers, merchants darting across the choked traffic with surprising agility and from time to time you catch sight of a mobile sewing machine peddler who will repair a shirt or run up a suit in a matter of hours.
Motorbikes (3 million and counting) rule the road in this city of 6.4 million people. Bicycles blend in and skirt around the edges. Now and again a graceful cyclo rider, with a welcoming, timeless smile, peddling a plush red velvet carriage-like seat serenely appears and negotiates a slow path through the chaos of Hanoi’s traffic. Mini-size taxis squeeze through miniscule spaces, competing with the occasional self-propelled wheelchair weaving through the mayhem of Hanoi’s roads.
Ask a Vietnamese what side of the road they drive on and they answer, “On your side and usually coming straight at you.” Crossing the street is a challenge to one’s peripheral vision and hearing ability. Cross the road one step at a time and remember a vehicle (of some type) may be reversing into the oncoming traffic. It’s more like an artful dodge and never a simple straight line.
Probably the best way to cross the street for the newly arrived tourist in Hanoi is to simply grab the arm of a local, smile sweetly and say, “I go with you” and they are only too happy to oblige.
When in Hanoi take a cyclo ride. The pace is slow enough to see, feel, touch and taste the experience of the city. The driver sits behind you peddling away while you enjoy an unobstructed view of street life with it’s delicious array of cooking smells, colour, life, action, disorganised traffic and one thing you are guaranteed – there is never a dull moment.
The temples, pagodas, museums and places of interest are all accessible from the Old Quarter by cyclo and are just a ten to twenty minute trip. This will take you off the busy streets and through the warren of alleys and lanes.
Hanoi is alive!! Voted by Frommer’s Travel Guide as one of the World’s Top Destinations 2010, it certainly deserves this accolade. The optimism of the Vietnamese people is infectious and their graceful and gentle nature will stay with you, a long time after you have left.
Things to Do: Traditional Water Puppet Show, Hoan Kiem Lake early morning walk – watch the Tai Chi and Dance Movement classes, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Massage and spa treatments and bargain shopping at Dong Xuan Markets.
Accommodation: May De Ville Hotel Old Quarter, Hanoi. A nice little 4 star hotel, located in the middle of the old quarter. Friendly staff and good rates. www.maydevillehotel.com
Handspan Travel Agency – The staff speak perfect English. Handspan offer an affordable and very reliable service. They do not charge a service fee. They will suggest itineraries, book a private car and driver, tour guides, cruise trips and train tickets. All arrangements can be made by email in advance and you pay when you arrive in Hanoi direct at their office.
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf