Airport Rating ***
Reception of locals *****
Hanoi was similar in feel to Siem Reap and Chiang Mai, the conveniences and buzz of a city but smaller in scope than Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City, despite being the Capital of Vietnam. Hanoi was the beginning of a trip that would take me East to West from Vietnam to Thailand, crossing Cambodia and I knew the few days I had in the city were possibly going to be the only one's where I wouldn't be joined by other travellers, so I made sure I spent some time alone discovering the city and away from hostel socials etc.
Hanoi is definitely warm, but not quite as hot as some of the other places I would visit in the south of the country, or further inland in Cambodia. As I walked through narrow alleyways, with independent shops, offbeat posters and overt communist messaging, I couldn't help but think that this is probably hipster heaven.
Founded over 3000 years ago, the city has seen rule by native Vietnamese kingdoms, Chinese dynasties, French colonialists and Communist ideologies. These have all put their mark on the city in their own special way, whether through the cuisine (Hanoi allegedly has the best baguettes outside of France), language or architecture.
After spending a couple of hours trying to get my bearings in the city, I felt a little hungry and went into a local stall that had got good reviews on trip advisor. I was met by a middle aged Vietnamese woman who took me to my seat. Looking around, I saw only one more person, an older European lady, sipping her green tea.
I asked for her recommendation of good Northern Vietnamese cuisine, to which she obliged. In all my trips around SE Asia, this was a surprisingly late introduction to the pleasures of rice paper and Pho, two very unique items of food. I had no idea how to use the rice paper, so a waitress rolled the first sheet for me. The texture is very weird, it doesn't look edible but it does the job, adding structure to the food you eat it with. Pho was something else. When I was bought, what looked like a bowl of hot water over, I was a little disappointed but it was honestly one of the tastiest dishes I had eaten. I found a Vietnamese restaurant serving Pho in London, needless to say, I've visited it a number of times now.
It's difficult not to get lost in the streets of Hanoi, narrow passages and buildings that are only differentiated by the people standing outside them mean that on a number of occasions I found myself wandering around without a clue as to where I am. When I travel, I never use mobile data, however I will connect to Wi-Fi every couple of days so using anything like Google Maps is not an option. The good thing about getting lost in a new city, is the amount of new things you can discover, completely by accident. A found a shop that specialised in old communist propaganda, from paintings to posters. I must have spent close to an hour in that shop, going through thousands of pages of posters they had in little books. It really does make you realise just how different Northern Vietnam is, not just from Europe but also from its Southern half. There were hundreds of posters glorifying the Viet Cong (army) and Viet Minh (party).
In an environment where Euro-centrism rules and all actions by Europe and America are seen as just, it was eye opening to see things from a different perspective. For the Vietnamese, the war with American in the late 60's was not just a sideshow of a larger cold war, but the second war of its independence. There were numerous references to shaking off the shackles of slavery and 'defeating the imperialists' as they had done with France in 1954. It's strange, I have heard a lot about the larger Vietnam War in the 1960's but less so about the French-Indochina war of the 1950's. It was interesting to read about the famous conflicts from another perspective..
Hanoi hosts a very large street market at night.. Unlike the indoor ones in other cities in SE Asia, this market stretches across a number of blocks. Compared to Chiang Mai (Thailand) or Siem Reap (Cambodia), this market, although larger in scale, did not have the same atmosphere. The stalls were more hit and miss (although with greater numbers, that is always the danger) but the general feel of the place wasn't as warm as other night markets. Nevertheless, there are a lot of bargains you can get here, and it is definitely worth walking the streets, in the middle of the crowds and immersing yourself in the Hanoi night.
As I walked back through the city, I noticed the revelers out in full force. I had made a conscious decision to spend a few days discovering the city on my own and staying away from the night life so its difficult to comment on how the night life is compared to other cities, however, from what I saw walking late at night, there is definitely a loud, vibrant scene in Hanoi, with a good mix of locals and tourists.
Hanoi is centered around Hoan Kiem Lake, in the evening, its a beacon for mosquito's but if you wake up early in the morning and head down (about 5am) the lake hosts the locals Tai Chi exercises.
I had heard about this from people who had traveled to Hanoi previously, but nothing prepared me for the sight ahead of me, watching hundreds of local residents doing their early morning exercises on the banks of the lake. I walked around the perimeter of the lake (takes about 30 minutes) watching the different stretches surrounded by peace and tranquility.
I decided to take a further walk into the city, into the French Quarter. Turning the corner and leaving the lake behind, I felt as if I was transported into 1930's France. This isn't so surprising considering French colonial history in the area, and the city being dubbed the 'Paris of the East', however the city is so much more than this eurocentric description. It molds the European and Vietnamese worlds together with a coolness that defies its authoritarian past. As I walked further into the French Quarter I began to see large, luxury chain stores, a world apart from the Hanoi I had left some 20 minutes earlier.
After a while, I found myself missing the sights and smells of the old quarter, so heading back toward the lake I began to get the familiar smells of street vendors. As the sun had now risen over the city, the locals practising Tai Chi were replaced by locals practising ballroom dancing, it was a little strange, but put a smile on myself watching some of the older couples. I found the locals in Hanoi to be full on energy. Older member's of the community were particularly interested in me, waving me over or giving me thumbs up signals.
There was a large event commemorating Ho Chi Minh coming up in a few weeks so I stood and watched some rehearsals in a large square next to the lake. First it was children, then older members of the community putting together performances in singing and dancing.
Heading back into the old town, via some local shops I realised that Hanoi is probably one of the most dangerous places for a pedestrian I have been to. Usually you step out confidently and walk through oncoming traffic (who expect this and tend to drive around you) but its not so easy when the roads are built in a traditional French style so are 6 lines wide and cars are doing between 20-30 mph. I made it through the traffic, but I wasn't surprised to later hear that many tourists have accidents on the streets of Hanoi every year.
The city itself has a lot going for it. A unique charm born out of its history, its one of the most fascinating cities I have been too. There are a few unexpected delights from the food, to the people to relatively slow (for a city) way of life. The contrast between modern West Hanoi, French Colonial Hanoi and the Old Quarter are both interesting and unexpected, and a lively night market with parties around the city giving this city a little something for everyone.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.