Hanoi is very different than Hong Kong. Our introduction to the city was a dimly lit airport, an inefficient visa system, a maniac taxi driver, congested roads, and “helpful” hotel staff that wanted to book a dozen tours for us before we had even dropped our bags.
Luckily, the city looked a lot more pleasant after a good night’s sleep. We spent our first morning in Vietnam wandering Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Every one of the 36 narrow streets is named for a product (like silk, silver, or sweet potatoes) and originally run by a guild. Today, some of the shops match the old street names, but more have replaced their traditional goods with souvenirs and knockoff Northface bags.
The first thing you notice walking around Hanoi is the traffic. It was terrifying when we were traveling by taxi, amusing when we were sitting in cafes watching it fly by, and exhausting after a day of navigating through it. The Old Quarter has narrow streets, perfect for intimate walking experiences but heavily trafficked by locals on motorbikes.
The first few times we crossed the street were thrilling adventures – we walked slowly and steadily and the motorbikes parted around us; we learned quickly to avoid the cars – but the novelty of parting the motorbike sea quickly wore off.
It didn’t help that the sidewalks were either informal motorbike parking lots or cafe patios covered in tiny plastic stools. We had to walk on the street most of the time, enjoying the sights while avoiding the motorbikes. But the traffic was part of the spectacle and I took more photos of busy streets and impossibly balanced goods on the backs of motorbikes than anything else on our trip.
We used our Lonely Planet guidebook to figure out what sights to see in the city. Sadly, we weren’t able to see Uncle Ho’s body. The mausoleum is closed on Fridays and Mondays – the only two days we were in Hanoi. But we did see the traditional water puppet show. The water puppets were entertaining and cheap, but slightly spoiled by the constant flash photography of inconsiderate tourists.
The highlight of Hanoi wasn’t the attractions, but watching every-day life for the locals. The motorbike traffic and constant honking, the street cafes and tiny stools, the fresh fruit and vegetable markets, the bamboo pole merchants hawking goods to locals and tourists, the tangle of wires and cables hanging from poles, the skinny buildings designed to avoid frontage taxes, and the ramps that allowed people to park motorbikes in their living rooms at night (no garages here). It was all so different from life at home. We live in such a regulated world – most of what we saw in Hanoi (for better or worse) would be illegal in Vancouver.
The food in Hanoi was good and the beer was cheap. We found excellent vegetarian food at Tamarind Cafe and the Hanoi Social Club was a funky restaurant that had excellent food and great vegetarian options.
Compared to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, Hanoi was pretty tame and felt more Communist, but as newly arriving tourists it was a lot to take in with all the noise and people. None of the attractions in Hanoi blew us away, but the city served as an excellent base to explore Northern Vietnam. Trips to Sapa and Halong Bay leave from Hanoi, and it was convenient to leave our big packs in our hotel in Hanoi while we explored the more rural areas.