Of all of the places that we have visited, we were armed with more information about Hanoi than anywhere else (thanks GST!) and we were so excited to get there. Arriving in the Old Town felt to us like the quintessential traveller experience where all of your senses are given a jolt in the very best way. Our hotel was down a slightly quieter street so it wasn’t until we had dumped our stuff and ventured out again that we experienced Hanoi’s infamous traffic. Rickshaws, bikes, cars and scooters vied for road space. The pavements are rammed with scooters and food stalls so you have to walk on the road in amongst it all.
The advice we had been given was excellent: don’t look left or right, just walk straight across the road at a slow and steady pace, but actually the traffic wasn’t as terrifying as we had been expecting, probably because we had survived India and Nepal beforehand. At least in Hanoi everyone was driving slowly. That being said, it’s worth looking at a YouTube video of crossing a road in Hanoi just for the fun factor.
We’d arrived pretty late in the day so we only really had time for a quick stroll and dinner. We had been recommended Orchid Restaurant and it was a great intro to Vietnamese food, particularly as the waiter took time to show us how to eat everything; a requirement because there are so many elements. The waiter also gave Caro a quick Vietnamese lesson. Unfortunately, we never mastered more than the odd word.
It was all delicious and the meal marked the beginning of what will undoubtedly be a lifetime love of Vietnamese food, particularly Hanoi spring rolls, which we ate for three meals a day because our first hotel in Hanoi served them for breakfast. It was awesome.
This was the first of three visits to Hanoi and we kicked off the next day with a self-guided walking tour, starting with a circuit of Lake Hoan Kiem. It was a rather grey morning so our first impression wasn’t the best but it improved on later visits.
After that we dived back in to the maze of the Old Town, where each street specializes in a specific product; our hotel was on door handle and safe street. No matter what street you are on, the overwhelming impression is of vitality and colour and endless food.
We didn’t have a specific plan in mind, we just strolled up and down the streets, dodging traffic and skirting around people scattered over the pavements, perched on low stools eating steaming bowls of breakfast noodles. Something that we found confusing on each visit to Hanoi was whether these groups of people indicated a restaurant or just a family having a meal. For this reason, we never actually got around to trying street food, because we weren’t sure how to identify it!
Anyway, back on our tour, we found our way to St Joseph’s Cathedral and sat with a coffee overlooking the rather incongruous building hunkered in the middle of the old town.
We made our way towards the main market, passing by the Old City gates on the way.
The main market struck us as more of a wholesaler, rather than a local market, particularly in the non-perishable goods section. As we weren’t in need of thirty bras we just let ourselves get a bit lost in the towering piles of clothes, shoes, frying pans and storage boxes. We wound up in the fresh produce section and, a word of warning, it has some distressing parts that we accidentally saw and hurried past.
Back in the alleys of the Old Town, we found ourselves in a temporarily pedestrianised area where a market selling every manner of lurid coloured decoration and balloon was in full swing. We have absolutely no idea if it is always there or if it was in aid of a specific celebration but it was really random and retina-achingly bright.
We had lunch at a restaurant called Cumulus, which is owned and run by a former street kid, William. There is a big sign on the street that indicates where the restaurant is but we still wondered if we were in the right place as we weaved down a narrow dingy alley and up a flight of stairs.
William handed us our menus and a piece of laminated card with his story on. Honestly, we think he was more concerned that we read his story than if we ordered any food. He was justifiably proud of his achievements. The food was simple but tasty and the portions were absolutely enormous. We hadn’t yet learned that you do not need to order a dish each in Vietnam. (See? More spring rolls)
After lunch, we visited one of the restored houses within the Old Quarter. The design and layout were really interesting, particularly the large proportion of the house given over to a shrine. It was a gorgeous dark wood and plaster building painted in the beautiful yellow colour that came to typify Vietnamese cities for us.
We wanted to taste more of the local flavours that night and we found a recommendation for Hong Hoai’s, which is famous for its Bun Cha. It was very much targeted at tourists but the food did not disappoint. For a cheap meal, the value was great and we would recommend it as an excellent place to eat.
The next day we dragged ourselves out for a run around the lake. The run was gross but being up that bit earlier meant that we were in time to witness the morning exercise routines. There were others running and walking around the lake but by far the most popular activity were aerobic dance style classes with 30 or 40 women in each group, usually in their ordinary day clothes and their handbags plonked on the floor in front of them, clapping and jumping and having an all out fantastic time. The full-blown ballroom dance class was also a real highlight for us.
After breakfast ventured further afield with the Hanoi Hilton (Hoa Lo Prison) in our sights. We had been recommended it by Sam, our Hong Kong host, and it was well worth the hour or so we spent there. The jail is no were near as large as it once was but the museum is excellent, giving information on its use during French rule and then its later use as a prison for American POWs during the Vietnam War. We felt, as with all museums in Vietnam, that you needed to read the information with a small pinch of salt, as reporting is understandably skewed negatively on the western countries and very positively about Vietnam and particularly the communist party.
That being said, the presence of the guillotine in the middle of it all certainly doesn’t do the French any favours.
Next up was a bridge designed by Eiffel, of tower fame. It is an impressive price of engineering but it would not make our must-do list, it’s a really long rusty metal bridge. After lunch, we got a Grab out of town to the Ethnology Museum. This very much does make our must-do list. There is an enormous amount to see here and the layout is very visually engaging, with concise signage so you aren’t exhausted by the end of the first section.
There are a vast number of different minorities in Vietnam and the museum makes space for them all. It’s the sort of place that would be nice to go back to on multiple visits, just to learn a little bit at a time. Outside, they have built or transplanted examples of many different minority houses and you can poke around at your leisure.
This felt more authentic than trips to actual traditional villages, there was no selling and no intrusion into people’s lives. Had it not been hotter than Hades we would have spent more time playing in these grown up playhouses.
The following day we set out for Lan Ha Bay and our first stint in Hanoi was brought to a close. It’s safe to say that we were already besotted with the city; it’s elegant and tumbledown, ancient and playful, wonderfully local yet quietly thrumming with a cosmopolitan vibe. And it pulls all this off seemingly without trying, it’s just the way the city is, every corner you come round there is something to be delighted in. Yes, Hanoi had got us good.