A real feast for the senses, Hanoi old-town initially overwhelms its visitors with a chaotic mix of colours, flavours, smells and sights.
My first encounter with this enigmatic place was with Hanoi’s haphazard roads. Trying to cross even a seemingly small road felt like a life-threatening adventure. Scooters come at you from right, left and centre and don’t stop unless they have to. Our hotel advised we ‘make eye-contact with the driver and walk out with confidence.’ So feeling a bit like Moses attempting to cross the red-sea, we stepped out into a wave of scooters, bikes, carts and street-sellers and prayed that we looked assertive enough. Sure enough they stopped. According to Phuong- the receptionist at our hotel- there a rarely any collisions in the city centre. So despite the irrational and unsystematic traffic structure, I felt pretty content crossing roads after my first few attempts.
Perhaps Hanoi is a cultural example of finding order in chaos because in spite of the arbitrary temperament of the city, it really does work. Like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, this city is an excellent example of people working together and thriving on community spirit. For me, the most defining characteristic of Vietnam was the kindness and warmth of its people. Never before have I felt so genuinely welcomed and appreciated by a country. I was not made to feel like an intruder, nor the rich westerner with lots of cash to spend. Instead, the Vietnamese people made me feel exactly as I had intended: an interested tourist, hoping to get a flavour of some of Vietnam’s fascinating culture. Somewhat reserved but fiercely loyal, Vietnamese people stood out in an Asia that is characterised by western idealization. This is a general observation from a ‘tourist’ perspective (as opposed to ‘living’ in a community as I did when I volunteered in the Philippines), but I got the impression that Vietnamese people are truly proud of who they are. Perhaps this is- in part- due to the long and bloody fight for their own national identity. (Vietnam notably struggled against the French- but also Japan during WW2- and were finally proclaimed independent on 2nd September, 1945.)
French influence can be felt strongly in Hanoi- in both the architecture and the food. Garlic and baguettes (yes, decent bread in Asia!) are staples of Vietnamese cuisine just as much as rice noodles and morning glory. To get a real sense of the city I truly believe you need to taste it. I don’t just say this because I love food but because it really is at the heart of Vietnamese culture. This brings me on to my no. 1 must-do thing in Hanoi: a street-food tour. There are several companies running a similar experience but from my personal experience I can strongly recommend ‘Hanoi Street Food Tour’ (http://www.hanoistreetfoodtour.com). It's much more than just a 'food tour' as you get taken around the whole of the old town, exploring streets and restaurants you would never have discovered otherwise. I'd recommend skipping lunch before taking on this 10 dish 'challenge'...as there is a LOT of food to get through (and because it's SO good, you just don't want to say no!) The tour was also spread out over 3 hours, so was well worth the money (we paid $25 dollars each- expensive by Vietnamese standards but by far the best thing we did in the city!) However, we were very lucky to get a private tour, with Phoenix as our guide. In between courses Phoneix provided us with a wealth of knowledge about the city and even joined us for a pint on ‘beer corner’ (more of which later!) It was also incredibly easy as a pescetarian, as Phoenix just swapped out any meat courses for a vegetarian (or fish) alternative. So do let them know if you have any dietary requirements, as these are easily catered for on the tour. To read more reviews have a look at their ‘tripadvisor’ page.(http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk/Attraction_Review-g293924-d5583955-Reviews-Hanoi_Street_Food_Tour-Hanoi.html)
It’s hard to pick a favourite dish from the tour as they were all so varied and flavoursome (I honestly don’t think I have ever eaten so well!) However here are some of the highlights:
-Green Papaya Salad (goi du du) - The dish combines the five main tastes of Hanoi: sour lime, hot chili, salty fish sauce and sweetness from palm sugar. A vegetable-based, noodle-free alternative.
-Steamed rice flour pancakes (Banh Cuon)- I had a go at making one of these! They taste surprisingly light and delicate.
-Egg Coffee (cà phê trứng) –is a Vietnamese drink that is traditionally prepared with egg yolk, sugar, condensed milk and coffee. Basically a dessert and a drink. A coffee-lover’s dream.
If you love food, look no further than Hanoi, which offers a huge variety of food to tease your palate!
We also sourced out some of our own street food. On our first day we picked, at random, a small street food vendor where local people were enjoying lunch. With no idea what we had ordered, we sat down on tiny children’s chairs and enjoyed a delicious dish of Pho: Vietnamese noodle soup. The locals started laughing at us because we’d forgotten to layer our soup with fish sauce and herbs, which were provided on the table. Eating Vietnamese food is an experience in it’s own right- not just because I am useless at using chopsticks- but because of its delicate detail. Amidst my morning rush I often forget to garnish my scrambled eggs with salt and pepper. However, in Vietnam it would a crime to leave out the many garnishes, which all attribute to the fantastic and unique flavour of each dish. However, the biggest shock was the price. Full to bursting from a delicious dish that cost less than £1. Now that’s what I call a bargain.
Alcohol prices are also cheerfully cheap (the local beer costs around 15 pence!) The best place to grab a pint is at a notorious area of old-town called ‘beer corner:’ a crossroad of bars and cafes which spill out across the entire street. Best seen at night, this area is so crowded that the guests almost take over the entire road, so much so that mopeds have to weave their way around bar stools! Mad and magical, it is best experienced with a beer (or a G&T) in one hand and a camera in the other. (NB. It is worth mentioning that on Fridays there is a night market and several of the main roads are closed off to traffic to allow for street games, music and partying!) Yet, bizarrely everything quickly stops at 12 midnight. One second the streets are buzzing with life and then suddenly it is a ghost town. We found out later that this is due to a curfew-which is strictly enforced by the police- that stops businesses serving alcohol past 12. So make sure you limit getting ready time and pre-drinks, otherwise you might miss the party!
One of my favourite ways to experience a city is to explore it for myself. Push the guidebook aside and aimlessly wander. Hanoi is the perfect place for this sort of travelling, as there is so much to see and do that you will never find yourself uninterested. However, if you are worried about getting lost then just follow the path around Hồ Hoàn Kiếm, a river that stretches from old town to the French quarter. You will find an array of different architecture along this route, from temples to French colonial buildings.
We did follow the guidebook on two occasions, visiting Hỏa Lò Prison and Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (http://www.thanglongwaterpuppet.org). I must say- the water puppet show was quite bizarre but it is a national art form that is over ten centuries old! This ancient folk art was performed to celebrate the end of the rice harvest, religious festivals, and other important occasions. Essentially, the puppeteers stand waist-deep in water and perform puppet shows to music, with the water acting as a stage for the puppets. It’s hard to explain- but you won’t have seen anything like it! Worth a visit- if only for the artistic immersion!
2 days and nights in Hanoi was a whistle stop visit, but enough to grab a sense of the city. Vibrant, varied and full of life Hanoi is exciting, interesting, fascinating and fun. I implore you to see it for yourself.
Next up….6 nights in Hoi An.
NB. Make sure you grab a massage if you have a spare hour in Hanoi. It was a wonderful way to relax (and sort out my back) after nearly 2 days of travelling!