Awakening all the senses in Vietnam's capital city.
I used to think Manhattan was a busy place. Hong Kong was NYC on steroids. But this is a different kind of busy. Narrow streets surge with people and vehicles traveling together with an almost impossible rhythm. Cars, vans, buses, and motorbikes zoom by, transporting mom, dad, toddler, and the family dog. Women ride bicycles stacked high with fruit, clothing, or traditional nón lá hats for sale. Cyclos weave through the crowd transporting exhausted tourists. Horns beep as if to say "I’m behind you!", nudging the traffic to continue moving forward. Crumbling sidewalks overflow with parked motorbikes, prompting pedestrians to join the rhythm of the traffic in the streets. Stop lights and crosswalk signals are a mere suggestion. “Don’t stop, they will go around you.” is the advice we receive for crossing the street.
Andrew and I wait for the largest vehicles to pass by and tiptoe into the street as the river of motorbikes bends and flows around us. We make it to the safety of the next intersection and breathe an exhaust-filled sigh of relief. We catch a whiff of fresh herbs mixed with fish paste, chilis, and fried things. The scent of hot garbage blows by, followed by another plume of exhaust. Individual beads of sweat trickle down my back as the sun scorches the ground between shaded streets. All of our senses are awakened. It’s uncomfortable. Unmistakeable and undeniable. It’s fantastic. We have arrived in Hanoi.
After a long sleep in a windowless hotel room, it was time for lunch. (To be fair, there was a window, but it faced an interior column of the building.) In Hanoi, there are two options when it comes to dining: proper restaurants with walls, air conditioning, western-style toilets, full menus - or the ubiquitous street-side food stalls with aluminum tables and tiny plastic chairs. We chose the latter.
We quickly learned that each food stall specializes in one dish. There are no picture menus, no “Find us on TripAdvisor!” signs, and no English translations. It’s best to take a peek at what's cooking and observe how the locals are enjoying the house specialty. Pointing to something is a completely acceptable way to order.
We grabbed a couple of tiny seats, pointed to the yummy-looking food on the table next to us, and held up two fingers. Within minutes, we had a full meal in front of us: a platter of bún (rice vermicelli noodles), a pile of fried pork and tofu, sliced cucumbers and greens, two bowls of fish sauce broth, and two bottles of Saigon Special beer. Taking a cue from the locals, we grabbed our chopsticks and dug in. It seemed the goal was to take items from the various family-style platters to fill your bowl, top it with a chili pepper or two and a squeeze of fresh lime, and enjoy. It was our first delicious taste of Hanoi.
Despite the relentless heat that would have driven me to hide in the A/C at home, we continued on. We wandered through the Old Quarter, lined with tiny shops selling what appeared to be the same merchandise over and over again. One street specialized in clothing, another in metal hardware, and another in buttons and other commodity items, just to name a few. At $2 or $3 USD, it seemed silly to pass on the chance to buy a pair of elephant-patterned shorts and other “local” items. Haggling is certainly an option here, but pushing too hard seemed unnecessary when everything only costs a few dollars. This is the shopkeeper’s livelihood after all vs. the price of a cup of coffee for me.
The culinary and exploratory adventures continued. We tried egg coffee at Giảng Cafe made with condensed milk, sugar, a touch of rum, and egg yolks. It was a frothy, unexpected delight. We walked on the tracks of Train Street where vendors sell their wares and set up tables and chairs just outside the reaches of the train that passes through twice a day. We took Anthony Bourdain’s advice and sought out Bún Chả Hương Liên where he famously shared a meal of bún chả with Barack Obama.
We enjoyed many một hai ba yos! (one, two, three, cheers!) over cans of Hanoi Beer, Saigon Special, 333, and 20-cent glasses of the daily brew, bia hơi. We wandered through the maze of streets and alleys in a heat-induced, full-belly daze and stumbled across Hoàn Kiếm Lake. A slightly-less-hot breeze rushed over as we walked around the calm lake in a tree-filled park - a welcomed respite in the middle of the bustling city. A nasty storm was rolling in so we did what one must do to avoid a thorough soaking and grabbed a cyclo ride. Once again, we were one with the rhythm of the streets.
It has been said that you either love Hanoi or you do not, there is no in between. The melting hot pot of curious smells, the delicious eats, the beeping motorbikes whizzing by, the nearly unbearable heat. It was dizzying at first, but after a day or two, it became almost… familiar. Kind of enchanting in an unexpected way. We’d recognize the shops and restaurants. Ah yes, turn right at the lady selling freshly sliced pineapple, left past the row of button shops. Once you let Hanoi in and loosen the grip on your comfort zone, it reminds us why we travel in the first place.
Hanoi planning resources:
We visited Hanoi as part of a small group tour with G Adventures, however these particular experiences occurred during our free time from the tour.
You may need a tourist visa to enter Vietnam, but it's a simple process. You can apply in advance at e-visa Vietnam and typically receive it via email within five business days. The cost for US citizens at the time of this publication is $45 USD. Even though it's an e-visa, you'll want to bring two printed copies, mainly for exit purposes. You'll also need to pay $1 USD to exit the country.
Check out this article from Condé Nast Traveler for an in-depth overview of Hanoi with additional planning resources, including where to stay and what to do.
Watch Parts Unknown (season 8, episode 1) for inspiration and a deeper understanding of Vietnam's complex history and culture from Anthony Bourdain and his honest conversations over delicious meals.
Until next time, happy travels!