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Getting to know Hanoi, Vietnam

Posted by on June 22, 2012
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Things locals in Hanoi like: Riding motorbikes, street food, drinking Bia Ha Noi (the local draft beer), sunflower seeds and Apple products.

These are the concrete observations I’ve made after about a week in Vietnam’s capital. They’re random and scattered, much like the city itself. Hanoi is a wild place, and it’s much different than I expected. (If you follow me on Instagram, then you’ve seen plenty of daily streets snaps.)

People we talked to about Hanoi seemed so charmed by it all — the French influence, the street-lined cafes, the food stalls. But upon arriving, I felt completely overwhelmed.

It wasn’t the quaint cafe city I had expected. It was a tiny metropolis, swirling with constant activity, and it took me a few days of zig-zagging through motorbikes and cyclos (manual rickshaws) to get used to it. I can’t say I’m as won over by the city as some other people have been, but since we had time to take it in, I can say that I appreciate its little urban culture. The food is amazing, it’s one of the more green cities I’ve seen and you can get by on about $15 per day.

Locals congregating on the sidewalk for a mid-day snack.

Scene outside the weekend market.

The main tourist haunts are the jam-packed Old Quarter, slightly more spacious French Quarter and the area surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake. My favorite area was the many shops and cafes by the Cathedral, but I feel a little dumb saying that because it’s the most Parisian or Buenos Aires-style area and the least Vietnamese.

We stayed in Hanoi Guesthouse, a nice mini-hotel in the heart of Old Quarter, which was convenient for getting around the city and a good spot to try the famous street food stalls.

The deluxe room we were upgraded to, free of charge, after a couple nights in the standard room. That said, after we chose not to book any tours with their in-house agency, they turned down the friendliness level from exuberant to normal:

On the sidewalks, vendors sell everything from pho (Vietnamese soup with origins in Hanoo) and fish skin to sandals and copycat luxury goods — Apple and Chanel logos are on everything — but thankfully, none of the sellers were all that pushy. Some sidewalks are covered with straw mats, on which young Vietnamese munch on sunflower seeds and drink local beer in the evenings; others are taken over by makeshift stoves whipping up fresh batches of beef and noodles. The food really deserves its own post.

Selecting tattoos, permanent or temporary I couldn’t tell.

Many of these women forcibly put their bamboo carriers on my shoulders, hoping I’d pay to get a photograph and slice of “novelty.” A few no’s did the trick.

By Hoan Kiem Lake are families, dance classes and people practicing tai chi.

It’s Asia as you imagine it to be.

There are, of course, the sights that everyone is meant to see, but we’re less interested in these kinds of things nowadays. We skipped the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and One Pillar Pagoda but saw the Temple of Literature, a beautiful five-courtyard-long Confucian sanctuary. If it weren’t 400 degrees that day, we would’ve loved to have spent more time there.

If nightlife is what you’re after, Hanoi isn’t the place. It’s pretty sleepy on that front and places tend to close around 11pm or midnight anyway. The better way to knock back a few is by pulling up one of the kid-size plastic stools in the afternoon, when you’ll see plenty of Vietnamese men taking a break with bia hoi, a local lager-like draught.

We’re making an effort to learn some Vietnamese, but as we’ve found out, the language is friggin’ hard. There are different intonations and when we’ve spoken to someone using our handbook, we’re incorrect 99% of the time. But the locals seems rather impressed — after some initial giggling — at our efforts. I know Vietnamese are stereoptyed by backpackers as being a bit frosty, but apart from taxi drivers and a couple waiters, we’ve been shown a lot of love. You just have to get away from the tourist scene. Walk a little further, find a cafe in a different neighborhood, strike up a conversation with someone who has a decent handle of English. I keep hearing that the people of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos are some of the nicest. Vietnamese people can be, too. They just make you work for it.

There was the time we took a rather torturous cab ride to Tea Talk Cafe, located near the university far from central Hanoi, because we had read on a Couchsurfing forum that students there are eager to speak with foreigners. They were MIA when we went, but the waitstaff so sweetly offered us homemade ice cream — avocado and passionfruit — gratis.

Or the other time when we stumbled upon a spa and indulged in $6 75-minute massages and the owner, after realizing we were trying to learn some Vietnamese, called her son to come from home and teach us some phrases. We came back for a second time, and she gifted us witj a bag of lychee, telling us she was so happy to see us again.

We also found Acoustic Cafe, a great live music venue that showed us a different side of the city. These two guys played loads of Eric Clapton and even took requests, learned the chords and let the requester sing the tunes. We left just as it was turning into a live karaoke game amongst all the customers. Probably best to spare them my tone-deafness.

But Hanoi is still a bit crazy for me. We spent a week total here, but three days is plenty to enjoy and observe the city. (I’m more of a country/village person though.) We popped in an out, using it as a base to explore the surroundings, and for us, that’s where the real Vietnam was.

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4 Responses to Getting to know Hanoi, Vietnam

  1. Edna

    I loved Hanoi when I went last year. Really hope you do a post just on the food!

  2. Tanner

    Of course I zeroed in on that photo of the shoes. So nuts!! Loved reading all your musings about Hanoi!

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