Old Quarter. Rush hour.
Honking motorbikes and scooters, people squeezed everywhere, motorbikes with 14 cases of empty Halida bottles bungee-d precariously to the back wheel, buses, cars, people on people on people on motorbikes — all barreling to and through the scuttling Anthill Avenues akimbo to the city’s crammed ribcage of shape-shifting buildings, seemingly held up only by veiny rat’s nests of wires stacked upon extempore cafes and closets and alleys spilling tchotchke trinkets out of doorways below ragged awnings next to restauranteurs boiling pots of odoriferous, alluring concoctions served on plastic tables sitting atop jagged footpaths with bicycles blocking everything and there’s nowhere to go yet you can’t stop or you’ll get trampled and you can’t move too quick crossing the street or you’ll get killed and it all seems like the Old Quarter was assembled by Moffy Cacophony the chaos muppet.
Hot damn is my introduction to SE Asia fun as hell.
At night, the madness continues as the Old Quarter gets roped off to pedestrians only. Buskers blend into artisan/food markets purveyed by locals, perused by hostel-goers and tourists and both…
Then, at 11 o’clock pm sharp, it all shuts down. The streets reopen to motorbikes as the local police roll in. Whistles blow, batons casually wave people home, and the shops/bars are shuttered close. But, the party spills into the streets, where locals sell $0.25 beers from warm kegs (yes, $0.25 beers) and give out stale rice cakes to sop up the booze until, again, the police come in – this time for a final warning.
If you’re lucky enough to meet some amazing Hanoians, they may drag you down a dark alley to a secret, smoky club with one toilet, where you think you might be losing a kidney to the black market, but the metal door rolls up half way and a bouncer quickly ushers you into (name omitted so you don’t get in trouble) to dance to Katie Perry and drink Tiger beer until 4am.
Just before dawn—after slurred farewells—it’s eerily calm for a few precious moments; an unnerving contrast to the insanity of the day, lit only by buzzing, jumbled fluorescents. A quick breather but still, with habitual head on a swivel. Then, with the sound of the morning’s first motorbike shattering the silence, the cycle of insanity starts again.
‘Hanoi isn’t for everyone’ are the only words I would end up scratching into my empty travel journal the entire trip to Vietnam. Hanoi isn’t for everyone; but that’s good news for the rest of us who are down to tackle one of the world’s most alluring cities in arguably the most magical and hospitable countries on the planet.
Where to Play:
Get lost, you walking walker!
If tenacious enough, you can do majority of the main sights of Hanoi in one day…but you’ll be hurting tomorrow. Learn from our mistake: don’t try to cram everything in a day! Take your time to soak up the city.
But, here’s a
foot blister-and lactic acid inducing lovely day itinerary:
Take a morning stroll around Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Sword Lake), marvel at the haunting Tortoise Tower in the middle, where legend has it, Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles lives.
Walk across the Cầu Thê Húc bridge on the North East side of the lake to visit the charming Đền Ngọc Sơn (Temple of the Jade Mountain), where there is a preserved turtle to pray to and philosophize upon, Confuciusly. ($0.50 Entry)
At the southern tip of the lake, you can go left towards the chichi French Quarter to stop by Prada before checking out the stunning Hanoi Opera House, or take a quick dip into the Vietnamese History Museum that smells exactly like the Spaceship Earth Ride at Epcot Center in Orlando. Random, I realize.
Instead of heading east, you can conversely make your way west over to Hanoi Hilton, which serves as a jarring reminder of the worthlessness, and deplorable inhumanity of politics and war. (Cost: $2)
From Hanoi Hilton, head over to the Temple of Literature to shake out the residue of the last stop. From the HH, it’s a straight walk through an industrial area of spice shops, bike shops, various neon colored cocaine stalls, and restaurant furnishings.
Make sure you try to time your Temple visit near closing (or opening) for respite from the mass amounts of tourists and some sublime moments of zen within the ground’s impressive gardens. I didn’t ask anyone, but there were cookie jars everywhere. Maybe one of my readers can help me out (because I’m too lazy to Google it and really this is a shabby ploy at reader interaction). Some people leave cookies for Santa – well, Confucius loves Nabati cookies (pic).(Cost of ToL: $0.50)
After the Temple of Literature, head northwest to see Uncle Ho’s mausoleum. It’s a huge open complex with a parade route in Ba Dinh Square; open to showcase the size of one’s missiles. And Uncle Ho’s Mausoleum looks exactly like Lenin’s Tomb in Red Square. How do you say ‘sad concrete’ in Russian?
Unfortunately the inside of the mausoleum is closed when we stop by (Uncle Ho was napping), so we make our way around the corner to the One Pillar Pagoda and the very famous One Tree Bathroom.
Where to lay:
Like any big city, you have innumerable choices on accommodations in Hanoi, but definitely try to centralize yourself by staying in the Old Quarter, specifically, the Hanoi Focus Hotel.
It’s relatively cheap (the cost is somewhat negotiable as a walk-in but ~$65USD/Night for a 3 person Suite online); it’s in a great location; it’s clean and the people here (especially Ruby) are phenomenal. If you need to book a ride to the airport, need directions, or simply want to find the best place for Bun Cha, the staff here are incredibly helpful and extremely accommodating, even to goofy Americans with a knack for staying up stupid late.
And the complementary morning breakfasts here — holy crap. I seriously miss the flaky pork spring rolls and delicious choco-motor oil Vietnamese coffee every morning to go with the beef pho.
A lot of options out there on Air BnB as well, with super cheap home stays in Old Quarter (~$17-$25/Night), or way up in the WestLake area.
Feed your carcass: Must Eats in Hanoi.
Try the Pho King Bun Cha!
Pho is so good. Pho is amazing. Pho is the best Vietnamese dish…bbbzzzzzzzzzzttt. Bun Cha is the staple dish and go to food in Northern Vietnam.
So, what is it?
Bun Cha is a sweet/savory broth with vermicelli noodles, shaved papaya, carrots, little bits of fatty pig parts and sausage served with side dishes of flaky spring rolls, basil, sprouts, and garlic and red chilis to eradicate that sinus infection.
A street stall down Ngô Tất Tố, just off Văn Miếu across the eastern border of the Temple of Literature has the best Bun Cha in Hanoi. Legit, the best we had…and had we did, multiple times a day.
The proprietor (and her husband) of this no-name stall, make everything right on the sidewalk. We’re offered a table a few steps away at Cafe 49, where we order three Bun Cha(s) and wait out an afternoon storm with a few Hanoi Beers apiece. The entire meal with drinks totaled $6USD. $6!
Next thing to try in Nam: Durian. Buy some. Eat it. Spend the rest of the day fascinated by how weird your fingers and beard smell from this sweet-banana-pudding-stinky-balls-onion fruit. I’ve never been so repulsed yet, so in love with a food: I love you, durian *gag*.
If you haven’t been convinced to go to Vietnam with all these pretty pictures and goofy words, please, go for the food. It’s a whole new experience; rapture for your taste buds and the best bang for your buck you’ll ever experience. Be brave – talk often to your best friend, Mr. Pepto Bismal, and hit up the Bun Cha stalls. It’ll be worth it.
Get Outta Here!
Day trips from Hanoi are a toss-up between two spots: Sapa and Ha Long Bay. Mountain terraces vs. Water Dragons – we chose Water Dragons. If you want a really fun, comprehensive unleashed tour on Ha Long Bay, go with Vietnam Awesome Travel.
Our guide, Trang, was fantastic, and put up with mine and Vic’s collective incompetence in being so hung over from Beer Lady in Hanoi, we could barely push the shutter buttons on our cameras.
I’m not a fan of being herded around in a tour group, but Awesome Travel kept things small and fun. There were 5 people total on our boat and they only offer tours to a maximum of 10 people at a time.
We get a quick tour of a cave on one of the islands, after which we take a gentle ride through the thousands of islands in the area, and we’re served a traditional Vietnamese lunch of fish, fish stews, steamed oysters on the boat— the smells of which wreak havoc on my hangover.
Limping to the end of day three and I was already hooked on ‘Nam. The food, the culture, the people in Hanoi were just incredible, and even as I write this, I have a smile on my face just reminiscing about the experience, trying to convey the magic best I can.
But the adventures would only get better as we head south towards Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park to spend a few days with a guy named Jungle Boss.
Stay Tuned, Roam Abouts.