Dear Tourist! I doubt Hanoi is waiting for you to come and save it with your money. The city won’t welcome you with open arms. What you will get instead, is a solid punch in your white, Western face. Only if you manage to shake it off and continue your journey, you deserve to be there and get the most of it. Hanoi loves people with appetite for authentic Vietnam. Sounds like you? Well, I’m glad you’re here with me.
Hanoi is a flamboyant orgy of intense flavors, smells (sometimes unpleasant) and intensified sounds. It’s a place where the constant clatter of blowing horns dictates your every move. Overwhelming chaos controlled by unknown force is unbearable yet addictive. Before our trip I had read many negative things about the city – it’s dirty, stinky and not worth spending more than a day. Quite the opposite, I would say. To me, Hanoi is a city like no other.
I was shocked, bewildered, brutally extracted from a strange limbo I didn’t even realize I’ve been trapped in for so long. Hanoi is full of life. It vibrates, beats and breathes. We planned to stay there only for a day, but ended up constantly coming back for more. We couldn’t get enough of that place. Hanoi is like a drug.
First steps on Vietnamese soil.
After 11 hours in the clouds we are thrown straight into the eye of the storm – a phenomenal muddle of people, motorbikes and streets. At first I find it difficult to breathe. The city scares me. It’s hot, humid, noisy and crowded. We are trying to figure out how not to go crazy. Luckily, a local student Huyen is with us! She wants to improve her English so in her free time she works as a tour guide. If you ever go to Hanoi, you can get a local guide from this page. Huyen shows us the most important places in the Old Quarter – shares with us facts and legends and tells us about the day to day life of Hanoians. We start at the most famous place in Hanoi – Hoan Kiem aka Lake of the Restored Sword. The legend says that the king used it for the battle against the war with a neighbouring country. At the beginning of 1428, when peace prevailed, on one of his trip to the Thuy Quan (now Hoan Kiem) Lake, there was a tortoise rising above water and shouting: “Please return the sword to the Dragon King”. Without hesitation, the King threw the sword to the lake. The tortoise took the sword and dove down the water. From then on, Thuy Quan became Hoan Kiem lake.
Apparently, back in time, the lake used to be full of tortoises. Those animals represent longevity in Vietnamese culture. There are no more tortoises in the lake – we’ve only seen them on the menu in some restaurants. Vietnam is one of the countries where people live the longest. Coincident? 🙂
There is a small temple on an island in the middle of the lake but we don’t enter it as Huyen says nowadays it’s open just for the foreigners. Students, who used to go there to pray for good luck ahead of their exams, now go to the Temple of Literature – one of the most beautiful sites in Hanoi.
How to became a dragon. Educational system in Vietnam.
It fascinates me how in Asia, the old blends with the modern. Many of the ancient legends are still alive in Vietnam. There’s a story in Vietnamese mythology about a fish becoming a dragon. There was an emperor who wanted to create new dragons because dragons bring rain, which helps crops grow. So many animals in the ocean were summoned to have a competition, where they had to jump over three gates of rain. The first animal that could jump over all three would get to be transformed into a dragon. Only the carp got past all gates, so the emperor transformed it into a dragon. Dragons symbolize success and wealth. Education in Vietnam is compared to the three gates. Pupils, who manage to pass all the exams and get into uni turn into dragons and once alumni – they become tigers. Huyen tells us, that even though the education is extremely important for Vietnamese people, there is something even more important than the study. It’s virtuousness. You need to be good first, then you can follow the path of education.
“Crazy like a street”.
After spending some time in Hanoi, even the most optimistic people come to the conclusion they suck. 🙂 Here everyone seems to have their own small business. In brief – Vietnamese people are extremely entrepreneurial. Especially the women. They work incredibly hard, from dusk to dawn. I can’t say the same about the men. More often you can see them calmly drinking their ca phe than rushing around.
The old quarter is one big aggregation of shops offering goods of all kind. Each street specializes in something different – there is one for textile, one for designer seats for your new motorbike (seriously? you STILL don’t have one?) you can even find a street offering paper money the Vietnamese use to burn in their temples.
Streets of Hanoi are like arteries of a big organism – thanks to them, the city stays alive. On a micro-level, like a tiny blood vessels, are the street vendors. Selling everything you could possibly imagine. Demand and supply. If you need to run some errands a bit “further” (note that no Vietnamese would walk anywhere further than 5 steps) you have to survive a crash-course of Viet-traffic rules. It’s a very short one. Now concentrate and memorize – whatever happens – DON’T STOP! 🙂 Crossing a streets in Hanoi or Saigon is an extreme sport.
– Walk? Do you really want to walk? Are you crazy? It’s far! – laughs at me Huyen and calls a motorbike taxi. They call them xe om in Hanoi and this is what you probably imagine when you close your eyes and think of Vietnam. They are super practical, but the main reason why people buy them is the huge tax on imported vehicles. If you see a car, it probably belongs to someone who can afford it, or a taxi company. Beware of the latter! It’s one of the most common travel scams (in Asia). If you have to get a cab, go for Mai Linh. They won’t rip you off unless… it’s a fake Mai Linh. Copycats are present everywhere in Vietnam – it’s a real problem as once your business gets good reviews (the Viets are crazy about trip advisor and booking.com) someone will copy it almost immediately. That’s why you will see a lot of hotels with very similar names. The devil is in the detail. Benchmarking a la Vietnamese. 🙂
Masterchef on each corner.
Before we say goodbye Huyen takes us for lunch. It’s our first time trying the authentic street food since we landed. We go for banh xeo – Vietnamese pancakes with small shrimps and sprouts. You cut them into small pieces, wrap them in rice paper (the Viets are nuts about rice paper – they wrap everything in it!), roll and dip in fish sauce. If you haven’t been to Vietnam you have to trust me – it’s delicious. We also try some kind of pastry filled with mince meat and it’s equally good. How to say that… f*ck the diet! 🙂
Vietnamese street food is ridiculously tasty although it seems to be not very hygienic. You may be shocked but that raw meat cut straight on the pavement will definitely end up in your flavorsome Pho soup…
Street food is always the best way to learn about the culture of the country you are visiting. Especially if you find yourself in a place with no menu and the staff doesn’t speak English. You look at them, they look at you. Then the cook shouts out loud…
Whatever. Let’s be adventurous. 🙂
We nod and sit down on small plastic chairs at a tiny plastic table. After a short while we get a bowl of steaming fish soup. Eating in such places often seems to be an invitation for an upset stomach followed by an urge to look for a “private place” immediately. Had that in Peru so I was really surprised how good was my tummy during the whole trip in Vietnam. Expect to pay around 35000 – 70000 VND (2-5USD) for a meal in Hanoi (including beer!). Everything was fresh and super tasty (maybe apart from that fish soup – the quality of the fish was somehow questionable). Street food is Hanoi’s best treat for you!
You can spend a whole week in Hanoi and you won’t get enough of it. The city is so much more than just the Old Quarter but you will be dragged into it first, that’s sure. It’s like a black hole. I’m honestly fascinated with that place, its streets, nice local people, the food. Hanoi will paralyze all your senses – sharpening colours, intensifying sounds. It works like the best drug you could imagine and has only one, but a very dangerous side effect. It’s very addictive. If you dare to go there and survive, you will become addicted to its energy. Obsessed with the street life. Let that amazing power consume you. I can guarantee you one thing – no other city will make you feel more alive!