(For some reason most of the major cities and attractions in Vietnam all start with H: Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, Hue, Halong Bay etc. It’s kind of confusing and kind of awesome. I can’t resist some good alliteration, hence the somewhat tortured title up there. I know, I’m a nerd.)
In a lot of ways, I feel that everything we’ve done during this last month in Vietnam has prepared us to take on Hanoi, the elegant capital city. I can’t imagine what it must be like to visit Hanoi, Vietnam first and then work south; you’d really be jumping into the deep end of the craziness that makes Vietnam so unique. All of those things that make South East Asian cities stressful are here, in highly concentrated doses.
To be blunt: to really enjoy Hanoi, Vietnam, you have to cut through a lot of bullshit. There were times I just wanted to lock myself in a dark room just to escape the madness. Things I could really do without:
- Kamikaze motorbikes– There may have been more motorbikes in HCMC, but the streets in Hanoi are older and narrower, meaning you are almost constantly dodging some young guy roaring down the road at top speed with his hand stuck to his horn.
- Aggressive Touts– These people, and they are everywhere, basically see you as a dollar sign with legs. Maybe they want to sell you cigarette lighters, or books or Vietnamese sweets. Or they want to give you a lift on their motorbike or cyclo- and they really, really, don’t want to take no for an answer. I saw one motorbike driver practically assault a guy trying to convince him to take a ride.
- Annoying Scammers– These can range from big-ticket tour and bus ticket rip-offs to the almost inconsequential- but constantly in your face fruit ladies. I loathe the fruit ladies. These women carry traditional baskets full of bananas and pineapples and will try to trick you into posing with them for a photo. Once the photo is taken they rather forcefully demand you buy something. They are on every corner in the Old Quarter. If one more woman tried to put their baskets on my shoulders I was tempted to just walk away with it.
It’s a shame that so much of what makes walking down the street sometimes unpleasant is a direct response to tourism (IE: if I wasn’t there then the annoying fruit ladies wouldn’t be either). People are just so desperate for money and so oblivious to the fact that they are probably annoying more people than enticing them. I think that’s why you really have to put those things out of your mind to actually see Hanoi, Vietnam for what it is.
And what Hanoi is, is really pretty cool. The good news is, if you can learn to deal with the minor annoyances you will be richly rewarded:
- Serious History– Hanoi, Vietnam just celebrated it’s 1000 year anniversary in 2010. Any city that’s had a 4 digit birthday is a serious place. And while the city doesn’t look its age, there are some cool old temples and buildings. The Temple of Literature rivals Oxford as the world’s oldest university. The Old Town is full of sunny yellow buildings built in the French style.
- Street Food– Not since Bangkok have I seen so many food options so close to the pavement. You could easily eat every meal of the day perched on plastic chairs watching the motorbikes go by. My favorite option is the portable street barbeques, where you can grill your own meat and veggies.
- Weirdness– My favorite site in Hanoi was the absolutely bizarre Ho Chi Minh Museum. It’s a museum dedicated to the life of the first president of modern Vietnam, portrayed in an elaborate, modern art style. There are giant fruit bowls, cars coming through walls and an abstract representation of the inside of Minh’s skull. Very bizarre.
- Vibrancy– Hanoi is just bursting with life. Walk down any random street and there will be about twenty different things going on: little kids playing tag, shops selling party supplies, women modeling wedding dresses and old men playing Chinese checkers. The greatest joy in a city like this is just aimlessly wandering and seeing what you stumble into.
Hanoi, Vietnam is one of those really eclectic old cities where young people on motorbikes mingle with ancient old ladies selling oranges. It’s beautiful, it’s brash, and basically just really awesome…. once you get to know it.
Headed to Hanoi? Why not check out some of these places to stay:
Relax after experiencing hurried and hectic Hanoi at La Storia Ruby Hotel Hanoi. Their rooms are comfortable with little touches of luxury and they also offer a swimming pool, sauna, and a cozy lounge bar.
If you are looking to be in the heart of Hanoi and not break your wallet, Old Quarter View Hanoi Hostel may be the perfect place for you. The hostel offers 24-hour reception, a coffee bar, bicycle rentals, and 111 comfortable rooms for a range of prices.
If you are looking for a luxurious stay near the Old Quarter with incredibly friendly staff check out Oriental Suites Hotel and Spa. Each room is equipped with a sitting room so that you can relax after a day exploring handsome Hanoi.