After a stressful couple of days in Bangkok (long story!), I finally arrived in Vietnam, and based myself in Hanoi for around two weeks, using it as a hub to explore other areas of Northern Vietnam. The plan initially was to only stay a week, but with two bouts of being stuck in bed with food poisoning, I ended up extending my stay and celebrating both Christmas and New Year here. This turned out to be no bad thing as Hanoi is a vibrant city that has plenty to offer.
Crazy motorbikes everywhere….
My first challenge when I hopped off the airport shuttle bus was to find the Hanoi Backpackers Hostel, which would end up being my home for the next two weeks. After aimlessly wondering around with a map for a little while (I never had a good sense of direction) I decided to hop on a motorcycle taxi for $1 to get to the Old Quarter, where the hostel is located.
After regularly using boda bodas in Tanzania, I naively thought it’d be the same driving experience I encountered there, but I very quickly learned the roads of Hanoi were a lot crazier and the drivers more erratic! There are motorbikes coming at you from all angles, and as he weaved in and out of the traffic, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t clinging on for dear life, secretly praying I’d make it there safely.
However this was nothing compared to actually having to cross the roads yourself while walking the busy streets. There is always a steady stream of motorbikes, rickshaws and cars, driving in all directions, and very rarely there is a gap where you can make a run for it. The only way you can make it to the other side is to just hold your breath, walk out slowly while making no sudden movements, and they’ll just manoeuvre their way around you and any other vehicles getting in their way! It really is mental to watch from the side of the road, but you soon learn to appreciate the beauty of the chaos!
While on the topic of transport, I thought I’d seen it all in Africa in terms of the variety (and volume!) of things they transport around using motorcycles and pedal push bikes. Here, however, I’ve seen everything from a family of five squeezed on one motorbike to a pig literally wrapped in a blanket being carted around upside down (and very much alive!) on the back of another. I guess as it’s the only mode of transport for many of the 6.5 million people that live here, it’s not surprising that you witness things like this on almost a daily basis.
Crazy maze of streets…
I spent a couple of days trying to familiarise myself with the streets of Hanoi but soon discovered this was near impossible – you take one wrong turn and you’re completely lost! The Old Quarter is labyrinth of ancient roads each lined with an array of shops specialising in a specific trade or craft, but as they all look so similar it’s difficult to know where you are without a map…and even then you can spend a good ten minutes trying to figure out which road is which as all the names sound the same.
There were many a night where myself and my Hanoi buddy, Chelsi, would get lost trying to find our way back to the hostel after hours of partying….if anyone watched us from the side of the road it’d probably make a good comedy sketch as we fumbled around trying to read a map through squinted eyes, pronouncing the road names very loudly to each other, while simultaneously chomping on Vietnamese-style kebabs! Stay classy girls! Luckily for us the locals were friendly enough to put us out of our misery and point us in the right direction!
At the centre of the Old Quarter is St Joseph’s Cathedral, and the surrounding area is packed with cafes where you’ll find many of the locals perched outside on plastic stools drinking tea or eating Vietnam’s renowned street food from the early morning well into the late hours of the night.
One thing I’ve learnt is that the Vietnamese love to eat, so I knew from the start that I was going to fit right in! Being the foody that I am, I took it upon myself to sample as much of the street food as possible (might explain the ever so slightly tight trousers I have now). My personal favourite had to be Pho Bo (a noodle-based soup with beef) and it was in fact certain cafes selling these foods that became landmarks for me to help navigate my way around!
Crazy legend of the lake…
Just on the outskirts of the Old Quarter you’ll find the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake, which is one of the major scenic spots in Hanoi where many locals go to escape the chaos of the city. I took a few walks around the lake myself, where I met many friendly university students eager to practice their English with me. I learnt a lot about the history of the lake from these chats and was surprised to hear that it is supposedly the home to giant turtles.
The lake’s name translates as “Lake of the Returned Sword” and is based on a legend of a turtle reclaiming a sword from Emperor Le Loi. According to this legend, the emperor had been given a magical sword by the Golden Turtle God during his revolt against the Chinese Ming Dynasty. After successfully fighting off the invaders, the emperor was boating the lake when a giant turtle rose up and took the sword from him before dissapearing into the depths of the water, never to be seen again. Make of it what you will, but I love a good story, and apparently these turtles still live in the waters today although sightings are very rare.
The city is filled with history museums, monuments and beautiful temples (The One Pillar Pagoda and Quan Su Pagoda to name but a few) meaning you could literally spend days sightseeing, but one of my favourite spots had to be the Ngoc Son Temple that sits on an islet at the end of the lake. The only way you can reach the temple is by a red wooden bridge called The Huc, which translates to “Flood of Morning Sunlight.”
Either end of the bridge is guarded by large stone gateways with Chinese characters painted on them. When you walk inside, the temple itself is a stunning piece of architecture, with some elements dating back to the early 1200s. AND in a small museum room next to the temple, it even has a “preserved specimen” of the lake’s famous giant tortoise (but they’re not pulling my leg on that one, I’m pretty certain this turtle has never even seen the lake, yet swam in it).
Many of the locals come to pray at this temple and quite often in the surrounding grounds you will find men either playing chess or doing a spot of fishing. It is a very tranquil space, which are very difficult to come by in Hanoi, so I went there a few times just to get a moment’s peace from the crazy streets and do a spot of people watching.
Apparently no trip to Hanoi is not complete without visiting the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, and missing it was probably my only regret while in this city (that and turning up at the wrong time for the Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum).
On the whole Hanoi is a wonderfully chaotic city brimming with history and character. It’s also a great place to sample some of Vietnam’s famous street food and if you love a good night out, there are plenty of fun local clubs to show off your best dance moves (Hanoi Backpackers Hostel do some great pub crawls!)
Stay tuned for more adventures in Vietnam! The next post will be on the stunning Halong Bay…
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