From early morning t'ai chi by the lake to rush hour chaos on the city streets, Hanoi is ever-buzzing, ever-fascinating
Hanoi is a city with adventures just waiting around the corner, especially next to the mystically splendid Hoa Kiem lake, adjacent to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Early in the morning is a special time to visit, as a ghostly blue-grey mist hovers over the lake and elderly Hanoians practise their distinctive floppy t'ai chi to intriguing and seductive music, quietly floating out of their portable ghetto blasters.
The locals treat you with a fascination to be adored. A local university student, called Hung, wanted to practise some English and invited me to join him for a customary green tea at a streetside café in the bustling Old Quarter. Small plastic chairs, of the type you’d imagine in a primary school rather than a place of refreshments, strewed the outside. I asked Hung if he knew of anywhere where I could try a local speciality. The reply was a cute chuckle that you can only find in South East Asia and he told me to follow him to his moped.
We headed across the century-old Long Bien Bridge, 7km away from the centre. Hanoi has a population of 3.5 million, which is almost equalled by its number of bicycles and scooters. As we sped towards the jaw-dropping oriental sunset during rush hour (or several hours), the roads were reminiscent of the cartoon Wacky Races, as everyone jostled and re-jostled for their positions.
We literally drove into a restaurant , with Hung shouting in Vietnamese and the owners trundling out to greet us. I was directed to look at a ceiling-high pyramid of wriggling sacks and gestured to pick one. Before I had a chance to think, the sack was open and in front of me was a hissing, spitting cobra. I was led upstairs to a private room. If you are faint-hearted, look away now.
The cobra was held at both ends and a knife pulled out of its sheath, sliding lengthways down the snake. Another man started to collect the spilling blood into a funnel, opened up the snake and pulled out its beating heart and its gall, placing them on a table in front of me. I don’t know whose heart was beating faster, mine or the snake´s. The rest of the blood was wrung out, as with a towel, into some wine. I was then presented with a glass of blood wine and a beating heart to down in one. There was no way after this excitement that I could refuse. I had two thoughts. One, the beating heart would catch in my teeth and burst. Two, I would feel the beating heart enter my stomach.
Neither happened and I was greeted by an amazing round of applause and bows. The entire snake was then used and cooked in different ways (grilled, fried, wrapped in leaves, put into rice soup, etc) to make around 10 dishes. And a very tasty meal it was. If you want to try for yourself, the Gia Lam District countains the community of Le Mat (aka the Snake Village) and has numerous restaurants specializing in cobra foodstuffs.
Vietnam can be summed up by a chaotic bustle of buzz, with everyone on the move with a purpose. It takes a little while to get used to crossing roads when you see hundreds and hundreds of bicycles, motorbikes and people carrying baskets full of anything from fruit to metal bolts. But after you brave the first attempt, you realise it actually isn't that hard. It is almost as if you have a forcefield and the vehicles just gracefully avoid you.
Although the old section of Hanoi is often called the "36 Old Streets," there are actually more than 70. Every street is named after a product they sell. I was staying in Hang Hom, which is dedicated to cases. So make sure you travel light, as everything you may need for your stay is on these streets at a bargain price. Another must to enjoy is bia hoi (fresh beer, at only 10p) as a refreshing pick-you- up.
So, what are the highlights as far as other visitor attractions go? A small section of the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ or Hoa Lo Prison (where prisoners of war were jailed) remains on Hoa Lo Street, although most of it was destroyed to make way for an office block. Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is popular with tourists and there are a number of visitor attractions close by, including Ho Chi Minh’s House and Museum and the tiny lotus-shaped One Pillar Pagoda.
Where to stay
The Old Quarter is littered with guesthouses and hostels catering for budget travelers - try Hanoi Backpackers' Hostel.
For something a bit more upmarket, try Daewoo Hanoi Hotel - it was the first five-star hotel in Hanoi and has since been renovated.
Where to eat
There are lots of cheap places to eat on the street. Pepperoni's, near the Hang Gai end of Wha Chung, is part of a small international chain of pizza restaurants; they do regular special offers such as free desserts, eat-all-you-can buffets and loyalty schemes. Pizzas start from around 65,000 dong and the menu also includes burgers, ice cream and apple crumble. Little Hanoi serves basically Western food with some Vietnamese dishes. Tamarind Café has a menu full of inventive vegetarian dishes, lots of fresh juices, and a relaxed, stylish interior. Don't come here if you're ravenous and out to fill your belly, though, as the portions aren't very big.