Hanoi, a breathtaking mix of vibrant culture, history, food and scooters - feel the buzz...
Just before dawn, as we drive from Noi Bai Airport on the main road to Hanoi, we are surrounded by a stream of vibrating traffic, like being in the midst of a swarm of bees - and it's where the Hanoi buzz begins.
Scooters and bicycles piled to toppling with wares to sell in town; baskets stuffed to bursting with chickens, vibrant and exotic fruits and vegetables stacked high as you like. A dead pig lashed to the back of a scooter overtakes us, trotters dangling either side of the number plate. People on bikes wearing traditional coolie hats glide serenely along. All have one destination in mind. Hanoi.
In the city the hubbub continues, on the streets hundreds of scooters are an awesome sight, especially when it comes to crossing the road. There is a definite technique to this and the first time is terrifying – take a deep breath, step off the pavement and slowly walk to the other side – the traffic magically weaves its way around you but don’t step backwards and don’t move too quickly. Once you have mastered the art of crossing the road there is lots to see and all within walking distance of the centre of town. Alternatively flag down a cyclo.
What to see
Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, Ba Dinh district, is an imposing building watched over by equally imposing guards wearing crisp white uniforms and inscrutable expressions. If you want to take a peek inside you will probably have to queue, admission may be refused if wearing unsuitable dress i.e. shorts or vest tops. The building is only open in the morning and is closed two months a year - for embalming maintenance. Nearby is Uncle Ho’s stilted house where he worked and lived and also the One-Pillar Pagoda. A short walk away at the intersection of Van Mieu and Pho Quoc Tu Giam is the Temple of Literature, a tranquil oasis in the midst of the city and said to be the first university in Vietnam. This serene walled garden complex with pagodas and lotus ponds is dedicated to the ancient scholar Confucius. There are 82 stone turtles carrying large tablets engraved with the names of scholars who passed their exams here.
The Old Quarter is an elaborate maze of streets with life, colour and atmosphere spilling out onto the pavements. There is little room for pedestrians as the walkways are taken up by parked scooters, chickens and street sellers sometimes forcing a walk in the road. Pho stalls (noodles) are carried around with the cook and placed on the pavement as and when food is required – gas burner, tiny tables, stools and all - maybe not for those who prefer the comforts of a restaurant but tasty and cheap and worth trying out for the fun factor. The streets in the Old Quarter are named after the goods that are sold in the shops there; Silk Street, Silver Street and Pickled-Fish Street to name a few. There are many artists producing both original art and interesting and amusing takes on some old classics.
Amongst the clamour and chaos you may see a wizened Vietnamese local wearing a coolie hat, balancing two baskets hanging from a stick over their shoulder. On closer inspection these shallow, woven, baskets are filled with something ludicrously heavy as their bearer cuts a pace through the melee. More often than not locals like this are happy to pose for a photograph but do be prepared to hand over some coins for the shot - they don’t have a lot and the photo will be worth every penny.
The Thang Long Water Puppet Show is a big Hanoi attraction; the theatre is located near Hoan Kiem Lake. You will need to book well in advance if you want to get an early evening sitting. Book premium seats if you need extra leg-room – the theatre was built for little people. The show is all in Vietnamese but it is visually excellent showing colourful, wooden puppets in traditional folklore scenes. The skilled puppeteers are all hidden behind a screen and there is live music to accompany. I would not recommend using the toilets here which are little more than holes in the floor and pungent to say the least. Shows start at 16.00, 17.15, 16.30, 20.00 & 21.15 and last approx 45 minutes.
Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of the Old Quarter, is a favourite among visitors and locals alike and not to be missed. Visit in the morning and you’ll see joggers and Tai Chi being practised on its banks. Built on Jade Island in the lake is Ngoc Son Temple, a good place to escape the frenzy of the city and home to miniature trees, a shrine and a huge preserved turtle. The island is reached by the red-painted wooden bridge (a nominal fee is charged). Towards the bottom of the lake you will see Thap Rua Tortoise tower its reflection rippling on the water. The lake makes a good point of reference for finding your way round the city.
The food in Vietnam is, for me, one of the highlights; fresh, zingy with lots of vegetables and herbs and a touch of spice that gets the taste buds tingling - and incredibly healthy. A Tiger beer complements perfectly.
The frenetic and vibrant atmosphere of Hanoi makes it a truly memorable place to visit with lots to see, feel and experience in the way of culture, history, architecture, crafts, food and everyday Vietnamese city life. Its energy is invigorating and infectious and I can still feel the buzz one year on.
Where to sleep
The Sheraton Hanoi Hotel on the shores of the West Lake is a five minute cab ride into town. Modern and luxurious with a fantastic pool and all amenities expected of a 5* hotel.
The Golden Sun Hotel is clean, modern, comfortable and in a quiet area of the Old Quarter.
Where to eat
Hanoi Garden (30-36 Hang Manh) offers fresh, zingy traditional Vietnamese food. It's a popular restaurant so booking is advisable.
Bun Bo Nam Bo (67 Hang Dieu) - Street food but not on the street, busy and basic, cheap, limited menu but very tasty, good food.