Hanoi: Vietnam’s historic, hectic, and charming capital

Hanoi has been the capital of Vietnam for over 1,000 years, and the city’s long and turbulent history has given rise to a rich and unique culture. Regimes have changed and wars have passed, but Hanoi has remained the cultural center of Vietnam. Hanoi was the capital of French Indochina and of Communist-led North Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and relics of Chinese, French, and Communist rule remain. Hanoi is known for its centuries-old architecture, street food, and chaotic Old Quarter. It’s a charming, lively city, filled with parks and lakes, wide, tree-lined boulevards, millions of motorbikes, and over 600 temples and pagodas.

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Hanoi’s Old Quarter

After modern, commercial Ho Chi Minh City, coming to Hanoi felt like arriving in a different country, or traveling back in time. I didn’t have the best first impression of Hanoi – the outskirts are grey and industrial, with many half-built, abandoned buildings and imposing, Communist-style monuments. But as soon as we arrived in the Old Quarter, I fell in love. Ancient, twisted trees give shade to narrow, winding streets, crumbling French-style buildings, and Buddhist temples. Ladies in traditional Vietnamese garb carry baskets on their shoulders, selling fresh tropical fruit and donuts. The blocks are arranged roughly by trade – the clothing block, the lamp district, the carpentry street – and are crowded with people and motorbikes.

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Hanoi remains somewhat untouched by the reach of modern capitalism and the global economy. It’s is one of the few cities in the world I’ve been to that does not have Western chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s and it was refreshing to experience a place free from these familiar sights. I absolutely loved the atmosphere of the city. It’s vibrant, unique, and so full of life. We spent four days in Hanoi, broken up by a quick trip to Halong bay, and in this time it became one of my favorite cities I’ve ever visited.

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Pretending to be a local


Rainstorms, sick days, and street food

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The view from our hostel

The day we arrived in Hanoi was when I got really, really sick. I had nasty sinus and respiratory infection, and it wrecked my whole body. I was dead exhausted, so congested I could barely breathe, and coughing uncontrollably till my lungs ached. It was the most sick I’ve been in years. Being sick when you’re traveling is the worst – you’re in a strange place with strange food, you can’t drink the water, and you’re always on the move. I was reluctant to get the rest I needed, for fear of missing out on seeing Hanoi. It was a rough couple days, but at least I had a good friend to take care of me, and everyone I met in the hostels was kind and helpful. Fellow travellers who I had just met offered me medicine, food, and water, and made sure I was okay. Backpackers take care of each other.

Our second day in Hanoi, I woke to pouring rain. I was still so sick I could barely leave my bed, but I was forced get up. Our hostel was sold out for the night and we need to move to a different one. We ventured out in the deluge to the pharmacy, where I was able to get antibiotics and codeine cough syrup without a prescription. We stopped at a little street-food stand for bún chả. The dish, a speciality of Hanoi, is made with grilled pork sausage, fresh herbs, bean sprouts, pickled veggies, fish sauce, and vermicelli rice noodles. We watched an old man cook our pork over a small grill in the street. Even in my lousy state, I could appreciate how delicious the meal was.

The rain let up long enough for us to walk to our new hostel, where I promptly went to sleep. It rained most of the day, so I didn’t feel like I was missing out on too much. In the evening I found the strength to leave my bed for a couple hours. We toured the night market, bought souvenirs, and ate seafood hot pot for dinner. Our “small size” was enough food to feed a small army, the pot filled to the brim with zesty soup, fresh seafood, and vegetables. I knew Vietnam is one of the best places in the world for street food, but I was still continually surprised by how amazing (and cheap!) all the food was.

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The street food in Vietnam continually amazed me

Weekend festivities and public life in Vietnam

The next day we went on an overnight cruise of Ha Long Bay (post coming!), and returned to Hanoi on Sunday night. We went out to Hoàn Kiếm Lake or “Sword Lake,” a pleasant gathering spot in the center of the city, and discovered a magical scene. Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night, the streets around the lake are closed to traffic. The area is taken over by pedestrians, and it becomes an unofficial festival of sorts. We wandered down the length of the lake, coming upon circle after circle of people gathered, and stopping to see what was going on. There was ballroom dancing, a guitar and singing circle, a giant game of tug of war, stilt-walking, breakdancing, guys doing the robot, and múa sạp, a traditional Vietnamese game played by jumping over bamboo poles.

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Temple on a small island in Hoan Kiem Lake

We didn’t know anything would be happening at the lake, and it was a delightful surprise. I loved the whole atmosphere – it was lively and exciting, but still casual. I felt like we had stumbled upon something special and rare, but apparently, it happens every weekend in Hanoi. None of it required much preparation (beyond closing the streets), or cost much money, and yet it was such a great event. It was just the people of the city coming together to dance, sing, and play games outside on a Sunday night. I could feel a real sense of community. Everyone was welcome, even us foreigners. We jumped right into the tug-of-war game, and laughed with the locals as we lost. This wonderful, impromptu gathering made me think about public space and public life in Vietnam, and how it’s different from what I’m used to.

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In Vietnam, there are no clear boundaries between inside/outside and private/public life. People live their “private” lives outside in the open. Food is cooked, sold, and eaten in the street. Literally anywhere in Vietnam is an appropriate place to sit down and have a nap. Because why not? It’s all just space, there for everyone. Public parks have gym equipment for exercising outside. Businesses and homes blend seamlessly together. We walked past workshops spilling out onto the sidewalk, people painting and welding in the street. Many stores and restaurants are also homes. At one restaurant we went to, I had to walk up the stairs, into the family’s living room, and past a grandma and a boy watching TV in order to access the restroom (and restroom is a stretch of the word – it was literally just a drain and a bucket of water rinse off the floor). It seemed bizarre to me, but for the owners, since there’s no real distinction between professional and private life, it’s totally normal to have customers walking through their house. The Vietnamese people seem more at ease, maybe because they are free to be their genuine selves in public. No one is putting on a face just for show, like we do in the US and Japan. It’s honest and refreshing, and a big part of what I liked so much about Vietnam.


Last Day in Vietnam: egg coffee, famous fried fish, ancient temples, and 22¢ beers

Our last day in Hanoi with started with an egg coffee at Café Phố Cổ, and adorable little shop overlooking Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Egg coffee is made with whipped egg yolks instead of milk or cream. It was created as an alternative to regular coffee during Communist rule when dairy was scarce in Vietnam. The recipe, invented out of necessity during austere times, has become a famous delicacy in Hanoi. Our egg coffee was rich and delicious, with a flavor similar to tiramisu. Next we had lunch at Chả Cá Lã Vọng, a famous grilled fish restaurant. Chả Cá Lã Vọng is so well-esteemed that there are many imposter restaurants of the same name nearby, hoping to trick naïve tourists. There’s only one item on the menu – grilled fish – and they do it right. The fish arrives in a still-sizzling pan, flavored with a delightful combination of spices, and served with rice noodles, peanuts, and fresh herbs.

Later in the the afternoon, we walked to Văn Miếu, the Temple of Literature, a Temple of Confucius founded in 1070 AD. The Temple hosts the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first national university. It’s a huge complex, with five different courtyards, a pond, many pavilions, pagodas, and statues, and a stelae of doctors. The grounds are surrounded by a high wall, and there is an impressive gate at the entrance. It’s a beautiful, calm oasis; a Garden of Eden hidden right in the middle of the bustling city. The doctors’ steles, built on the backs of carved stone turtles, depict the names and birthplaces of graduates of the Imperial Academy. The turtle, one of Vietnam’s four holy creatures, represents longevity and wisdom.

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The entrance gate to the Temple of Literature

20170403_184314We spent our last night in Vietnam at the infamous Bia Hoi Corner, where vendors illegally sell freshly brewed Bia Hoi draught beer for 5,000 VND, or about $0.22 USD. A regular intersection by day, the area is transformed into a hub of activity at night, crowded with street-food vendors, motorbikes, pedicabs, and drunk foreigners and locals. Vendors put out plastic tables and stools in the street and sell bia hoi until the kegs run out or the cops show up. We grabbed a bia hoi and a stool and watched the craziness ensue. It was the perfect way to end our time in Vietnam.

We departed Vietnam the next day, and I was sorry to go. I had quickly grown used to the chaotic traffic, honking motorbikes, warm weather, ease of life, delicious street food, and cheap beer. Vietnam is one of the most unique, vibrant, and friendly places I’ve ever been. It is so full of character and offers visitors so much. We had a great 10 days exploring Vietnam, from busy city to gorgeous natural scenery, and back to bustling city. I’ll always remember this trip, and I hope that someday I can come back to Vietnam.

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But, before it was time to go home, we had one final stop on our trip: Taipei, Taiwan.

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