Well Hanoi, you are something else.
If you can imagine Bali as being a feast for the senses, arriving in Hanoi was more of an assault on them. Yet over my 13 days or so using it as a base to explore the rest of Northern Vietnam, I have become rather fond of this big, utterly mad city.
I decided to throw caution to the wind and not plan ahead too much for Vietnam. I didn’t even know if I was going there, until a few weeks before as my original plan was to go to Myanmar. But it didn’t sit right with me to visit a country where ethnic cleansing is being blindly ignored by its leader to have a jolly around temples, so Vietnam rose up the ranks and I booked a flight to Hanoi on a whim, planning to travel North to South. I didn’t do too much research and figured I’d work it out when I arrived.
However, this meant that on arrival in Vietnam a) I wasn’t really prepared for Hanoi’s chaos and b) I hadn’t paid attention to what the weather would be like in Vietnam (really cold and wet in the North, In case you were wondering), which c) included the huge typhoon that has flooded parts of central Vietnam, causing loss of life and real damage. Hoi An, the lantern laden town in Vietnam I basically came to the country to see, has been worst affected. All of this affected my plans and made me wish I had been SLIGHTLY more organised. It has required a bit more thinking on my feet now I’m here and I decided a few days ago that, rather than my original linear North to South route, I would (perhaps nonsensically for a country of this size) dart around more than planned on the off chance that Hoi An will have dried out by the very end of my trip. After Northern Vietnam I’m heading south to Dalat, Phan Thiet, Ho Chi Minh city and the Mekong Delta before coming back up to Hue and Hoi An – I can catch a flight from Hoi An’s nearest airport directly to Cambodia where I’m meeting my friend Akriti, so it’s actually worked out quite well.
Arrival in Hanoi
I felt like an absolute deer in the headlights when I arrived in Hanoi after gentle Bali. The city is sprawling, the roads from the airport are huge, it is heavily polluted (you can literally feel the smoke entering your lungs and clinging to your skin) and a low, eery fog hung over the city the day I arrived. It then rained for four days straight (and has continued to rain across much of Vietnam ever since).
Then there’s the traffic. Let’s take a minute to try and understand the madness of Vietnamese traffic. There are no sides of the road, mopeds whizz past in both directions, on both sides, with no apparent regard for pedestrians. They are usually piled high with bananas, boxes or families. I’ve had several near miss collisions and been clipped by a couple, and it takes some seriously gritty reserve and determination to cross the road. Some advise to cross the road slowly, as then they’re forced to slow down, and others advise you just get across it as quick as you can. I’ve tried both and neither make me feel particularly more convinced my life is valued by drivers on the road!
Yet exploring the Old Quarter on my first day, with its steaming street food stalls, narrow maze of streets, constant beeping of horns, throngs of Vietnamese and western people drinking beer in the street, low wires and crackling neon signs, I realised THIS was everything you imagine a crazy Asian city to be and started to perk up a little more. Since then I’ve embarked on a little love affair with this part of the city.
I have taken my time exploring the area, taking in the colours and smells and atmosphere and huge array of street food (more on that later). Women walk the streets selling bananas, fried fruit snacks and rice hats, while men stand in front of their beer restaurants trying to usher you in. Everywhere you turn, there are shops and markets selling souvenirs, elephant pants and trekking gear (there’s a lot of North Face which is apparently genuine as their main manufacturing factory is here, though I’m not sure I believe that. I bought an insipid pink North Face rain jacket for £3!).
The real plus about Hanoi, despite the crazy, is that I feel really safe and not at all hassled here, apart from the ferocity of the scooters. I’ve wobbled home on my own as late as 2am and the streets have been busy and I’ve felt totally at ease.
I have stayed in two hostels – Old Quarter View Hostel and Cocoon Inn. I prefer Cocoon simply because the rooms are nicer and more private, but both are clean, in prime locations, and proper backpacker joints set up to help you travel as comfortably as posible (I didn’t really find any of these types of hostels in Bali) with a mixed clientele. You’ve got your 18 year old gap year kids fully primed for drinking games night after night, you’ve got your 65 year olds on a late life adventure, you’ve got people in their 30s trying to find themselves who might also be fully primed for drinking games on the odd occasion (ahem).
Dorm life continues to be a mixed bag for me, some days I don’t mind it and other times I hate it. Other travellers can be really selfish (7am loud phone calls in bed, deciding to turn on the lights and pack at 3am, etc) and you just have to grit your teeth and bear it. In Vietnam I’ve had less of the space and quiet time I have spoken about needing in my previous blogs, and that’s just something I’m learning to deal with.
Old Quarter View especially was a great place to meet people if you needed to – I swapped many stories with fellow travellers over breakfasts or beers. On my first night I met a lovely Dutch girl Sanne (who quickly became my travelling BFF and I subsequently travelled northern Vietnam on and off with for 12 days – I MISS YOU SANNE!) and two German guys, and we went our for Bia Hoi on the aptly nicknamed Beer St. The street is packed with pavement bars, where you perch on tiny little low-down stools to eat or drink while locals eat their chicken feet and Pho chien (yes, dog really is a thing here) around you. Bia Hoi is as locally brewed as you get, and costs 5000VND which is precisely 16p. So naturally I had to have several. We then moved onto gin, which was 40,000VND (£1.20) for a double and, again, I had several.
And just like that, party Ceri, who I was pretty sure I had left behind on my leaving do in London (the very same leaving do which saw me get pushed to the tube station in a pushchair by a tramp) was back and LOVING LIFE until 2am. I mean reeeeeeeally loving life, dancing to Euro Pop/every song Pitbull has ever released and drinking shots with people I had never met but were of course my new best friends. The next day I experienced my first travelling hangover and it was truly horrendous. I rolled out of my room for an egg baguette at 9 then went back to bed until 1, whoops. Hanoi is a fun place to party, and I’ve had some ridiculously good nights here now but the hangovers are raging and I’m not sure I can manage any more!
What I did in Hanoi (besides drinking)
I can’t put my finger on when Hanoi grew on me, but it suddenly became familiar and I have enjoyed every single day spent there in between trips and tours. On the whole I’ve found Vietnam a mixed bag – lots of beauty, lots of adventure, but also long days travelling and terrible weather and places I really haven’t liked (like Sapa town) – but Hanoi, for all its crazy, has been fairly consistent.
Old Quarter Hanoi
I’ve summed up why I love the Old Quarter above but it’s a great place to walk, shop, eat, mingle with locals. On Friday and Saturday nights they close of the streets to traffic (thank god) and everyone just walks and mingled for hours on end, street musicians play, children play. It’s when Hanoi is its most vibrant and wonderful.
The lake offers a great sanctuary from the rest of the city and is great for an early morning or late afternoon stroll, a bia Hoi and game of cards or a peaceful cup of tea overlooking the water.
Vietnamese Women’s museum and the French Quarter
Full of French influence, as it’s name might suggest, this area is packed with boulangeries (I was delighted to find an almond croissant here) and is also home to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. I found it really fascinating to find out more about the role Vietnamese women have played in their culture – they are powerful figureheads of their society and not shrinking wallflowers expected to stay at home, put up and shut up. I learned about how women were revolutionaries and guerillas in the Vietnam/US and civil wars, as well as typical traditions involving women, like marriage and childbirth. It’s definitely worth a visit!
My uncle Graham recommended this place to me and I’m so glad I went. KOTO stands for ‘know one, teach one’ and is a social enterprise restaurant designed to get children off the street and into employment. The front of house and kitchen staff are all streetkids. For 250,000VND (£8) I had an amazing set menu including soup, fresh spring rolls, baked king prawns and coconut cheesecake. All served with the biggest oF smiles. The. Dream.
Really lovely Cathedral square. I’m going to be honest, I didn’t actually go in the beautiful, classically gothic cathedral but to a rooftop gin bar overlooking it – the Mad Botanist. I met Louise, who I had done yoga with in Bali, for Friday night drinks. It is an absolute revelation and reminded me of Mr Foggs in London, through sweeping red curtains you enter an actual gin chamber with hundreds of ACTUAL gins and posh tonic water. They serve their gins in proper gin goblets. I was in my element, not quite believing this was Hanoi and that rather I was in some posh Barcelona bar in the Gothic quarter!
Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum
Ok, so I didn’t go here because while I’ve been in Hanoi the man himself has been off in Russia getting embalmed! But apparently it’s well worth a visit.
Food and drink in Hanoi
Omg the fooooooood in Vietnam! The food! Where do I begin? But basically, Hanoi is THE place to eat. I’ve tried it ALL – banh mi (baguette with chargrilled pork or chicken, salad, coriander and chilli – and the bread is actually really good in Vietnam, it must be the French bakery influence!), DIY hot pots and barbecue with an array of meat, seafood and veg, Pho (I have Pho coming out of my ears), Bun Cha (my absolute favourite – little pork patties in a sweet, spicy broth with lemongrass, galangal, garlic and chilli and heaps of noodles), egg and chilli sauce sandwiches, soy barbecue skewers from street vendors, fried spring rolls, fresh rice paper spring rolls. The list goes on!
The coffee in Vietnam itself is a work of art. I’ve limited myself to one traditional condensed milk coffee only every 2-3 days because that stuff daily cannot be good for you. They also specialise in coconut coffee and, my favourite, egg coffee – it’s literally coffee with a whipped sugary egg white on top and totally not what you’d think it would taste like. Like a really sweet, frothy cappuccino!
My main recommendations for food in Hanoi, other than street food and street cafes, are Koto, Blue Butterfly (where I ate the bun cha above) and Note Coffee, the sweetest little coffee place ever that so cheered me up on a homesick day!
I’m going to be honest and say, around the 8 week mark, noodle fatigue has started. I’m really craving some wholesome, simple food. Pho just about does the trick but ideally something without rice, noodles and not unhealthy western food. Believe it or not, I would give anything for a nice salmon fillet and some broccoli! On the flip side, I’m also really craving cheese. I drunkenly rung my friend Rosie the other night and cried ACTUAL TEARS over wanting cheese, you guys. So if anyone knows a good cheese supplier in Vietnam hit me up! If not I’m holding out for Julia to make me the Christmas cheese board of all cheese boards come my return home on 28th December.
Initial reflections on travelling in Vietnam
Food ramblings aside, I’ve now been in Vietnam almost a fortnight and travelled around a lot already. Travelling this country is really different from anything I’ve ever experienced and I’ve really had to change the way I approach things. My slow travel approach, lazy lie ins and beach days of Bali feel like a distant memory, and I’m definitely ticking boxes more than I usually do but that’s because a) I met a great travel buddy whose approach to travel made me want to see and do more and b) there really is so much to see and do and take in in Vietnam. I’m not seeing even half of the places I could visit yet I’m still on the go a lot.
My sedentary six weeks (excepting the odd yoga and soft hike) feel like a world away. You’re up early to seize the day and go on tours and hike up to viewpoints as the sun is rising, before the crowds arrive. I’ve kayaked, canoed, trekked, rock climbed and motorbiked around mountain paths. I’ll share more about this in my next blog as I’ve loved it ALL.
I haven’t fallen in love with Vietnam yet the way I did with Indonesia. It’s a fascinating, beautiful place but the weather and needing to change my plans so drastically has definitely affected my overall morale and if I didn’t have my visa and flights to Cambodia all booked I would have seriously considered going to Laos instead. Does that mean I wish I wasn’t here? Absolutely not. Im just trying to enjoy every day and throw myself into every opportunity. It’s difficult to feel unsure or miserable for long when you live life that way, I just haven’t yet felt Vietnam ignite my spark!
Having just completed my Sapa trek (which was wonderful), tomorrow I leave Hanoi for the last time to head South and explore Dalat and Mui Ne. I have some blogs almost ready on Halong Bay and Cat Ba (which I LOVED) and Sapa, so will refine and share those soon!