My latest trips to Hanoi were during April of 2015, and during Tet week of February 2014. I really enjoy being in Hanoi because life is so very different than anywhere else in the world that I have visited. In my view, Hanoi has a beauty and feel that is all its own – ramshackle, roughshod, relentless, curious, abrupt, jerry-rigged, coffee-crazed, seemingly chaotic, and predominantly friendly. And, Hanoi is safe, with the possible exception of traffic for tourists visiting Hanoi for the first time. Violent crime is basically unthinkable.In addition to the myriad of sidewalk street-food restaurants, Hanoi is peppered with coffee shops of all sorts and sizes. In my opinion, Vietnam and Italy have the finest coffee in the world.
In particular, fresh juices of all sorts are very popular in Hanoi. My favorite is the specially made watermelon juice, which you can easily make at home. Fill a blender about three-quarters full with chunks of watermelon, then add ice to the top. Next, add about a third to half of a cup of condensed milk, and a half cup of whole milk. Blend and serve. You going to like it!! I promise.
Because I spent so much time in Hanoi during the past few years, this post is considerably longer than most all of my destination posts. At the end of this post are three galleries of my photos of the common sites in Hanoi: the sidewalk squat-stool restaurants that are everywhere serving a wide variety of delicious street foods; the street vendors of Hanoi; the homes of Hanoi; the motorbike trucks (as I call them) of Hanoi; and, of course, the motorbikes of Hanoi. For each photo gallery at the end of this post, be sure to click on any photo to trigger a “lightbox” presentation of the the photo gallery — doing so really brings the photos to life.
As a special event, during May 2015, I had the wonderful opportunity of being invited to speak to a class of university students at the Vietnam National Ethnology Museum in Hanoi. These were incredibly bright students who were intensely engaged and a joy with whom to meet and interact.
In the way of a little background, and as you likely know, Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and has a city-proper population of over 7 million (larger than Washington, DC) and, after Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), is the second largest city in Vietnam. Hanoi has been a critical political nexus for Vietnam for about the past 1,000 years. The city is located on the banks of the Red River and is a very picturesque, with most all of the streets lined with purple-flowered Bang Lang trees and red-flowered Flamboyant trees that provide plenty of sidewalk shade from the intense sun and heat.
According to TripIndex by TripAdvisor, during 2012, Hanoi was the cheapest city in the world for a one-night stay for two in a four-star hotel. This included breakfast, cocktails, and a two-course dinner with a bottle of wine. The total cost? How about $141. This is about one-fouth of the cost in the most expensive city, London, which cost about $520. This year, Hanoi is ranked fourth in TripAdvisor’s list of World Best Destinations. My hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi was $17.00 per night, breakfast included.
The most serious risk for first-timers is involvement in an accident if you choose to ride a motorbike on your own in Hanoi traffic, or crossing a busy street in an inexperienced manner – there is an art and skill to crossing streets in Hanoi (I discuss this in more detail below). In-lane and one-directional traffic does not exist., and red lights and stop signs are regarded as suggestions, not mandates. Over 90 percent of the traffic consists of motorbikes in a mad rush to somewhere, and the horn-blowing is non-stop. This can be overwhelming for first-time tourists, especially along the many narrow streets of the city. To complicate matters, pedestrians are by and large forced to walk in the street with the traffic because the sidewalks are impassable due to their use for motorbike parking and street food restaurant seating.
Another aspect of Hanoi that takes some getting used — the cultural norm for the people of Hanoi to talk to strangers. In my estimation, about 20 percent of the population of Hanoi speaks some degree of English. So, for tourists, it is quite common to be asked where you are from as an initial question. And don’t think you can get away with just answering that question. Once you provide that answer, you will face a pleasant barrage of other questions. How many children do you have? What is your job? Are you married? Do you like Vietnam? Where have you traveled in Vietnam? Do you like Vietnamese food? Do you like the weather in Vietnam? Do you think Vietnamese women are pretty? And the questions go on and on and on. And feel free to ask many questions in return. You will happily receive the answers.
Popular points of interest in Hanoi include the Old Quarter District, Hoan Kiem Lake, West Lake District, Bay Mau Lake, the view from the top of the Lotte Tower, Dong Xuan Market, the Night Market, the sidewalk street-food restaurants, the coffee shops, the one-pillar pagoda, the ethnology museum, and the temple of literature.
Because, during 2014, I was fortunate to be in Hanoi during Tet holiday week, I briefly describe below the Tet holidays in Hanoi. Also below is a discussion of the ever-important art of crossing a Hanoi street jam-packed with an endless flow of motorbikes — on which are perched drivers who love blowing their horns non-stop.
During Tet, Vietnamese families place either an orange tree or a blossoming peach tree in their homes. In some regions of the country, people place orange trees and in other regions they place peach trees. The trees are sold along the streets everywhere in the city. Many people are granted leave from work for Tet week, so Hanoi is alive with activity, and incredibly delicious and fresh street food is everywhere in the city. The fresh food markets are stocked to the hilt and humming with people. As you might imagine, it is important to plan well in advance if you want to visit Vietnam during Tet. Waiting too long will result in difficulty booking a decent hotel, booking train travel, and booking flights. So, don’t hesitate, plan your Tet trip to Vietnam for next year. Vietnam is an incredibly affordable destination. Very nice locally-owned hotels, with your choice of a Vietnamese or Western style breakfast included in the price, are everywhere for about $25.00 usd per night. Hotel staff are very hospitable and accommodating, and at most hotels there are staff who speak English well or well enough.
Traffic in Hanoi is constant and seemingly chaotic, and consists predominantly of motorbikes, the vehicle of choice. Why motorbikes? The reasons are mainly affordability, size, congestion, and parking availability. Although Hanoi has some wide avenues, most of the streets are narrow and congested, and allow for no place to park a car. A motorbike can be “parked” just about anywhere, including the sidewalk and in building lobbies!
So, in many parts of Hanoi, the sidewalks are fully taken up with parked motorbikes, forcing pedestrians to walk on the street, causing even more traffic congestion. Motorbikes allow easy maneuvering through traffic congestion. In Hanoi, this would be impossible with a car. Also, with the average annual salary in Vietnam being around $2,000 usd per year, cars simply are not affordable.
Crossing a street filled with speeding motorbikes is a test of nerves for anyone visiting Vietnam for the first time. First-time visitors will stand at the side of the street and wait for a break in the traffic, which usually never comes. The proper way to cross a street in Hanoi is to just walk straight into the traffic, keeping the pace of your walk constant, not making any sudden moves, and not stopping until you reach the other side of the street. This approach works wonderfully. As part of the driving culture, the motorbike drivers simply weave around you.
As I mentioned earlier, below are three galleries of my photos of the common sites in Hanoi: the sidewalk squat-stool restaurants that are everywhere serving a wide variety of delicious street foods; the street vendors of Hanoi; the homes of Hanoi; the motorbike trucks (as I call them) of Hanoi; and, of course, the motorbikes of Hanoi. For each photo gallery at the end of this post, be sure to click on any photo to trigger a “lightbox” presentation of the the photo gallery — doing so really brings the photos to life.