Insane. What a crazy, busy, hectic place. We took our first day to get acclimatised to the city, literally and figuratively. We left temperatures of 36 degrees in Laos and met cold and fog in Hanoi. After fishing our jumpers out from the depths of our backpacks, we wandered through the streets, trying to process the amount of shops, restaurants, street food stalls and people there were. No matter what, though, we were never able to process the sheer amount and craziness of Hanoi traffic. Cars, mopeds, motorbikes and bicycles coming from every which way, to every which way, stopping for nothing and no one. Red lights are more a guideline for stopping than a requirement, which means you have to walk cautiously even on a green man sign, and look both ways at all times as mopeds can drive on the other side of the road against flowing traffic; they can also drive on pavements if they find one not completely blocked by street stalls/restaurants/parked bikes/locals/people carrying far too heavy backpacks.
Hoan Kiem lake was a pretty oasis of comparative calm, especially as the streets surrounding it are closed to traffic on weekends for pedestrians and kids on hoverboard go-karts. There is an exciting buzz everywhere, which is great to experience but can become tiring and overwhelming after too long. You are constantly bombarded by people trying to sell you things, sit you in their restaurant, take you on their motorbike, drive where you’re walking, take you on a cheap but exhilarating tour to some such place etc.
We found a temple on our first day, hidden and squatting amongst the surrounding neon signs and tall, narrow buildings. I also had my first bowl of Pho (traditional Vietnamese noodle soup) and accompanying batter sticks, both of which were delicious and cost next to nothing. A big part of Hanoi are the family restaurants – basically a large, long room open to the street and that offer one or two particular dishes. Because they make one dish en masse it is extremely cheap and extremely tasty, having been perfected as their speciality; just try to go for the ones filled with locals as these are the best.
Next up was a permanent exhibition we came across whilst looking for coffee, describing a brief history of Hanoi; politics, war, trade and social changes were touched upon and it was completely free, which was unbelievable as it was so interesting and really well researched.
The next day we visited the Temple of Literature, a temple of education and University since the 11th century! It was really impressive, with a detailed history about the topics and exams posed upon its students throughout the century. We were also excited to see some current Hanoi students dressed up formally for their graduation photos, taken in the temple itself.
In the afternoon we went to The Women’s Museum, a fascinating look into the historical and modern role of women in Vietnamese society. Four floors of history, first hand accounts, costumes and exhibitions that made me feel I understood the culture a little better and have huge respect for the female street sellers seen everywhere in the city.
That evening we went for a walk round a different part of town, found St Joseph’s Cathedral, and had our first Bia Hoi, which is really cheap (est. 10p) freshly-brewed beer, drunk on the tiny plastic stools that all local street restaurants offer their customers – it’s funny enough seeing the locals eating five inches off the pavement whilst traffic rushes past, but (taller) tourists just look ridiculous!
Next day we trekked across town to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and the Presidential Palace and Gardens. We had previously tried to go on our first day, but on a Sunday the queue to enter was over 2 miles long and opening times are quite narrow. It was a bizarre experience, with his body on display in a glass case and people filing past for a look – you had to walk at a certain pace and weren’t allowed to talk or show too much emotion. The Palace was fairly interesting, with sections of Ho Chi Minh’s residence on display with explanations about his conduct during the war.
Afterwards, we went to Hoa Lo prison, where Vietnamese prisoners were held by French colonists, and later, American prisoners shot down from the sky during the war. The artefacts and rooms on display were really fascinating, but it was uncomfortable to walk round as a Western visitor as the information provided was so blatantly propagandic and all about “The Revolution” and “The People’s Nation”. The US (and France to an extent) were evil torturers who tried to crush the revolution whilst the Vietnamese were humane guardians, victimised and fighting for the greater good. All very interesting, but difficult to process.
One of our favourite places in Hanoi was Cafe Nola, a bohemian looking cafe hidden down an unassuming alleyway in the old quarter. We spent our whole last day drinking coffee and planning the rest of our travel through Vietnam here.