A dizzying riot of colour. Hanoi’s high octane pace of life leaves one slightly breathless, but the capital of Vietnam is a city bustling with activity and with incredible character.
From old gothic revival churches more than 140 years old..
to the rustic charm of the Old Quarter and its shophouses —
the city boasts a seamless blend of its history and fast-modernising economy.
With a population of some 8 million and a total of 5 million motorbikes on the roads, one can just imagine the culture shock most travellers get when it comes to traffic there. The key is to Johnny Walker it — just keep walking and trust that they’ll avoid you.
People in Hanoi work really hard. Their day starts by 6am and I learnt from some of the locals that it’s normal for people to pull 16-hour work shifts.
The street vendors lug their wares in baskets propped on the shoulders with bamboo poles. They weave expertly through crowded streets, deftly avoiding the mad traffic, selling all kinds of fresh fruit, fried donuts for breakfast, and freshly-baked baguettes.
Check out this woman totally overwhelmed by her colourful balloons!
I found the grit, perseverance and a will to make an honest living among the street vendors oddly moving.
Of course, the locals knew how to kick back and relax when the time came for it.
There were beautiful, quiet parks where children played badminton, parents brought their toddlers and pets out for a walk, gossiping with the neighbours. Some students even had choir practice with their teachers right there in the open. It was wonderful to see the softer side of Hanoi in the fringes of the Old Quarter.
There were pop-up coffee stalls everywhere you looked. I loved how public spaces were so personal to the locals. They gathered anywhere from stairways in shophouses, small alleyways, some even playing chess right by the side of the road while enjoying their afternoon cup of molten drip coffee.
I came across this fascinating character at a coffee stall in the Old Quarter one night.
He was using three mobile phones, constantly shouting and making slashing movements with his hands. I instantly thought he must be belong to a local gang. And sure enough, within 20 minutes, a group of men heavily-tattooed and on motorbikes arrived. Some carrying sticks. I gulped my lotus tea down and made a quick exit. Haha.
When it comes to attractions, there are a few things worth exploring for a taste of the local culture.
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
The Water Puppet Theatre Show showcases traditional Vietnamese musical instruments, singing and rather adorable water puppets.
I imagine children would really enjoy this. But personally, I was enthralled by the singers.
The shows run every hour or so, and it should be quite easy to pop in at a time convenient for you.
Address: 57b Đinh Tiên Hoàng, Hoàn Kiếm Hanoi, Vietnam
Phone: +84 4 3824 9494
Especially scenic at night, and very popular with local couples, this is a peaceful oasis from the organised chaos that is the city centre.
The lake is considered the centre of public life in the city, and if you’re lucky, you’ll be able to spot one of the three soft-shelled turtles living in the area. Turtles are regarded as a symbol of longevity and is considered auspicious by the Vietnamese.
Now for the FOOD.
I pretty much went all out in search of the best bowls of noodles. And to be very honest, the quality of phở (rice noodles) and broth I found everywhere were of a pretty high standard. People take their national dish very seriously.
Like this guy right here. He served me my first bowl of Phở Gà, or chicken rice noodle soup in Hanoi I’d never seen it served with all the parts of the chicken before. The innards, bones, gelatinous bits were all served as toppings and he even added a sprinkling of mushrooms for flavour.
But the best bowl I had during my time there has got to be this one from Phở Gia truyền on Bat Dan Street.
After much research, I found this super popular restaurant which boasts long queues in the morning since pho is really the staple breakfast food.
Serving up just one dish since 1940, the piping hot bowl of amazingly complex, savoury yet light broth with smooth rice noodles that just glide easily down your throat.. mm. I loved mine doused in hot sauce and spiced with red chili padi. Couldn’t feel my mouth after, but boy, was it amazing.
Phở Gia truyền
Address: 49 Bát Đàn, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
And finally, feeling a little adventurous, I decided to try their local special of Bún ốc or snail rice noodles.
The broth was slightly different from the usual, with a more tangy, tomato base. It’s also light, and had a shrimp-like flavour. Depending on the type of snails you pick, it can range from large and crunchy, to smaller ones that are softer and slightly chewy. I hear grilled snails go great with their local sour chili sauce too. Slurp!
All in all, what I loved most about Hanoi was how absolutely full of life and activity it was. There is never a dull moment. I liked it better than Ho Chi Minh City. For some reason, I felt more warmth here. Even in its glorious mess of activity and colour, there are pockets of quiet space to sip on the most potent, fragrant coffee and watch the world go by.