So we left off when I left the cozy hotel at what must have amounted like 5AM my time on no sleep to delve into the chaos that is the Old Quarter of Hanoi. I figured I would just walk around the area for a bit until I became tired again -I took the Lonely Planet 2h itinerary as a starting point but ended up doing all of it!
It’s been a culture shock for sure, this being my first time in South-East Asia, second time in Asia after Japan a few years ago. Everything I’d read, every video I’d seen, every story I’d been told proved true. Walking down the streets here is an assault on all your senses. There are motorcycles going in every direction, on the road or on the sidewalk, cars and vans as well, honking constantly at every turn. Back home a honk normally means “You’re going to die now”, so I jump every time, but here it’s a substitute for blinkers, or a threat, or a warning. They honk, therefore they are.
The streets of the Old Quarter aren’t narrow, really, they just feel that way because the entirety of the sidewalks is reserved for motorcycle parking, which means pedestrians must walk on the road, with vans and bikes narrowly avoiding them. Streetlights and pedestrian crossings are an anomaly, so most of the time there is never any pause in traffic that you may use to cross in a safer way. All the advice you’ll read online is true: if you need to cross a wide road and the hundreds of motorcycles never stopo coming, just start crossing, slowly but deliberately, looking at the oncoming drivers in the eye -and let them manoeuvre around you as you advance in a predictable route. It’s super scary at first but I think I’ll get the hang of it soon! It helps if you can tag along when somebody more experienced starts crossing!
As expected, I was approached by fruit and pastry vendors at every corner, but to my surprise, so far they all stand down after I say no the first time, which is a relief -Istanbul is of course a lot more pedestrian-friendly, but the touts are very persistent!
Regarding the things I saw… I started off in a random direction and found myself in Hoan Kiem Lake, or the Lake of the Returned Sword, because legend tells the story of a Viet emperor who drove the Chinese away with a divine sword that was then returned to the heavens through this lake. Today it wasn’t at its most picturesque, the water a sickly green and the tree-lined shores obscured by the fog. I went to the Ngoc Son temple anyway, a small island on the north side of the lake accessed by a bright red bridge. They charge 30,000 VND (€1,25) to enter the island. It’s tiny, and the shrine itself is only one small room, but it’s nice to see the city from within the lake (Until the floods come… and this is a lake!)
After that, I walked back up to the Old Quarter and had a nice stroll up and down Hang Gai street. All the Old Quarter is filled to the brim with shops and stores, but Hang Gai in particular has several beautiful, high-end “walk-in” stores that aren’t just crappy souvenirs sold off a stool on the street. It felt wrong to buy omiyage on the very first day of the trip, so I refrained… But I think I’ll have to go back before I leave!
By now it was around 13:30, and I couldn’t tell if I was starving or feeling full. I couldn’t figure out whether the last meal I’d had at the plane counted as breakfast, or as dinner, so I thought it best to err on the side of nutrients and stopped to have a banh mi (a Vietnamese baguette sandwich, remnant of the French colonial era) at a café. Crispy bread with shredded pork, carrot, lettuce, coriander… Recommended! 58,000 VND for the sandwich and an iced tea (2,45€).
After lunch the drizzle had got a bit stronger, but it wasn’t altogether unpleasant. After a rough few moments at the very beginning, getting lost each time I turned a corner, I could now follow my steps on the map fairly easily. It helps that the streets here all have names, and they have signs displaying said names, unlike other countries I could mention (you know who you are) (Japan).
If you look above the storefronts, the architecture here is very eclectic. Most houses are very narrow, because property tax apparently used to be paid by width, but other than that styles can be very different. Some houses look traditionally Asian, others are utilitarian concrete apartment blocks, others feature French architecture that wouldn’t stand out in Paris. That said, it was a bit shocking to run into St Joseph’s Cathedral in the middle of a square.
It seemed to be closed, so I didn’t get in, but instead went back to the hotel following a different route. It’s in Ma May street, right in the thick of it, with lots of restaurants and cafés around. It’s funny how in here many restaurants and cafés double as travel agencies, and how they are all called the same -because a soon as one of them gets good reviews on TripAdvisor, many others start taking up similar names in the hopes that tourists will confuse their second-rate businesses with the real one (the solution is to book online, where you can verify that you’re using the correct website).
I came back to my room thinking I’d whiled away the afternoon… But I was only out for like two hours!! It felt like I spent longer than that waiting to cross roads alone! But I’m done for the day -I’ll catch an early dinner and SLEEP! It’s gonna be great!