Punctuated by warning beeps from the ceaseless motorbikes, Hanoi is like a child’s sticker book – albeit a fairly organised one – where random shops get pasted tightly in seemingly endless alleys.
Unlike its sibling city of Ho Chi Minh, where the steer towards development has been clearly imprinted, Hanoi seems to thrive in its organic growth – a messy checkerboard of old and new businesses – mostly short buildings leaning whimsically like some fairy-tale town, dressed up with the copious tinsel of ancient wires – the lifeblood of power and telecommunications.
To suss out the city’s logic and layout, one must be willing to invest in exploring her many streets, which makes Hanoi at least a 3-day destination. This is best done by foot or motorbike as the surprises are found in narrow passages, and these two methods grants discovery, and an intimate affair filled with spontaneity with the capital.
The famous Hoan Kiem Lake, is both a recommended sight for its changing seascape of people and varying activities, as well as a great anchor location to pivot from, as you wind your way around the city. Grand trees bend over the still lake, as locals mingle around the open space, eating popsicles, exercising, and canoodling. The occasional person would approach with some free tour advice – most likely a University student trying to brush up on their linguistics. Tourism is fast becoming a popular choice among the younger generation and their eagerness to share their lives is endearing and helpful.
My accommodation, Church Legend Hotel was a short 10 – 15 minutes’ walk from the lake, situated at the peripheral of the Old Quarter, beside St Joseph Cathedral. The area is dotted with peddlers and sizable hawkers, offering the northern interpretation of Pho, amongst many local favourites. Just around the corner, along Ly Quoc Su street, was Pho 10. You’ll find delicate, slippery glass noodles floating in robust bowls of clear beef broth, livened up with plenty of spring onions. Appropriate your own portion of lime and chili and you’ll have a meal for any time of the day.
Hanoi is famous for their Bun Cha, and my first experience was supposed to be at the famed Dackim along Hang Manh street. Coming up to the shop, a flurry of menus were waved at us, and unable to distinguish the difference, the choice eventually fell to the shop to the left of Dackim. But this is Hanoi, and the Bun Cha we were served, was still perfect. Soft white vermicelli gets dunked into your own bowl of briny sauce, surprisingly pleasant, especially when eaten with the roasted pork patties within, still aromatic from the grill. Accompanied by crispy spring rolls and the omnipresent stack of greens, it’s no wonder this unassuming but delicious platter has become Hanoi’s national dish.
Someone joked once that if you were to cut a Vietnamese, they would bleed coffee. So it’s no small wonder that you’ll never run out of cafes to visit in this country. There’s the famous Giang Cafe serving up some thick egg coffee – not unlike eggnog and coffee; or the institution that is Cong Caphe, a franchise that delivers, with some serious hipster cred in their decor. Cafe Lam is one the oldest coffee establishments around, free of embellishments, while Cafe Runam sits at the other end of the spectrum with their high-end presentation in a decidedly western ambiance. It’s small wonder there’s only one Starbucks in the whole of Hanoi.
Although there’s the Mausoleum, the Opera House, the Water Puppets Show, the various museums, and even more temples to view (most of which I breezed past on my host’s motorbike), I find myself imbibing Hanoi’s soul most strongly at her heart – the Old Quarter. The influences from the Chinese and French occupations have left their indelible marks in architecture and art, blended and served with Vietnamese flair, in a delicious presentation by the Hanoians. In this city, wandering is truly connecting.