OK, I have to admit…I’ve been avoiding writing this post. Why? Well, I’m loathe to admit this too, but I’ll just come right out and say it: we couldn’t deal with Hanoi. And I feel terrible about it, because Hanoi was the one place in Vietnam where we had some insider info. Our friend Jenny White lived here for 2 (I think?) years teaching English, and she generously gave us tons of info on the best sights and food Hanoi has to offer. Plus, two other couple friends who did around-the-world trips (Grace & Susan and Brad & Jacqueline) told us they loved Hanoi. So we were all set up to adore this jewel of the north…and we did, for the first day. And then, we couldn’t wait to get out of there.
So, you may be wondering…what could possibly make Hope and Jeremy dislike Hanoi so much? I mean, we liked Saigon, for Pete’s sake (and nobody, apparently, likes Saigon). Well, there are three main arguments I would like to submit for the consideration of the jury.
Exhibit A: Bring your earplugs
It is freakin’ LOUD here. Vietnam is a bustling, rambunctious country, so it’s loud everywhere, but Hanoi really excels at this. First of all, the streets in the Old Quarter are organized by trade, so that each shop on that street basically sells the same thing. There is a “Baby Supplies Street,” a “Sewing Notions Lane,” a “Framed Diplomas Drive,” and even a “Snack Food Alley”:
We lived on “Locks and Other Small Hardware Road,” but just down the street was “Sheet Metal Way,” so that every time we left our hotel, we were greeted by the sound of at least 10 people pounding sheet metal into various forms for sale: bundt pans, colanders, buckets, and chimney vents.
Add to this noise the overwhelming din of traffic in the city and you’ve got yourself one noisy city. Horns are used pretty much non-stop here (and in Vietnam in general). This is unusual for people coming from the land of “Honking means ‘Watch out! Danger!’” In Vietnam, honking means “Move over,” “Get out of my way!,” and “I’m coming!” In other words, the horn is used non-stop. By EVERY vehicle on the road. So, walking down the street in the Old Quarter is a unending cacophony of hammering on sheet metal and honking horns.
Exhibit B: You might get run over by a motorbike carrying a slaughtered pig
I’ve alluded to it in a previous post, but let me now take the opportunity to explain how traffic in Vietnam works. First of all, I’m not joking when I say that traffic rules are mere suggestions here. It can be tough to cross the street, but there are two rules that anyone trying to “get to the other side” should follow:
1. The biggest fish rules the pond. That means: buses have right of way, then cars, and then motorbikes. You can cross in front of an army of motorbikes without fear…they will scoot around you (it’s kind of like the parting of the Red Sea), but do not try to cross in front of a bus or car. Let them pass, and then cross when there’s only a wall of motos coming at you.
2. Walk slowly. Sort of unintuitive, since Westerners want to run across the road. But walking slowly will give the motos time to react to you. Sudden movements = bad.
We had gotten the hang of this chaos by the time we left Saigon. But, the streets in Hanoi’s Old Quarter are very narrow (and there are motos parked all along the narrow sidewalks), so pedestrians have to walk in the street. There were a couple of instances where I was glad I curled my toes up as a moto whizzed by.
This would probably be considered a light load.
Also, it’s worth noting that most of these speeding motorbikes are not just carrying passengers, but incredible amounts of stuff, in all shapes and sizes. Some of the stranger things we’ve seen strapped to a motorbike in SE Asia:
- a large slaughtered pig
- sheet glass
- about 70 live chickens
- circular saws
- ladders (strapped to the moto vertically)
- bundles of rebar and/or PVC
- tables (the table was upside down and the driver was sitting on the flat portion…in other words, there was about 3 feet of table sticking out to the left, right and back of the bike)
Exhiit C: People were mean to us
But we can’t just dislike a city because the traffic is bad, right? Well, here’s the other reason we couldn’t deal with Hanoi…the people. Again, I cringe to admit this, and I am fully willing (and quite frankly, I hope) that this was just our isolated experience of the place. But it’s true what Thau in Dalat told me…the people in the north, they same same, but different. Up until we got to Hanoi, we were convinced that the Vietnamese were the friendliest, most curious, most lively people we had met on the trip so far. But in Hanoi, more than one person spoke to us rather disdainfully…we even had people rolling their eyes at us. This was not our experience with every person (and it made us that much more grateful for the people who were nice to us), but it happened enough that we noticed the pattern.
The most discouraging experiences occurred the day we were shopping around for a tour of Halong Bay, a beautiful place full of limestone cliffs jutting out of the sea. Many tourists and locals book overnight trips for Halong Bay from Hanoi, since it is only 3 hours away, and most opt to do cruise around the bay and then spend a night on one of the boats (or “junks,” as they are called here). As we have discovered, in SE Asia in general and Vietnam in particular, you can pay wildly different prices for exactly the same thing (seriously, it would not be unusual for one person on a tour to pay US$40 while the person next to him/her paid US$100). So, it pays to shop around. BUT, you also want to be sure you are going with a reputable tour company so that you don’t end up with unexpected charges (or, worse, getting scammed). Sounds pretty easy, right? Just sign up for a tour with one of the companies that Lonely Planet recommends.
Well, that’s not really how it works in Hanoi. There is little copyright protection here in Vietnam (as evidenced by the innumerable street stands and shops selling pirated CDs and DVDs), so when a tour company becomes successful, other fly-by-night operations will just steal the name. The worst case we saw was Sinh Cafe. Literally, there were dozens of fake “Sinh Cafes” in Hanoi. How are you supposed to know which one is the original, reputable company that Lonely Planet recommended?
On one particularly difficult day, we were wandering around, not sure which tour company to trust, and I was already feeling a little sick and the noise was getting to me, three (three!) different women carrying the baskets pictured below tried to force their heavy loads on me.
Egg vendor in Hanoi.
I guess this is something that foreigners like to do…take a picture carrying these baskets over their shoulders. But this was definitely not something I was interested in doing and I made no indication that I wanted to carry these baskets. One woman was so aggressive that I had to physically block her from putting the basket on my shoulder. That day, I came very close to losing it.
Beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. Apparently there are very old turtles living in the lake, and spotting one brings you good fortune.
I can totally see why people love Hanoi. It is a really picturesque city, and it doesn’t feel like there is a insincere display of Vietnamese-ness (if that makes any sense) put on for the tourists. Walking around the Old Quarter, people are living life as they would live it whether you were there to visit or not, and that makes the place feel really genuine. Plus, there is tons to do in Hanoi. The Temple of Literature is a really beautiful, (relatively) quiet park with a shrine to Confucius:
For the more morbidly-inclined, there is also Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, where, against his wishes (he wanted to be cremated), you can see the great leader’s embalmed corpse. We can attest, he looks pretty good for being gone for a good 40 years (he “travels” to Russia every year for restoration). I don’t have any photos of Uncle Ho because you are not, under any circumstances, to take photos of him in the tomb (if you are caught doing so, you are taken to a small room where you must sign a statement saying that you disrespected the great leader). But the adjacent Ho Chi Minh museum is quite fascinating, in a “why-do-they-have-dioramas-with-giant-fiberglass-apples” kind of way (seriously, the place is very strange).
And finally, the food in Hanoi is fantastic. Although meals are much more expensive in Hanoi than the rest of Vietnam, I would venture to say its worth it. Our favorite dish was bun cha. Basically, you get a giant bowl of pork (bacon, sausages, and grilled pork) and an assortment of toppings/additions (lettuce and herbs, garlic, chilies, rice noodles, pickled veggies), and you throw it all into a bowl of thin, light sauce and eat it up. It is also customary to order fried spring rolls to go with this dish. Jeremy and I shared one serving and we still couldn’t finish it. Sad.
Another really good dish was cha ca, and we had it at Cha Ca La Vong (thanks for the rec, Jenny!), which is apparently the only place in town to eat cha ca (figuratively, not literally). It consists of a spiced fish, which is sauteed with fennel and various other herbs, and eaten with a yummy sauce over rice noodles.
I wish that we had a better stay in Hanoi. Maybe we could have salvaged some of our time in the city, but After The Day I Almost Lost It, we spent most of our time avoiding the craziness of the Old Quarter by hiding in our hotel room (to be fair, we are trying to get our taxes in order) and hanging out in quiet places like the Sofitel (the fanciest hotel in Hanoi that does the Indochine thing better than anybody). And Hanoi has a lot more to offer too…on one sad day, we tried to see the circus and a water puppet show, but due to two separate “lost in translation” moments, we were not able to get tickets to either. So, maybe we’ll be back here one day…and I’ll be sure to pack my earplugs.