We had been wanting to take a trip together somewhere in Asia, and preferably somewhere none of us had been to yet. This was tough considering we all love to travel and have all separately been to many places in Asia and we were limiting ourselves to this continent for budget reasons. In the end we decided on Hanoi in June.
At that time all I knew about Hanoi was that it was the capital of Vietnam located in the northern part of the country, and the only mental images I had were from online travelogues I frequent, which were of the breathtaking limestone cliffs and jade green waters of Ha Long Bay. I expected Hanoi to be a small provincial town with nothing much to do or see and figured it would be a lazy weekend with some sightseeing and a lot of R and R. Boy, was I in for a surprise!
I made my own 10-page travel guide listing all the places we should see, restaurants to try – a good mix of fine dining, mid-range and holes-in-the-wall – shopping bargains and other general tips. I compiled them from various testimonies of fellow travellers, most of which I got from the trusty Virtual Tourist. Satisfied, I printed it out, tucked it into my handcarry and off we went on our adventure.
In Hanoi, you feel like a millionaire. The exchange rate is 16,000 VND to $US 1.00. I changed $200 at the airport and the man behind the window handed me over 3 Million Dong, bundles and bundles of what looked like monopoly money clipped together by the hundreds of thousands. US currency is accepted anywhere and everywhere in Hanoi though, so there’s no need to change money.
A visit to Hanoi is a step back in time. It is steeped in history with pockets of rich culture visible in the temples that dot the city, the galleries and cafes that line the streets of the Old Quarter and the museums and monuments amidst a landscape of serene lakes and pagodas.
French colonial architecture provides the backdrop for locals peddling fruit and flowers either on foot or on bicycle; with yuppies and old folk alike cruising the town on their motorbikes. Crossing the street can be quite a challenge as the motorists don’t seem to bother stopping for pedestrians – it reminded me of that old Atari game, Frogger.
You will likely spend most of your time in the labyrinthine streets of the Old Quarter. Walking through this area is a feast for the senses with its cacophony of street sounds (not a little of which is from the incessant honking of horns), the smell of incense wafting from the temples, the colorful facades of trendy cafes and chic boutiques nestled behind old banyan trees and a general feeling of quiet pride and contentment from the locals.
Hanoi is a shopping haven, even being touted as handbag central. Colorful beaded or embroidered handbags can be found everywhere. There are also dress shops where you can have anything displayed tailor-made to your size and liking, which they will gladly deliver to your hotel the next morning (it is a good idea to do this early in your trip to allow ample time for adjustments).
Probably the most sought-after shopping items, though, are silk, lacquerware and dainty embroidered linens. They are all beautifully handcrafted. Go ahead, indulge! Everything is wonderfully cheap so you won’t get that guilty feeling – besides, it’s healthy retail therapy!
Even if you aren’t a shopper, you will be seduced by the countless chic boutiques in Hanoi, not unlike those in Paris. The favorite was the sought-after and uber-funky Ipa-Nima (59G Hai Ba Trung/14 Phan Boi Chau), whose main claim to fame are the handbags designed by Christina Yu.
The Hanoians have got to be the most peaceful, kind and polite bunch of people I have ever met! I’m not sure if I was expecting otherwise, but their gentle characters struck me the moment I set foot on their soil. Though their limited or non-existent knowledge of the Engligh language can prove to be difficult, their smiles and genuine willingness to help more than make up for it.
|Temple of Literature|
Then there was Mr. Rotten McTeeth who would mumble incoherent phrases to us and then just spontaneously erupt into fits of laughter. At first we found this amusing, laughing along with him, until he transformed into Count Touchy Von Feely rubbing my arm as he laughed until my friend in the backseat told him to stop, which he did at least.
I love how their names translate into names like Moon (the lady who took my measurements at the dress shop), Flower Lily (we met at least two Flower Lilys) and River (our guide in Ha Long Bay).
But my favorite was Too (I’m guessing it’s spelled this way), the girl at the Sinh Cafe where we rented our motorbikes. She was just adorable! When we tried to explain to her that we needed to load gas into our bikes and she couldn’t understand what we were saying, she turned and ran screaming into her shop shouting “Choy Oy!!” (Oh my god!), then quickly came back out after she calmed down a bit. After another round of charades, she eventually got it.
There isn’t much to be said about night life in laid-back Hanoi. The few bars that are open cater mostly to expats and the few locals found in cafes and bars were there to watch World Cup football. The streets, though, are filled with young people on motorbikes who seem to endlessly drive around the city until very late at night. Where do they go? Do they just drive in circles? Seeing the motorists that have accumulated at a stop light and then watching them rev up after the light turns green can be quite overwhelming. It’s like the attack of the Vespas!
Because Hanoi was a French colony once upon a time, here you get the best of both worlds. Naturally, it boasts excellent Vietnamese street food which can be had at ridiculously cheap prices. However, Hanoi is perhaps better known for its many mid-range and fine dining French restaurants.
Now I’m craving for some Pho…