Updated: Nov 12, 2019
Welcome to Hanoi – it’s our first destination in Vietnam and it seems a bit overwhelming when we make our first move to explore this supposedly charming city.
What is it like in Hanoi?
First, let me tell you, we kept coming back to this city in between other places we visited, so I guess this gives away how much we liked it in Hanoi, and to give you an idea, this is what Hanoi all about:
- It’s hustling and bustling
- Scooters and crazy traffic
- Little tiny red plastic chairs and tables on the sidewalk
- People laying down relaxing everywhere (on their motorbike, in their stores etc.)
- Street food/restaurants everywhere
- Coffee shops on every corner (coffee is spelled cà phe from French)
- Streets dedicated to selling all the same thing (bamboo street, funeral street, shoe street, glass street, flower street, etc.)
- People walking on the street – the wide sidewalk is occupied by scooters, miniature plastic chairs/tables, goods, street food vendors, groups of people playing badminton etc.)
- It’s green, pretty trees, pretty plants and pretty flowers everywhere
Traffic and Squatting
I have described the traffic and its craziness in another blog post about our first impression of Vietnam, which you should head over and read right here to understand how this is traffic in a completely different way from what we have ever seen or experienced before. The Vietnamese people live life on the street, and I literally mean on the street and on the sidewalk. You see people do their morning wash, have their meals, rest, socialize, exercise and eat some more, all outside their home on the sidewalk – oh, and you see people eating all day long. When they eat, they usually sit on these miniature plastic chairs and stools. For a tall Scandinavian you can have your challenges and it basically feels like you are squatting when sitting down. It works perfectly for our boys (age 8 and 11) but less so for Martin and I. At this moment though, we’re pretty thankful for our morning yoga, as it certainly makes sitting down more comfortable now. However, they probably didn’t have us in mind, but the people of Vietnam, when making and selling these furniture, so it all make sense, and since life happens outside, it also seems wise to have small and light furniture that takes little space and can be stacked in a corner or behind the beautiful Bougainvillea growing up the side of the house or a light pole.
Street by Street
Every time you turn down a street, you quickly realize what that particular street is all about. All the shops, side by side, sell the exact same things. Again, it totally make sense to have all the stores that sell bedding, aprons, and towels in one street, so you know where to go to find what you need, or if you are in need of a new bamboo fence, you can browse one street and find just the right bamboo.
Come Rain or Shine
You can tell that it rains a lot in this city, as all vegetation is thriving and blooming, and you also see the locals pull out a rain poncho out of nowhere when the first drops fall from the sky – and no matter if people are on a scooter, selling street food or somethings else outdoor, they will have a quick solution for the rain. Cycling or riding a scooter with an open umbrella (or two) is perfectly normal here whether you are one or four people on the scooter. Despite the rain, it is still nice and warm… and quite humid.
Vietnamese Food… on the Street
Where to begin… I could just conclude now that it’s the most wonderful and amazing food in the world, but there is more to it than that. What can you eat safely and what will make you want to stay in your hotel room in close proximity to a toilet? It’s the street food that is especially challenging at first… and even after a while. The food rarely comes out of a hygienic clean freezer (ice cubes) or a fridge. It’s laying in whatever temperature there is inside or outside, and it goes for everything – the fresh veggies, the raw meat and seafood, cooked/fried food – everything. In order to know what we can eat, we signed up for a street food tour in Hanoi. We had amazing food, the boys and I, as Martin had to stay in our hotel room… in close proximity to a toilet… We definitely went to places I would never had thought of eating at (you see the fresh veggies all being washed in a bowl of water on the floor where we just walked, again there is no fridge, and hygiene just doesn’t seem to be an issue here. BUT we were on a tour, and I did trust that our guide took us to “safe” places. The boys were eating everything that was served: soups, spring rolls, fried shrimp pancake, noodles, dumplings, squid, beef and more soup, everything served with lots of fresh herbs, a dessert of green rice (harvested early which makes it green) with ice cream and shredded coconut, and finally the famous egg coffee and coconut coffee. All in all, it was incredible delicious, and it couldn’t have been a better introduction to Vietnamese (street) food. We are still not always sure where we can eat, and have you experienced the so called “tourist belly” once, you become a bit more careful.
Rich or Poor
Even though Hanoi is beautiful, charming, nice and warm, has amazing food, wonderful people, fascinating culture, there is no doubt that it’s a city that has suffered a lot, but also a city that has managed to rise again from being colonized, suppressed, fighting wars etc. It’s a poor country we are in – poor in financial terms, but so rich in culture, beauty, nature, food and people. You see people are trying to make just a bit of money selling a few fruits or a flower. At the same time, it’s clearly a proud people, who love their country. Despite everything they have gone through, you never see or hear any kind of complaints, accusations or similar. They just want to have a good life with what they have, share their beautiful country with the tourists, want to be able to work and care for their families. No different from any other people in any other place or country.
Places You don’t Want to Miss in Hanoi
We explored Hanoi by foot and even though it’s a fairly small city, we walked 10-15 km every day. There are lots of sights to enjoy and explore which we also did, but just wandering about, sitting down for a cà phe, looking at life on the street is interesting in itself.
Some of the sights we explored was the Tran Quoc Pagoda, which is the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi in picturesque surroundings between two lakes. We walked by Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum which was closed. I heard that the body was in Russia for restauration, which apparently happens every October and November… but I’m not sure of the reliability of my source.
Two other places to mention is the Water Puppet Theater at Thang Long by the lake and the Hoa Lo (Hanoi Prison aka Hanoi Hilton to the Americans). We bought tickets at the entrance to the water puppet theater in a theater – not on the lake as I thought at first. We didn’t really know what to expect, but it’s traditional Vietnamese music that accompanies little plays/sketches played out by puppets. There are characters and animals on sticks in water controlled by puppeteers representing Vietnamese history, stories and legends. This was fun and something we had never seen before – certainly enjoyed by all ages and it was only a one-hour show.
The Hoa Lo Prison was a good visual introduction to Vietnamese history. Traveling in Vietnam you, of course, have to learn about the Vietnam War, or the American War as they call it here in Vietnam. Teaching about war to our boys is a bit challenging, as it’s hard to soften up the brutalities that happened here for the kids, and shouldn’t they also know what actually happened? We decided that visiting the Hoa Lo Prison, where it’s visual and questions come naturally. It turned out to be a really good way to go about it, and this kick started the boys’ homeschooling projects on the wars and colonization of Vietnam. The horrendous life of the Vietnamese prisoners and later on the American POWs was tough and yet interesting to learn about for all four of us.
Tired feet, Cyclos and Massage
With tired legs and feet, we usually went back to our hotel by cyclos, these old bikes with a seat up front for 1-2 people. It’s a fun and convenient way to get back after a long day at foot – and the boys just loved it! That’s how we finished most days in Hanoi – going home on a cyclo and maybe going for a foot massage in one of the many places they offer massages.
Lots more to read on our First Impression of Vietnam here, Exploring Vietnam from a Kid’s Perspective or other interesting places. Leave us a comment down below or get in touch with us if you have questions – always happy to help or go more in details.