Your first day in Vietnam will most likely be a challenge: chaotic traffic, incessant honking, polluted air, insistent street vendors, endless scam attempts…it is a lot to take in at once!
But as you start to adjust to this unique lifestyle, the real Vietnam unfolds and the traffic that seemed crazy will appear as a logical necessity. You’ll learn to avoid the seedy food stalls, find hidden spots and identify scammers before they even approach you. The same city that was grey and dull the previous day, will be lively and green; you’ll find parks with fresh air and watch people in their daily fitness routines.
The pavement culture
In the Western world, pavements are used for walking or parking. In Vietnam they are used for business. You need a haircut? Sit down on that tiny plastic chair and 5 minutes later you’ll look as fresh as ever. Vietnam’s pavement culture is striking; there is nothing you can’t buy on a busy street corner: chicken soup, fruit shakes, pets, snake wine, spare parts, electronics, petrol, marble sculptures….you name it, you get it.
Hanoi’s sights in a day
If you only have a short stay in Vietnam’s capital before heading South, make sure to make the most of it.
In the morning take a stroll around Hoan Kiem lake and watch the elderly in their daily Tai Chi ‘performances’, then stop at one of the lake cafés for a delicious breakfast and fruit shake.
After the break, you are ready to explore the hectic life in the narrow lanes of the Old Quarters, Hanoi’s most popular neighborhood. Each street has specialized in a certain type of craft, and competition among shops is fierce. This is also the best place to stop for lunch and enjoy the local dishes at a foodstall of your choice.
In the afternoon take a cyclo taxi and head to the historic district of Ba Dinh Square. Here you can find the cultural heritage of the country: the Temple of Literature (Vietnam’s first university), the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, the One Pillar Pagoda and the Presidential Palace. Keep in mind that an appropriate dresscode is required to see all of these sights.
In the evening, sit down on the tiny plastic chairs of a street corner, slurp a Pho Ga (Chicken noodle soup) and sip a fresh Bia Hoi, the world’s cheapest beer, while you people watch and join in the local gossip (*language skills required). Locals might stare at foreigners coming to their tiny beer pubs; a smile and a friendly nod will solve the issue. Just be prepared to use your body language to order food and drinks, as English is still very uncommon among the Vietnamese.
Stay: Hanoi Serendipity Hotel – good value, great location, lovely staff!
Eat: Khai’s Brothers or Madame Hien
Next: Cooling down in Sapa