Before getting to Vietnam we’d had the romantic idea of hopping on the overnight train to get from the south to the centre, or from the centre to the north. But each time we’d managed to find Jetstar flights that were cheaper than train fares (even with paying extra for our excessive luggage), so we couldn’t justify spending more money to take a 17-hour train journey – which wasn’t really that romantic when you added in the toddler element. So, in a flash, we’d left the bright lanterns of Hoi An and were up near the top of the long, skinny country and in the capital, Hanoi.
It’s a big and busy city with lots of old, narrow, tall buildings crammed together, and roads full of cars and scooters, but without the feverish pace of Saigon. I didn’t hold my breath as much crossing the street, and even managed to make eye contact with some drivers. In amongst streams of scooters, women wearing typical Vietnamese straw hats pedal or push bicycles with front and back baskets laden with fruit, baguettes, or fried street food. Others saunter down pavements, making light work of lugging baskets hanging either side of a long pole across their shoulders, meticulously piled up with fruit or veggies.
Coffee shops are everywhere, all with little plastic or wooden (what in the west we know to be) child-sized stools and tables on the pavement, where people sit sipping locally produced coffee and effortlessly crack open sunflower seeds with their teeth and build up piles of black shells at their feet, while traffic whizzes by. For something a little stronger than coffee, quaint bars can easily be found, also with tiny wooden stools and tables spilling out onto the pavement, where you can grab a local or imported beer and do more traffic watching.
While the buildings in the centre ooze a sense of history (with a hint of French colonialism, but very definite Vietnamese character), there’s a rather modern, and at times hipster, buzz about Hanoi. Tucked inside lots of the old buildings are funky restaurants, little art and curio shops, a multitude of Made In Vietnam clothes shops, and the odd cupcake shop. Near our apartment was a gentrified food hawker street, where young groups of friends hung out at all hours drinking and sharing food from menus with dishes ranging from your standard fried rice to those containing pigeon gizzards and ox penis.
I’m not sure whether it was a one-off or commonplace, but on the weekend we were there the roads leading to the square near the iconic Hoan Kiem Lake were closed off to traffic and families collected and played rope jumping games, while other children sped past on scooters, circles of boys kicked a ball back and forth, and groups of kids of varying ages climbed up and down the rugged rocky base of a monument that health and safety obsessed western parents would not be turning a blind eye to. We felt rather chuffed to slip our little family, with an enthralled toddler, into this slice of Hanoi family life as we ambled our way through the unusually traffic-free streets.
You don’t need to go down many roads in Hanoi to notice how similar businesses are clustered together – so whenever you’re in need of something, you simply visit one street to have your pick of shops selling it. There’s sports apparel and equipment street; art and picture framing street; scooter mechanic street; coffee bean street; electric lighting street; electrical appliances street; plastics and cooler-boxes street; and even mannequin street. And then there’s Hang Ma Street, which changes with the times, selling all sorts of paraphernalia for upcoming festivities, which happened to be Christmas while we were there. We spent a manic and bizarrely magical evening on this garish street, full of shop after shop after shop selling Christmas everything. And, after having been nostalgically looking over festive wintery friend and family Instagram photos, while not quite managing to drum up the same spirt from the isolated Christmas trees dotted outside hotels, we got well stocked up while fighting our way past shop workers wrapping boxes and customers buying and loading decorations and fake trees onto their scooters, while lights sparkled everywhere, tinsel glistened under the streetlights, mechanic Santas danced, climbed ropes and played pianos, and traffic continued to whizz by!
No matter what the street, you can be sure to find Vietnamese flags protruding from all sorts of shop fronts. While they’re noticeable throughout Vietnam, they seemed to be paraded en masse here (which our star-obsessed toddler delighted in pointing out incessantly). In our brief time there we identified a definite sense of patriotism, pride, a nod to the past, and an embracing of the present.
Unfortunately another ingredient in Hanoi’s makeup is smog. Some days are city-clear and others so hazy that you can’t see the horizon or distinguish where a lake ends and the sky starts. Having considered this to be a place we could settle down in for a while (if our dreams to make it back to Asia in the future pan out), we felt a little disappointed to have spent a few days squinting through the glaring grey.
Our food journey in Hanoi had also started rather dismally. After having eaten a few too many customised rice and stir-fried morning glory dishes – with lashings of soy and fresh chilli – from the food hawker street near our apartment, which was hip but sadly not vegan or even vegetarian-friendly, we’d been looking forward to a meal at a new and modern vegan fusion-ish restaurant. We chatted to the manager beforehand and lapped up his compassionate vegan story, which gave us a glimmer of hope for food production awareness and attitude changes making their way through Southeast Asia (which is hard to get when witnessing general everyday life and customs in this part of the world). But unfortunately the food was some of the worst we’d eaten in 6 months (so detracted somewhat from this hope!) Thankfully other experiences overshadowed this though, in various different restaurants from cheap chay (vegetarian) buffets frequented by Buddhist monks, to cute lunch spots, to chic restaurants full of funky lighting and menus declaring the health benefits of key ingredients (making it incredibly difficult to picture how tasty the dish was going to be), where we ate delicious and exciting meals.
As always seems to happen with a city break, just as we felt we were getting our bearings, feeling comfortable, finding great spots to visit, eat and drink, it was time to leave. We’d only really come to Hanoi to get to Halong Bay, but we savoured our time in this charming city and added some feel-good memories to the bank.