I’ve got such mixed feelings about Hanoi! I’ve been here for 5 days now and I’ve gone through periods of wanting to run back to my hostel (and sometimes away from Hanoi) to enjoying the madness.
On my first day in any city I usually don’t bother with sight seeing, Instead I just walk around and get a feel for the new place I am in. In Hanoi, a 1.5hr walk on my first day was enough to send me running back to the hostel! There’s so much happening on the street that it’s difficult to track where you are on the map, most of your effort goes into avoiding crashing with motorbikes and saying ‘no’ over and over to motorbike taxis or street vendors. Most of the junctions don’t have signals for pedestrians and if they do, these are ignored by the motorists, which makes it extremely scary for someone new to cross the road. As an Indian I should be used to this but having lived in the UK for a few years crossing a busy street has become somewhat daunting. I must have looked especially tensed on my first day in Hanoi as a Vietnamese woman looked at me, grabbed my hand and helped me cross the street lol. I’ve become loads better since then. Hanoi has put me back in touch with my roots I suppose. Saying that, the traffic seems crazy when you are on the street but once you are away from the traffic and looking at it from far it seems almost calm compared to my hometown. In Pune the streets are choc-a-block with bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, cars and trucks, all trying to occupy every available space and making a 2 lane road into something like a 4 lane road. In comparison, Hanoi seems very calm. 80% of the motorists are on motor bikes, rest are cars and a handful of minibuses. The bikes are like a swarm of bees riding in the city but not everyone is rushing to over take each other. And even the honking seemed somewhat quieter to my ears.
Hanoi isn’t especially clean. This becomes a bit too obvious especially in the Old Quarter which has extremely narrow streets and footpaths are taken up by parked bikes or food vendors, some selling cooked food but loads of them selling raw meat on the street! I haven’t had the courage to try the street food yet, some sights I’ve seen were particularly disgusting. The sight of a big fish, cleanly hacked in the middle, still flopping around in the pan attempting (in vain) to take it’s last few gulps of oxygen is still too fresh in my mind!
The other thing that stands out here is that vietnamese love hanging out in groups. You can see the tiny people sitting on tiny chairs around a tiny table and enjoying coffee or some food. Or young guys doing bench presses around the lake, or old women doing some form of exercise (which involved rubbing their hands together and then rubbing their faces with it, then again rubbing hands together and massaging their eye sockets). 90% of the people were in groups and it felt distinctly different to be walking solo. It doesn’t make you feel lonely but you are very aware of being a solo traveler. This is something I’ve never felt in Europe. I don’t didn’t feel unsafe though, there was no leering and jeering, thank god.
In terms of sight seeing, you can see Hanoi in 2 days.
The city is divided into Old Quarter, west of the old quarter, around Hoan Kiem lake and French Quarter. (Just buy a lonely planet guide and you’ll do fine)
Attractions include the Old Quarter, Dong Xuon Market, St Joseph Cathedral, Hoan Kiem lake, Vietnam History Museum, Ho Chi Minh museum, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Presidential Palace, One Pillar pagoda, etc
My favourites in Hanoi:
Old Quarter – Despite my opinion above which seems like I am dissing the Old Quarter it is still my favourite part of the city. The cramped streets, people spilling out of the shops, cooking/eating on the footpath, the tight walking space on the narrow streets, etc is somehow comforting. Don’t ask me how.
Hoan Kiem – Best visited after a walk around the Old Quarter. This is a smallish lake in the center of Hanoi and adds calmness to the otherwise hectic city.
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum – As the name suggests, this mausoleum holds the body of Ho Chi Minh, who was the Vietnamese leader until his death in 1969. The body is show cased in a glass case and is protected by a military honor guard. The body of Ho Chi Minh is so well preserved that I could not believe this leader has been dead for over 45years! You can still see the wrinkles on his head and arms! The entrance is free but the queues are loooong. The queues move fast though and the sight is worth is. While here, you could also visit the near by HCM museum, presidential the palace and the Ho Tay Lake (which is the biggest in the city) . This area is very different to the old Quarter. It is much cleaner, quieter, greener, newer and a good choice if you want to get away from the crowds.
Motorbike taxis – You should definitely go for a ride on this at least once. I felt at home on the bike as this is how I usually get around in India but even so, it’s super convenient and fun!
Bargain. Always. Start with 70% of what is asked of you.
Taxi from airport – There’s no need to book a hotel pick up or hire a private taxi. Just go to one of the many minibuses parked outside the airport. I paid $5 for a 1.5hrs drive to my hostel. The minibus only departs when its full though so you could end up waiting for up to 45mins sometimes.