Just before dawn, as we drive from Noi Bai airport on the main road to Hanoi, we are surrounded by a stream of vibrating traffic; it’s like being in the middle of a swarm of bees – and it’s where the Hanoi buzz begins. Scooters and bicycles piled to toppling with wares to sell in town; baskets stuffed to bursting with chickens, vibrant and exotic fruits and vegetables stacked high. A dead pig lashed to the back of a scooter overtakes us, trotters dangling either side of the number plate. People on push-bikes wearing traditional nón lá hats glide serenely along. All have one destination in mind. Hanoi.Is Hanoi like Saigon? Well sort of – but different. Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) is more built up, commercial, has more tower blocks, more people and, I think, more traffic. Hanoi has a more colonial, leafy, French feel to it. The buildings aren’t so overpowering and there seems to be more space; a littler gentler but still very full-on.
There are many sights to see and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum is an imposing building watched over by stern guards wearing crisp white uniforms and inscrutable expressions. It’s only open 7am -11am and is closed two months a year for embalming maintenance and on Fridays. Dress code is ‘respectful’. A stone’s throw away is Uncle Ho’s stilted house where he worked and lived and the One-Pillar Pagoda so a bit to see in one small area. A short walk away at the Intersection of Van Mieu & Pho Quoc Tu Giam is the Temple of Literature, a tranquil oasis in the midst of the city and said to be the first university in Vietnam. This serene walled garden complex with pagodas and lily ponds is dedicated to the ancient scholar Confucius. My favourite part of town is The Old Quarter – an elaborate maze of streets with life, colour and atmosphere spilling out onto the pavements. So much life to see here. The walkways are taken up by parked scooters, chickens, dogs, street sellers. Pho stalls (selling noodle snacks) are carried around with the cook and placed on the pavement as and when a customer gives the nod – gas burner, tiny tables, stools and all – tasty and cheap and worth trying out for the fun factor. More often than not we were forced to walk in the road as the pavements were such a hive of activity.Have wheels – will sell!
The streets in the Old Quarter are named after the goods that are sold in the shops there;Silk Street, Silver Street and Pickled-Fish Street to name a few. I was surprised to see one shop just selling memorial plaques for headstones. The activity doesn’t stop when it gets dark – it’s just as busy in the evenings.
The Thang Long Water Puppet Show, near Hoan Kiem Lake (below), is a big Hanoi attraction so wise to book in advance. Book premium seats if you need extra leg-room – this theatre was built for little people. The show is all in Vietnamese and is visually excellent with brightly painted wooden puppets depicting folklore scenes with live traditional music.
Hoan Kiem Lake, just south of the Old Quarter, is popular with locals and visitors alike. Visit in the morning and you’ll see joggers, Tai Chi and ballroom dancing being practised on its banks. Built on Jade Island in the lake is Ngoc Son Temple, a good place to escape the frenzy of the city and home to miniature trees, a shrine and a huge preserved turtle. The island is connected by a red-painted wooden bridge. Towards the bottom of the lake you can see Thap Rua Tortoise tower its reflection rippling on the water – prettier at night-time. The lake makes a good point of reference for finding your way round the city.
The colour and vibrancy of Hanoi makes it a truly memorable place to visit with heaps to see, feel and experience in the way of culture, history, architecture, food and everyday Vietnamese city life. Its energy is infectious and invigorating – I can still feel it’s buzz today.