When I was first introduced to Hanoi I didn’t like it much. The skies in January are gray and dreary and the weather is chilly. Hustlers line the streets waiting to pounce and motorbikes rule the road (and the sidewalks) – they’re literally everywhere – swarming, honking, and coming from all directions. Stoplights are more a suggestion than something actually enforced by law and pedestrian crosswalks might as well be non-existent. Crossing the streets in Hanoi isn’t just a challenge, it’s an art form: Look both ways, quickly scamper two steps, repeat. Stand on the side of the road waiting for traffic to yield to you and you’ll be standing there all day.
Our first day in Hanoi we walked around for about six hours…and covered roughly eight blocks.
By the end of day two I began to warm to Uncle Ho’s homeland. To start, the hotel we booked for $45 per night (Hotel Elegance Elite) was absolutely incredible. The level of service in Vietnam really is beyond compare. We woke up to a free made-to-order breakfast where the staff encouraged us to sit for hours on end and try everything on the menu all the while helping us plan our daily itineraries. Completely stuffed, I walked with purpose out of the hotel and challenged the erratic bikers to dodge me as I crossed the street and, with this newfound confidence, I was able to navigate virtually the entire Old Quarter in a day. That’s when I began to notice the intoxicating smells of the fresh herbs flowing from baskets teetering from the shoulders of passing ladies and the soups and fried cakes cooked up street-side, marvel at the crowded markets, and really appreciate the best example of organized chaos I’ve ever seen.
On our third day we indulged in $15 massage treatments, stopped for coffee at one of the city’s many Parisian-style cafes and dined at KOTO (which stands for “Know One Teach One”), a not-for-profit restaurant that trains and employs disadvantaged kids, teaching them English and preparing them for careers in the service and restaurant industries in Vietnam and abroad.
As we finished up the day sitting on a patio at dusk overlooking the murky depths of Hoan Kiem Lake (keeping one eye peeled for the ancient giant tortoise rumoured to still reside there) I realized I was really falling for the place. Gritty and beautiful, a visit to Hanoi is like stepping back in time. And, once you become acclimatized, it’s not hard to find romance in the mayhem.
Back when we were in Honolulu we ran into a middle-aged man and his wife from Arizona at the bar of a sushi restaurant while we were waiting for our table. The man, well into at least his second bottle of wine, struck up a conversation with us. The conversation ultimately came around to our trip. When we mentioned that Vietnam was on our itinerary his response was “Why the hell would you ever want to go to that place?” It turns out the man had fought in the Vietnam War, so, fair enough, I suppose. But it’s unfortunate that anyone would still equate this country with its hardships because Vietnam is a wonderful place. The fresh, fragrant food is to die for, the people are shy, sweet souls anxious to help out wherever they can and the country surprisingly easy to travel – providing you’re quick on your feet.