Hanoi seduces you smoothly, gradually revealing its charm. The first impression is of a chaotic city, of frenzied traffic where mopeds buzz like busy bees and Vietnamese people conduct their business transactions on the narrow sidewalks. The population of Hanoi is said to be somewhere between six and eight million people (depending on whether or not you count in the city’s suburbs). The idea of chaos and hassle on the streets of Hanoi is caused by the packed sidewalks and streets, the steady flow of those numerous mopeds, cars, bicycles. If you stop and wait for your turn to cross the street, you can wait forever. Instead, you need to capture the rhythm of the traffic’s flow, close your eyes, and start crossing without stopping, without rushing. Simply dissolve into the stream of cars, bicycles, mopeds, pedestrians.
The life in Hanoi is concentrated on the sidewalks and streets where people eat, cook and chat with each other. Gradually, however, your gaze reaches up from the dirt and chaos of the street scenes to the fascinating old-fashioned buildings that you can peek at from between the blooming flowers and exotic tree branches. The initial frantic scene gives way to a more alluring image that evokes reflections of the old capital of French Indo-China (from 1887 to 1946).
Hanoi city tour can be made by moped, which I do not recommend for those whose nerves are not steel steady. Another option is walking around or renting a bicycle or a ciclon, a bicycle taxi. What it means is that you hire someone to ride the bicycle as you sit comfortably looking at the sights.
The Old Town sights become familiar fast and you learn to master the street names that take you from the silk street to the spice street and from there on to the fresh food market. On the Northern shores of Hoan Kiem lake you find the Water Puppet show, which is worth going to. Other places of interest that were in our itinerary included Hoa Lo Prison Museum, a Chinese-style memorial house located at 87 Pho Ma May street, Temple of Literature, Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the kitsch European-style church, St Joseph Cathedral.
The local fruit and vegetable markets in Hanoi are colorful places where you can satisfy your curiosity about the intriguing, at times seemingly bizarre, ingredients that are used for preparing local dishes.
The markets explode with color; turtles and insects offered for sale as ingredients of local dishes astonish you the same way as swan steaks, grilled pork ears or dog meat on restaurant menus. The local dishes may seem unappetizing until you realize that maybe there is not such a huge difference between a fried cricket and raw fish of sushi or marinated raw fish (silli) of the Finns or the delicacy of crabs cooked alive. As always, you realize that others are not much different from you; it all boils down to habits and what you are used to, what your standards are.
At first we thought these were some variety of nuts, but then realized that they were alive, moving, and were some sort of bugs or worms that were sold at the markets. People seemed to be eating them (or something similar) fried, like we eat potato chips, as an appetizer. They may actually taste good with a cool beer but we decided not to taste them.
Food was quite delicious and there are plenty of restaurants for those who wish to taste the less exotic local dishes that satisfy your palate. Local beer is tasty, and so are local fruit juices and tea. Ladybird Restaurant on 57 Hang Buom Street was one where we ate well. They serve a westernized version of Vietnamese food. We also ate well at Nga Hang Ngon, 26 Trang Hung Dao Street. Otherwise we walked in to a restaurant that had an interesting menu. We also tried places where we only saw local people eating very local food.
And fruit was simply delicious.
In addition to Vietnamese dong the US dollars are commonly accepted. Price levels are incredibly low. We spent two weeks in Northern Vietnam spending in all around 400 euros (plus flights). We stayed in a nice three-star hotel in the Old Quarter of Hanoi (paying about 30 USD per night, including breakfast),purchased souvenirs, and paid for package tours to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island, to Ninh Binh, anda one-day trip to Mai Chau mountain area.
Unfortunately there was not enough time to visit Sapa, the Northern mountain area that supposedly is gorgeous. We were very pleased with the travel agency that took care of organizing our local tours. Their guides were very knowledgeable and their tours offered a variety of activities.
During the trip to Halong Bay, we slept one night on the boat, another night on the island. The guide took us on an incredible hiking trip in the jungle. We also had enough time to visit some grottos, go kayaking in an incredible lagoon, go swimming and explore Cat Ba Island on our own. The food served to us onboard the vessel was delicious and of high quality.Just writing about Vietnam now makes me want to return there. The atmosphere was so enticing, people friendly, scenery gorgeous. Simply put, an amazingly fascinating place to visit.