On one of Hanoi’s many dusty street markets, I was suddenly confronted with the tragedy of life in its purest form. A tiny fish had slipped out of its basket and was, trashing around and desperately struggling for breath, trying to find its way back to a river it would never see again – like a shipwrecked sailor diving to the bottom of the ocean to flee the sharks. Sad spectacle it was, and completely unrelated to the rest of my story. But isn’t it nice to create a little atmosphere to get things started? Bam: random anecdote in your face. Give us a cry! Boohoo!
Hanoi is not exactly the world’s most beautiful city. The old quarter is insanely loud and busy, smog is a daily annoyance, and some of the meat you’ll see hanging in shop windows looks suspiciously like your old pooch Buster – spoiler: it is. But what the city lacks in stunning visuals, it more than makes up for in character. There’s something happening on every corner, you only need to step out of your hotel to get completely engulfed in a pandemonium of activity and at night everything turns into one big food festival. Hanoi is a city to experience, a destination to just dive into. And with the following five tips, you’re already halfway there.
1. Cross a street
Sounds simple but it’s not. Traffic in Hanoi is insanity, and the rules are merely a suggestion. Prime culprits are the millions of honking maniacs criss-crossing all over the place on their scooters. A few days of constant get-out-the-way-dumbass honks hurled at you will make you want to drag each and every one of them off of their stupid bike to park it right in their crack while it’s still running. Stay on the sidewalk you say? Impossible. Every shopkeeper puts his stuff on the sidewalk – no room for you and me old pall. So either stay in the hotel, or walk in the middle of traffic.
“A few days of constant get-out-the-way-dumbass honks hurled at you will make you want to drag each and every one of them off of their stupid bike to park it right in their crack while it’s still running.””
It’s actually quite doable in the maze of little streets in the old quarter, but sooner or later you’ll come across a six lane avenue with no traffic lights you’ll want to cross. This is when you will subtly start shitting your pants. Most Vietnamese people seem completely oblivious to the multiple near-death experiences they suffer throughout the day, and the best idea is to just follow their example. Feel the rhythm of the traffic facing you, throw out a hail Mary and start crossing – without ever stopping (!!!) – in one fluid move. An exciting adventure it is, and it won’t cost you a dime.
2. Go people spotting
I arrived in Hanoi after attending a holiday fair in Ha Long Bay as a journalist. Lovely bay, boring city. Strolling through the much more lively capital on a Sunday afternoon was a vastly superior experience in comparison. Hanoi is a paradise for people spotters – especially on the weekends. This is when the streets around Hoàn Kiếm Lake – basically the heart of the city – are completely given over to pedestrians. Students will come and take their prom pictures here, small kids drive electric bumping cars and public dancing lessons draw massive crowds. The most fun to me were the various scantily dressed hip hop crews filming their video clips. I counted five different ones in less than an hour. Vietnam is still an authoritarian state. These kind of clips seem like a nice f*ck you to the powers that be. Police officers are everywhere, but most normal citizens don’t seem to care too much about them at first glance. One funny guy though, was walking around with a free hugs sign and immediately got surrounded by cops demanding him to take it down. No free hugs in communist Vietnam. I still gave him one. Fight the power!
3. Stick a post-it
Hanoi is full of bars, most of them no more than a counter and a couple of low plastic chairs on the sidewalk for people to booze on. There are plenty of coffee bars to choose from as well. Because of my anti-hipster policy, I’m usually not the biggest fan of those – read my Bruges article to find out all about it – but I gladly make an exception for a few special ones. One of them is The Note Coffee – a fun little establishment right next to Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Their egg coffee – yes, that’s actual coffee with egg yoke in it – is amazing and so are their cakes. Even better is the fact that every wall, every table, every chair, every ceiling, every staircase, every toilet and on wilder days probably every staff member as well – is covered in multiple layers of colourful post-it notes left there by guests. You can find everything from dirty jokes and phone numbers to love letters and desperate cries for attention. Pleasant stuff to read while enjoying a cup of coffee. The whole place is a haven of peace as well, although you can still hear the city roaring through the open window. I’ve put one of the Dutch notes I found in the pictures. You never know who’ll finally get to read it. www.facebook.com/TheNoteCoffee/
4. Visit the Hanoi Hilton
Before they turned it into a museum, Hoa Lò prison was the most notorious jail in Vietnam. It was built by the French colonists, and they ran it brutally. During the Vietnam War it was used to keep American prisoners, who cynically started calling it the Hanoi Hilton.
“John McCain was allegedly beaten so hard, was so underfed and underwent so many fake executions, he would never be able to raise his hands above his head again, his hair turned completely white in less than a year and he chose Sarah Palin as a running mate in 2008 – oh the humanity”
Today, the museum describes the cruelty of the French oppressor as graphically and detailed as possible, while the exhibition on the captured Americans makes the prison look like an actual hotel. There are photos of them decorating a Christmas tree, enjoying a nice dinner and happily playing football in the courtyard. Former Republican Senator John McCain was a fighter pilot during the war, and was the most famous prisoner held here. Looking at the exhibition, you start wondering why he ever even wanted to leave, but once you’ve heard the man speak about his ordeal, you’ll quickly know better. He was allegedly beaten so hard, was so underfed and underwent so many fake executions, he would never be able to raise his hands above his head again, his hair turned completely white in less than a year and he chose Sarah Palin as a running mate in 2008 – oh the humanity. History is always written by the victors (or in this case: by the survivors).
5. Wait for the train
No one would define Hanoi as an exemplary case of urban planning. Prime indicators are the so called train streets. These are narrow little lanes that have an actual train thundering through them every couple of hours – five inches from the inhabitants’ front doors. By now it’s a well-known image and it draws quite some tourists, but it’s a spectacular thing to see none-the-less. The locals have learned to adapt to both the trains and the crowds. Lots of them opened little bars, or sell drinks from an ice box in their hallway. When the train finally arrives – a locomotive looks so much bigger when it’s headed straight at you – everyone leisurely gets of the tracks to find a safe spot to watch it pass. There are several places to watch the trains, but you’ll find the most photogenic spot by looking for the Hanoi Train Track Café on Google Maps. The 3.30pm train is ideal for pictures. www.facebook.com/hanoitraintrackcafe/
There, that should about do it for Hanoi. Did you enjoy this thrilling piece? Do you think it blew ass? Do you have some things to add you think are worthwhile? Are you a member of the communist party and do you want to send me to a labour camp and hammer wooden splinters under my fingernails? Don’t hesitate to leave your comments below!
I stayed in the Babylon Garden Inn & Bar while in Hanoi. It’s a hostel located in the middle of the old quarter. The bar – where something fun is organised almost every day – is on the top floor and comes with a terrace offering nice views over the entire city. Breakfast is free and food is decent and very cheap. There’s even an indoor pool available, just don’t think about the bodily fluids that might be in there – lots of horny hostel goers. This said, it’s a superb place to stay in Hanoi.