We arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam at the misty, drippy, tail end of a late afternoon rainstorm. We had a few blocks to slog through the mud and puddles to our hotel, and it felt like the street scene from Blade Runner … minus Harrison Ford and plus about 7 million noisy, smoke-belching motorbikes bringing two-wheeled Armageddon to both the streets and sidewalks. Not a good welcome … not at all.
If you’ve read our blog for a while you know that we’re positive, enthusiastic travelers. But at the same time, in addition to pointing out the appealing facets of a place, we feel obligated to be honest about the not-so-shiny side. In that vein, Hanoi has many fascinating aspects that serious travelers, including us, find intriguing. But people, this city takes work.
Our hotel was in Hanoi’s Old Quarter which has been historically, and still is, the city’s beating heart. Its narrow streets are lined with ornate temples, grand French colonial mansions, utilitarian Chinese shophouses, steamy noodle shops, laidback coffee bars, and closet-size cafes.
The architecture in the neighborhood reflects all sorts of styles and the temples are ornate, but it requires paying attention to what’s underneath the gray, moldy patina that decades of tropical heat and humidity can apply so effectively if not addressed routinely. It’s a classic case of faded glory.
Above all these darting motorbikes and beneath the city grime are the captivating architectural remnants of hundreds of years of Vietnamese history, as well as the colonial influences of the French and Chinese. It’s all there but appreciating it requires finding a safe spot to stand so you won’t be mowed down.
And the people are another essential ingredient to the cityscape. It’s impossible to walk down any street in the Old Quarter without constant contact with the city residents because in Hanoi, life happens on the streets and sidewalks.
Noodles are cooked, tea is brewed, veggies are processed, and cafe patrons spill onto the sidewalks with tiny stools enjoying a meal or drink. Grannies care for babies, kids get haircuts, and circles of men share a story and cigarette. And of course, the sidewalks are the free-for-all motorbike parking lot.
But luckily, there are a few respites from the street-scene chaos. Nearby Hoan Kiem Lake is a beautiful, green park for serene strolling and having a coffee or meal in one of the lakeside cafes. And city fathers pick a few of the local streets and close them to traffic on certain evenings for a busy night market.
We’ve spent a good deal of time in Southeast Asia and really enjoy this part of the world. We’ve visited Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, but in our memories of these trips, Hanoi took more energy, patience, and perseverance than any other city in the region.
And don’t get us wrong. We spent a few days in Hanoi and don’t regret it. Our hotel had an informative book with neighborhood walks which provided enough guidance to give us some context for Hanoi’s history. We enjoyed our time there, but we don’t want to mislead anyone about the challenges.
If you fly into Vietnam you’ll almost certainly come in through Hanoi or Saigon. And if it’s Hanoi, we’d encourage you spend at least a couple of days there, BUT, and this is a big but, go into it with the knowledge that it’s going to take patience, tolerance, and work, lots of work.
James & Terri
A great report and the pictures are amazing. Especially the disgruntled cat! I may be past these big busy foreign cities now. I plan to try Dublin next month for a couple of days and then out into the country. Enjoy your next phase.
Darlene as I said, we’re glad we visited Hanoi, and we tried to write a balanced post. But honestly, the frantic pace and the chaotic streets and sidewalks were a constant battle which introduced a level of stress that weighed us down. Maybe after more time there we would have adapted a bit, but still, it took work. ~ James
It’s so interesting how your time in Hanoi felt so different from mine. Yes, it was crowded and old, but for some reason it didn’t overwhelm me the way, for example, a place like Kathmandu did! I feel lucky that a guide told us on day one about how to cross the street among the mopeds, and shockingly, it worked! They parted all around me as I glided across even wide, busy streets. I do think Hanoi would take a lot of work to live in, especially with the pollution and the crowded sidewalks, etc. Overall, I’m thinking that maybe staying in the French Quarter saved me from some of the chaos you guys experienced. Finally, I love your misty pics of Hoan Kiem Lake – very pretty!
Lexie like Hanoi, Kathmandu falls in the Takes Work category. I think that the ultimate barometer for us is would we go back, and in the case of these two cities we feel that we’re glad we visited, but once is enough and we’ll go somewhere else the next time. And we’d watched YouTube videos for the crossing the street technique, and it worked perfectly … well at least we didn’t get hit.
And Hoan Kiem Lake was the savior for us. We loved wandering over there, especially when the streets were blocked to traffic. Also, there was some kind of festival going on and it was A-1 people watching with all the families out for a Sunday outing. ~James
Great photos and text perfectly illustrated hectic Hanoi. When we were there about 10 years ago, we loved strolling around the peaceful and serene lake as it was such a change from trying to cross the busiest streets we’ve still ever come across.
Annie, it’s interesting that you had the same experience 10 years ago, and I can’t imagine that the traffic has gotten anything but worse. And since I come from the land of gas guzzlers where everyone demands their own car, I can understand the desire for personal transport. I guess the problem I have for traffic in Hanoi is the disregard for basic rules of the road. I would estimate that the drivers in Hanoi obey about 60% of traffic rules, but the 40% they ignore are important ones: like red/green lights, and pedestrians having the right of way at crosswalks. I’m not sure I’d ever get used to the chaos. ~James
That level of chaos is certainly not my cup of tea either for anything but a relatively short visit!
I love Hanoi but those motorbikes are a curse. The first time I went, in 2002, there were only a few, but then the numbers kept growing. Crossing the street in Hanoi, and Saigon, does take some chutzpah. I recommend starting by sticking with a local, then eyeballing the drivers. One of the pleasures of SEA is all the street life – thanks for the photos.
Kathy, you’re right that one of the charms of SEA is the street life. In Hanoi, and Hoi An for that matter, locals unabashedly do just about anything on the sidewalks and in the street. This level of community contact can only be a good thing, but for us “personal space” westerners, it takes some getting used to. ~James
Interesting: 50 years later, your Hanoi experience is still much like my brief Saigon encounter back then [the rest of the year I was in rural areas with an occasional stop in Danang].
Ray, from what I’m hearing from all the commenters, the traffic chaos just comes with the territory. But I can say that Hoi An, which is considerably smaller, has a similar level of motorbikes for its size, but the drivers aren’t so “Mad Max.” ~James
I do so much enjoy your colorful pictures and commentary! And now I’m curious. What is it that makes Southeast Asia (or. perhaps all of Asia) especially appealing to you?
Cherrie, thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. That’s a good question and the answer required some thought. I’ve traveled all over this part of the world for work and pleasure, and over the years have developed a fascination with it. And thinking about it, I guess that it all comes down to the fact that the eastern countries are so different than western countries – for lack of a better word, exotic. Because of history and distance, many of these countries, for thousands of years, have been totally separated from and uninfluenced by the west so their cultures have developed naturally and in place. And for me, it’s interesting to see how people live their daily lives with a totally different set of values and priorities than I grew up with. That’s a long, rambling answer and I hope it makes sense. Thanks for an thought provoking comment. ~James
And thank you for a thoughtful and interesting answer! I spent the first five years of my life in central China, a year “back home” in the US, and then a year in Canton, a year near Hankow, and five years in Hong Kong. This introduction to a very different culture helped, I hope, to make me a more tolerant and certainly a very curious individual. I am now 84 and still fascinated by China, but I have never returned, although my husband and I have traveled extensively in the US and in Europe.
Thank you for your blog. I always look forward to it!
Glad you’re enjoying the country more than I did in ’68.
GP, my older brother John was “visiting” Vietnam at about the same time, and he had about the same opinion. ~James
I love all the flowers, that is a great part of the culture. The cat made me laugh out loud…I feel like he’s every tourist arriving in a crazy major city for the first time thinking what the heck am I doing here. Hanoi sounds like it does take work – it looks tiring.
Hannah, given the crutches and walker, at first I wanted to caption the cat photo: “A hungry cat patiently waiting for a slow-moving senior citizen,” but thought that might not go down well … still funny though.
Really, not my kind of place, though you should never write anywhere off. Meet you in the park!
Jo, you’re right about never writing anywhere off. My opinion is that if you keep an open mind every place has an interesting story to tell, and over the years we’ve stumbled into some wonderful surprises. ~James
You’re right about Hanoi being hard work. That’s where I got hit by a motorbike. Was taken to hospital in a rickshaw!
Oh no Peggy! Every travelers nightmare – a medical problem while on the road. Was it a serious injury? I have a lot of questions, have you written about the experience?
Our technique was to hold hands and cross together, the thinking being we presented a bigger obstacle so they would pay more attention. I try to be understanding, but as someone else said, these motorbikes are a curse. ~James
Luckily it wasn’t too bad. I did write about it at the time. https://leggypeggy.com/2011/10/13/do-i-look-like-ive-been-hit-by-the-proverbial-bus/
I read about your accident, and honestly, I’m not surprised. Most of the drivers seemed relatively careful but with all the moving parts, there are bound to be some accidents. Glad it turned out OK. ~James
There was a sad encounter with another woman with a black eye. https://leggypeggy.com/2011/10/19/my-shiner%e2%80%94a-battle-scar/
I agree with you know the hectic pace and having to always be alert when walking on the sidewalks, but I felt energized by it rather than over worked. Love your street photography. Maggie
Maggie, I agree that watching all the street-life activity was very cool and a big part of the travel experience. And maybe, it was just the area where we were staying. We really were in the very heart of things and other than the area around the Lake, every street and alleyway was an obstacle course of zooming motorbikes, and because the sidewalks were the parking lot, walking in the street was a constant hazard. I guess that after a few days the hassle sort of knocked the polish off the apple. ~James
It’s interesting how your experience in Hanoi sounds quite different from Lex’s. But I can imagine how you felt because the first time I went to Vietnam I was also kind of overwhelmed by Saigon. However, that was in 2011, and to date I’ve returned to the country two more times and I loved it now. To me it’s one of those places that slowly grow on you, just like Jakarta. I haven’t been to Hanoi myself, but this post (and Lex’s) helps me prepare for that first trip to the Vietnamese capital.
Bama, Lexie and I had talked about this on her Hanoi post and it interesting about the differences in experience. It really sounds like it came down to the differences in where we stayed. Our hotel was very nice, but because we were so central all the streets and sidewalks were constant obstacle courses and crossing the street was a never-ending hazard. But I appreciate what you say about second visits being more enjoyable. I guess it all comes down to expectations and how we react. You know this part of the world very well so I’m sure you’ll enjoy Hanoi. And if you can, don’t miss Hoi An. We loved it and will post later. ~James
Oh I loved Hoi An. Although it was already very touristy, but I felt like it hadn’t lost its charm. I hope it will remain that way.
Oh! We loved Hanoi! Wandered around everywhere and really enjoyed the vibrant life. I guess it helped that we had a friend who lived there who took us to some fabulous restaurants that we’d never have found on our own. It was our first intro to SE Asia, many many years ago now.
Alison, having a knowledgeable local certainly helps no matter where you visit. The staff at our hotel were helpful with recommendations for where and when to go, and let us know about a wonderful weekend festival that we might have missed. And even with our honest appraisal, we haven’t been in SEA for a while and it’s great to be back. And as you’ll see in a later post, Hoi An was wonderful. ~James
We have mixed feelings about Hanoi, since we arrived there in March 2020 with Covid chasing us out of Vietnam. Many of the attractions were closed and some restaurants refused to serve us. In many ways we feel that we have unfinished business there and we might return there one day. We had a 3 nights cruise at Halong Bay which was cancelled, so would certainly be something we would like to return to this region for.
Are you visiting other places in Vietnam?
Loved your photos 😀
Gilda, things were weird everywhere, so I can imagine how strange things must have been for you two in Vietnam. Which is too bad because it’s a long way from the UK to Vietnam and it’s not like you can just drop by again. Interestingly, about 10 days before everything shut down in the US, we had to cancel a month-long trip we had planned to Brazil and S. Africa. We were totally bummed at the time, but it was probably a blessing in disguise. If we had gotten caught in either place it would have been a disaster.
And yes, we visited Hoi An and absolutely loved it. You’ll hear all about it in a future post, but what a delightful change after chaotic Hanoi. ~James
I’ve never been! I enjoyed your photos, especially the red bridge across the lake. What a beautiful scene.
Thanks Tracey. You can’t tell from the photo but that bridge leads to a Chinese temple on the island and the party on the bridge was from a wedding. It really is a beautiful spot and very popular on weekends with the locals. ~James
That’s my recollection of Hanoi as well. And, honestly, I’ve thought a lot about those motorcycles and busy, loud streets while in Colombia, which could be a good competitor! Not as crazy, though, but we have found it stressful to drive and difficult to find any peace here – during the day or at night, camped.
Liesbet, I’ve traveled quite a bit in that part of the world and I know how wacky it can be. However, I’m always on foot or in a taxi, and can imagine how nerve-wracking it must be to drive in that madness. From my time driving in Africa, I think the main problem that western drivers have is the strict adherence to the rules as opposed the the gradual, flexible determination of which lane to be in, drift without signals, etc. I always told myself “Be tranquilo Dude” but I could never quite pull it off. Drive carefully. ~James
So appreciate your honest opinion on destinations you have the opportunity to travel to. Although my preferred method of travel is a little more off the beaten path, we have found ourselves in very busy cities as a means of getting to and from a place before venturing out from a city centre. Hanoi sounds a bit crazy for my liking!
Lynn we pretty much travel the same way, but it’s always our policy to visit the big cities in new countries so we can hit the national museums, etc. Hanoi was indeed crazy, but we also visited Hoi An which we loved. It’s much smaller and even though it’s been discovered, it’s a marvelous 17th century trading port which is very well preserved and great fun to wander. It was Vietnam’s saving grace. Watch this space for a post. ~