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What Surprised Me About Hanoi

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Having just spent a lot of time in Manila, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into when I landed in Hanoi.

“Another south-east Asian capital city,” I thought to myself.

Crazy traffic, high temperatures, an excess amount of pollution and just an all-around headache to get around. However, my thoughts were unexpectedly met with quite the opposite, apart from the traffic of course. I landed in the first week of January which was apparently the winter season. Winter. In south-east Asia. I didn’t think such a thing existed, yet I was proven completely wrong the moment I stepped out of the airport, where my skin was met with a cold breeze of fresh air. I was immediately confused as to where I was and wondered if the plane had accidentally taken me somewhere other than my preferred destination.

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“Maybe it was because it was night time, that must be it, that must be the reason why it’s cold.” I thought to myself again, as I stepped into the car ‘Cocoon Inn’ had helpfully organised for me. The ride to the centre of the Old Quarter from the airport wasn’t too long. Around half an hour maybe. There were no cars on the road which was surprising. I mean, it was 3 o’clock in the morning so this should be understandable but I was in the capital of Vietnam. I assumed that there would be at least some traffic but there was none apart from a scooter, riding from lane to lane.

Even though I only slept for a few hours, I was up bright and early the next day, not being able to contain my excitement from exploring this new city and to see if it’s anything like Bangkok or Manila, the two south-east Asian capitals I can compare it to. I got out of bed, showered, dressed appropriately after checking the temperature online and headed out the door for a good ol’ wander.

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The streets were bustling at 8 am. Full of life and energy. A coalition of locals and foreigners all weaving in and out of the sea of motorbike traffic. Street vendors walking around selling their goods, rickshaw drivers and motorbike taxis yelling at potential customers. Street stalls popped up in places as well as food corners where mainly locals, were sat on small stools as they ate various local dishes. Rice noodles, rice, soups, spring rolls and other delicacies.

I decided to walk Hoan Kiem Lake, a lake in the Old Quarter not too far from the hostel, where a tower was situated on a small island around the middle. The first thing I noticed about the Old Quarter was just how much it reminded me of Europe. Like the back streets of Paris or Madrid. I’m guessing that these buildings were the remnants of the French colonisation. A mix of European architecture contrasting with the very distinguished Vietnamese culture. Churches and temples dotted around the place. Old buildings converted into cafes and restaurants with the Vietnamese flag, proudly raised up high, hanging from the top restyled structures. Long vines of various plants, climbing up the walls, nature and city combined.

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I was completely wrong. This south-east Asian capital is nothing like Manila or Bangkok. In fact, it didn’t even feel like a capital city. Some would say that the streets were chaotic and dangerous and in a way that is true but it is nowhere near as congested or as stressful to get around. Vehicles didn’t seem to cut each other off so vigorously (or at least it didn’t seem so), nor were the drivers aggressive in any way. Sure there were crashes, I saw two, but it’s only expected with the number of vehicles driving on the road.

The lake was surrounded by hundreds of parked motorbikes with a few street food vendors walking around. It was misty so I couldn’t really see as far but I can imagine just how beautiful it would look with blue skies. The lake was clean. Another thing that was surprised me. In fact, all the streets I walked along lacked litter on the ground which was a contrast from my previous experiences. Along with the cool winter temperature, this walk was very pleasant and a great way to explore the area without the worry of getting heat stroke or suffocating due to the pollution, (I found the pollution very minimal).

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I took a different route on the way back. One that lead me through countless of street food stalls where I can try Hanoi’s finest. I’ve met a few travellers who weren’t impressed with the cuisine and that is something I don’t understand. Each food stall offered a different variation of the same dish which made it far more exciting. With my lack of knowledge of the Vietnamese language, I had to just go with the flow and point. They were very helpful and of course, being open-minded helped as I didn’t really know what they were going to serve me. Rice noodles with various meats, either with soup or not, spring rolls both fresh and fried and whole lot of other things, I was having the time of my life, I ended up having three or four different meals a day. It felt like Disney land for foodies.

After hours of photographing my way around the Old Quarter and successfully dodging traffic. I decided to have a browse on some scooters which are found pretty much everywhere in the Old Quarter. Here I met another traveller who had just arrived in Hanoi after completing a two week trip from Ho Chi Minh. He told me about how nice the roads are and how easy it is to ride. A few minutes later, after testing it, of course, I decided to purchase the scooter and take it for a ride around Hanoi.

I wasn’t entirely sure if this was a good idea or not as this wasn’t advised by other travellers who told me how dangerous it was to ride around big cities such as Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, especially as I was not exactly an experienced rider, only having ridden one around Koh Samui three years prior. Yet, I didn’t care. Thousands of Vietnamese riders all around the city, I mean if it was really that dangerous, then the streets would be completely empty, devoid of all motorbikes, in fear of losing one’s life. So, it can’t be that bad I thought. And I was right. It wasn’t that bad. Actually, it was pretty exciting. You have to be on the ball of course but like I said, drivers here weren’t at all aggressive. Sure you some-what had to fight your way through the traffic, making sure that you don’t hit or get hit by anybody, but once you get used to it, it was a simple as riding a bicycle through a busy park. My initial thought was to get petrol and get the oil changed as this was advised by its previous owner. So that’s what I set out to do. Having no clue about the roads of Hanoi, I inevitably got lost, even with the help of GoogleMaps. I was too busy admiring the city and being cautious of other drivers, I missed all the turns I was supposed to. However, through perseverance and excitement, I pulled through and achieved a very simple task which I made very difficult for myself. I rode back and parked my scooter in the allocated parking area and made my way back my hostel room where I sat down to process the day I just went through.

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This city is absolutely magnificent and one that smashed all expectations and shed a different light. It had a very different atmosphere to other south-east Asian cities, it felt so trendy without it being pretentious. So many things happening but weren’t at all overwhelming. A place where I can see myself going back to, again and again, to explore other pockets that I had not yet seen.

Hanoi. I’m impressed, and I want to go back.

Happy Travels.

A dreamer born in Manila, Philippines but raised in Brighton, England. A graduate musician, chef by trade and a traveller at heart. Live the life you love and love the life you live.

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