Like so many people joining one of Tucan Travels tours through Vietnam and South-East Asia, Hanoi was the first place I landed when I began my travels over three years ago. For someone who has never previously been outside of Europe or America, there is no better place to really throw yourself in at the deep-end of Asia.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a maze of busy streets set around the picturesque Hoan Kiem Lake, crammed with small business after small business in old, yellow, French colonial style buildings. This mix of colonial style and ultra-modern buildings, as well as a few very communist looking official buildings such as the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, is what makes Hanoi such an interesting city on the eye.
Steeped in history, Hanoi has many interesting museums and places of interest but just being in the city and taking in the sights and sounds is an amazing experience in itself.
A situation you get used to quickly in Hanoi is having people swarming around you, shouting their ‘cheapest price’ that you ‘won’t find cheaper’ and showing you a calculator with the amount typed on the screen, just in case their English wasn’t clear enough. This isn’t just in the markets. From the minute you enter the arrivals hall at Noi Bai International Airport you are approached by about ten taxi drivers trying to attract your attention to get your custom.
With the current exchange rate of 31,575 Dong to the Pound, a bit of research into what you should be paying for a taxi helps a lot in this situation. Otherwise you are relying on your brain to quickly go through the 31,575 times table to work out a figure, before snatching the calculator out of their hand and re-typing what you are actually willing to pay.
On the note of exchange rates, it’s always nice to check your balance at the ATM just to see that you are a millionaire. And if you’re not a millionaire its worrying times for you, as it means you’ve arrived in Vietnam with less than thirty pounds.
Taxi sorted, it’s time for the next shock to the system… the traffic! With an estimated figure of around 3 million motorbikes, the Hanoi traffic is definitely an eye opener. I don’t know the official collective name for motorbikes but ‘swarm’ seems to fit nicely, all beeping away at each other as if the bikes are having a chat. Beeping to warn someone they are behind them, beeping to say they are over taking, and getting a beep back from the other guy as if to say “OK – Go ahead”. The bigger the vehicle, the louder and deeper the beep and the more command it has in getting right of way.
Needless to say, with this many bikes, crossing the road as a pedestrian makes for an interesting experience. The general advice given – ‘A slow but constant pace, with no sudden stops or change of direction and the bikes will go around you’ – you could cross a road with your eyes shut! (Although as a tour leader I don’t advise anybody in my groups to put this theory to the test.)
In Hanoi you see bikes and scooters on the roads being used to transport things that, at home, we would probably use a small van for. I’ve seen bikes carrying cupboards, mattresses, crates of beer towered up 3 metres high, thirty chickens and even a couple of pigs! Bikes are used as the family car, transporting two kids, a father and a mother and maybe grandma too from A to B. (4 or 5 people on one bike is quite a common site in Hanoi – 6 is my record though).
Fashion and looking good is very important to the people of Hanoi, so when the Government recently introduced a law on wearing helmets, the gap in the market for fashion helmets was quickly filled. Helmets with designer brand names and logos printed on them and female helmets with a hole for a pony tail to come through are extremely popular. During the day the girls, in their quest to keep their skin as white as possible, will ride around completely covered up with helmet (sometimes a hood over the top of the helmet) sunglasses, face mask, long sleeved top, gloves, long trousers or tick tights and socks. No skin is left exposed to the sun’s rays. I can’t imagine how hot they must be with all those layers on when it’s 35 degrees outside. Quite the opposite from the tourists in Hanoi who are in shorts and singlets attempting to stay cool and go home with a holiday tan.
Running out of sun cream in Hanoi can be a problem as finding a replacement sun cream that doesn’t have an extra whitening formula in it can prove difficult. Believe me, I don’t need any extra help to stay as white as a sheet.
So you’ve made it out of the airport and you’ve survived the taxi ride to your hotel, you probably want to go out for some food and a drink. My favourite thing about Hanoi is the street culture. Everybody lines the street at night to eat and drink. Jewellers, mobile phone shops and travel agents all seem to turn themselves into makeshift restaurants at night. With the traffic rumbling passed it’s like watching a free show while you eat. Like a soap opera unfolding before you. Watching people go about their daily lives. I sit at Bia Hoi (fresh beer) corner on a stool which is smaller than the chairs I had in play school and sip my 5,000 Dong beer (about 20cents/14p per glass) and eating Pho while watching the motorbikes drive passed, watching people crossing the road tentatively, a man selling balloons, ladies selling bread or carrying really heavy looking baskets of fruit. Splitting a bill with friends and arguing over how many thousands of Dong change you should have had before realising that actually its only 20p that you’re fretting about.
All of the locals are always in high spirits and groups of locals sit around shouting “Mo, Hai, Ba, Yo” before drinking (One, two, three, cheers). As Vietnamese is a tonal language with many sounds that aren’t used in English it can be quite interesting to just sit and listen to the unusual ‘sing song’ type of speech that they have.
To experience the atmosphere of Hanoi yourself, take one of Tucan Travel’s Vietnam Tours.