It was 6:30am when I landed at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, Vietnam. I had a headache. I had only slept a few hours the night before my flight (travel jitters are a thing), and the flight had been a nightmare, a choir of children crying and shouting, making it impossible for me to get any sleep or rest. Hence the headache. I got my passport stamped and slowly made my way outside – feeling groggy, my mind hazy, my limbs starting to complain with the lack of sleep and my eyes trying to understand where I could take the bus to town – all fo this whilst my ears were being bombarded with the voices of multiple taxi drivers trying to sell me their services.
I found the bus. And once we got off the highway I found a new world. My first impression of Vietnam would be the traffic. Now bear with me – this was my first time in Asia. I had heard about this situation not only in Vietnam but in all other South East Asian countries. But nothing could have prepared me for the cacophony of mopeds, carrying whole families, or full cargo. I was shrinking in fear every time I saw an accident almost happening – and that was a lot of times! And in all of that, my eyes were still shutting. I would absolutely not fall asleep on a city bus in Hanoi. Yet, with such awful traffic, the bus was going slowly and it took me over one hour to get to the Old Quarter of Hanoi, where I was staying. And when I stepped off the bus I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive the short 10-minute walk to the hotel. But funny enough, that day, when I was sleep deprived and my survival instincts were sort of dormant was the day I did my best in crossing the roads in Hanoi. I focused on Google Maps directions and kept moving, with a confidence that I did not know I had when my body was so sleep deprived. It had been over 48 hours without sleep. So when I got to the hotel at 9am and they told me whilst there was a room ready I had to pay for early check-in, I simply said yes, I don’t care. All I wanted was a shower and a bed.
Yet, I knew I couldn’t sleep too much. I would only allow myself one hour and a half of sleep. So I put the alarm clock on and woke up dutifully at 11:30am, even though my whole body complained. I had to push through and force myself to get used to the seven-hour difference. And there is no better place to do that than in the busy streets of the capital of Vietnam, Hanoi.
The word that kept coming to mind was chaos, and somewhat I ended up in the midst of a market of reds. Everything around me was red. Red for Lunar New Year or, as it is called in Vietnam, Tết. This would be a constant throughout my whole time in Vietnam, something that only added value to my trip – seeing how a whole nation is preparing for the biggest celebration of the year. I flew back to London just one hour after the first midnight for the Lunar New Year, escaping the closure of the country that would be proceeding in the following days. Tết is a time to honour the ancestors and to be with family. To take a break. To celebrate. To start everything anew and every ritual is very important to bring fortune and prosperity to the New Year. And I got to witness it and learn about a part of the Vietnamese culture I wouldn’t have learned about otherwise. As you will see in my pictures, this year is, in Vietnam, the year of the Cat, not the year of the Rabbit. The Vietnamese zodiac differs slightly from the Chinese – call it an error of translation.
In the Chinese culture (bear in mind Vietnam was under the dominance of China for almost a thousand years, so there is a very strong cultural influence), red relates to fire and energy and has come to symbolise vitality, celebration, good fortune, good luck and prosperity. Red lanterns, red hangings, and red money envelopes were being sold, with wishes for a new year in the Vietnamese language and cats were the predominant figure. But well, the Old Quarter of Hanoi is all of it a market with every street being about specific things – something that despite the mopeds and the modernisation of the country seems to have remained unchanged for the past five centuries, and the street names still reflect that.
There was so much life around me. People gathering to eat, sitting in what to me are pe-school benches (the Vietnamese population is in fairness physically short and slim, which made me feel like a giant) with noodles being sipped all the time. The smoke from the mopeds didn’t seem to bother them as it did me. Crossing the road was a challenge, not impossible but certainly, I felt I was going for the lottery every time I put myself through it. Turning a corner it was the same uncertainty, as a bike, or a scooter, or even just street vendors carrying fruit using a shoulder pole may literally just come against me, as no one seemed to bother to look both ways. Also, in regard to the vendors, I must add that these were typically very old ladies. They should be resting and not enduring such physical strain but this was definitely a culture shock that I would be facing throughout my trip – a reality where you literally have to work every day of your life to survive until you no longer can and you simply have to let go.
Simply walking without being killed or seriously injured in the Old Quarter can be quite a challenge for a cautious European like myself, but if there is anything I’ve learned during my days in Hanoi is that I don’t seem to fear death that much! I was going in for the lottery of my life and quickly learned that what matters is to cross the road confidently, feeling like a whole powerful being magically dodging all the bullets coming your way – except these bullets are cars, scooters, mopeds, bikes, buses… And this is really how it works – I honestly don’t even understand what is the point of traffic lights or zebra crossings in this country. Or even sidewalks – when these are present you often have to walk in the road anyways as sidewalks are places to park your bikes…
Now the tricky part is to be able to look around you, take in the richness of architecture that the Old Quarter of Hanoi has to offer, finding the little temples hidden among the business of the streets. Something that is impossible to miss out on is how narrow the buildings are – apparently because you pay taxes based on how wide your home is. I also observed with some admiration how despite the smog, and the noise, nature seems to find its place in Hanoi – not just in public parks (where flowers bring so much colour), but also within the Old Quarter, with plants and trees growing in between the buildings, the streets, creating a mixed jungle of concrete and vegetation. Unfortunately, taking the time or even thinking about taking photos in the Old Quarter is almost a mission impossible. You really always need to be aware of your surroundings, and therefore I ended up with an awfully small amount of photos of the Old Quarter itself. But hey, I was just looking after myself and I’ve got plenty of mental photos to be happy with 🙂
After my nap, and such an assault on my senses, I needed food and I need to eat in a quiet place. I grabbed the famous traditional sandwich at Banh Mi 25 (recommended by Lonely Planet) and made my way to Hoàn Kiếm Lake, a water oasis in the middle of Hanoi. This was where I sat and relaxed, put my thoughts in order and made a plan for my day (afternoon at that point).
With some food in my system and some rest, I decided I needed intellectual stimulation so I made my way to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, but not before getting some caffeine in my system. When I sat down at a little cafe just across the road, I immediately noticed how that was my chance to try the famous Egg Coffee. Once I order it, the young girl serving smiled in appreciation, as if confirming that I had made a great choice. And of course, I did – the Egg Coffee is a drinkable dessert, somehow tasting like a Tiramisu, but not quite. Shall you drink it, or shall you eat it with a spoon? Well, both. It is said that its origins go back to the 50s when there was a shortage of milk and a creative cafe owner decided to experiment with eggs. My ultimate opinion on it? Try it, I’m sure you’re going to like it. I did, but after a while – and that is because of my own taste – it was a bit too sweet. And I am the kind of person who always takes espressos or black, no-sugar americanos.
After visiting the museum, I dragged myself – literally dragged as I was indeed pretty tired – to Hoa Lo Prison where the horror stories of those who have been imprisoned and tortured in that place were more than enough to keep me awake. It was chilling to the bone, in many different ways, but certainly, a place that should not be missed if you are interested in learning more about the history of the Vietnamese people.
This was how my 2 weeks trip through North and Central Vietnam would start. I was overly stimulated on my first day in Hanoi, excitement running through my veins, which definitely helped me fight the jet lag I was feeling. Push through it, I kept telling myself. I only had two weeks after all, in a country that has so much to see, so much to do, and so much to feel. I guess we know what I’ll be writing about for the foreseeable 🙂
5 thoughts on “Hanoi, Vietnam – Navigating a Chaotic Stream of Sensations”
This is such a great post, Nic and I have to say you have an eye for travel photography. As I’ve never been to Hanoi, Vietnam, I very much enjoyed your photos. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx
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Aw Aiva, you are very kind! Thank you for visiting, I’m so glad you liked my photos. Have a wonderful day!
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Quite impressive! You passed the survival test on the first day 🙂 I think the best way to make photos of Old Hanoi is to wake up early before all those shops open. But your photos have already captured the essence of the quarter: chaotic, noisy but lively.
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Thanks Len! I found the locals woke up quite early actually, I could hear the chaos starting at 6am 😆 I was told it was part of the culture as sometimes during the day it gets so hot and humid (in summer) that people got into the habit of starting the day as early as possible… but well this is part of the experience 🙂
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