Hanoi is overwhelming on many levels; the traffic is justly famous for its chaotic nature (the video below will demonstrate this quite well), and the streets are a ramble of parked cars, motorbikes, shops, restaurants and people going about their daily lives.
Despite the appearance of chaos (particularly traffic), it all seems to work very well; I saw only one accident and congestion just doesn’t happen – maybe the Vietnamese have hit on the winning formula for traffic management that seems to have eluded the rest of the world.
Crossing the road is a challenge when you first arrive; but watch and observe. Pedestrians need to follow the same rule as traffic: just go and they will avoid you… alarming at first, but it does work. Pick your moment and cross with calm intent; don’t speed up, don’t slow down and move in a constant direction. The reason this works is that despite the volumes and the fact it never stops (even for traffic lights/ especially for traffic lights), the speeds are not that great and drivers will have time to avoid you.
Hanoi’s property tax regime (you pay according to the width of your house) has resulted in ‘Rocket Houses’, tall thin buildings all over town – and beyond.
Street services: you can get just about anything here (I know, because I was offered just about anything; but that’s another story…)
For me, wandering about and taking in the mood of the city was the main purpose for the visit. The Old City and the French Quarter and interesting places to wander; although much of the ‘view’ is obscured by advertising hoardings, wiring or both – a problem throughout the east.
St Joseph’s Cathedral – couldn’t be accused of going mad with the Christmas decorations…
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
A trip to see Ho Chi Minh is recommended. Don’t worry about the size of any crowd/ queue you may see – it will move fast.
Cameras and some bags will be removed from you (in 2 stages, big bags first, cameras at a later point) and then you are lead towards the Mausoleum. The viewing is a fairly quick walk round the sarcophagus and then back out… don’t forget to collect the camera. After the ‘viewing’ you can go round to the front and take pictures.
After the Mausoleum there is the Presidential Palace and a small house favoured by Ho Chi Minh, where you can see some personal artefacts.
Van Mieu Pagoda (Temple of Literature)
Founded in 1070 as a temple of learning and dedicated to Confucius, much of what remains today dates from the 15th C, up to more recent times.
Vietnam – and especially Hanoi, are renowned for excellent food, this is true but there is much ordinary stuff as well, get recommendations if you can.
Hanoi has a lot of single offer restaurants – literally that: one dish, or minor variations on a theme. This extends to the ubiquitous Pho which is available on every corner. Some places do a beef one, some chicken – restaurant dictates what you can have.
I went to one place that serves a local fish dish called Cha Ca La Vong – catfish, served with fresh herbs and a variety of accompaniments (fish sauce, shrimp sauce, spring onion, dill, coriander, mint, basil, rice noodle, peanuts, chilli). The fish arrives cooked, but you add the rest according to individual taste.
Another highly recommended place (by me) is Quan An Ngon, 18 Phan Boi Chau. Wide selection of Vietnamese food, and the staff will help you with the spring rolls etc… Good quality and very good value.
There is quite a high hassle factor in Hanoi; I was even chased down a pavement by someone on a motorbike – attempting to flog a variety of ‘items’… and petty theft is a problem – actually not so petty; some b***ard got my phone.
Some taxi companies and drivers are dodgy and will quote you ten times the regular price, many have ‘broken’ meters and they are not beyond extortion and threats…
There are a couple of taxi companies that are safe to use; I don’t remember their names, but check with locals or your hotel and then look out for them.
Despite this, I generally felt quite safe and people are helpful when language allows.