The first stop on our honeymoon was Hanoi, Vietnam. We decided to start the trip in Vietnam and end it in Bali knowing that Vietnam would be filled with frenetic energy and Bali would be calm…and we wanted to end the trip on a calm note. After twenty-four hours of traveling, Brian and I arrived in Hanoi at 11pm. I always find it off-putting to arrive in a foreign country at night. It only adds to feeling totally out of sorts. After battling the longest customs line ever created, we walked out of the airport doors and were immediately swarmed by a sea of cab drivers trying to get business from us. For some reason everything we had read about negotiating the fare first went out the door- I blame the twenty-four hours of traveling and the long customs line.
So after getting ripped off by our cab driver (lesson learned- always negotiate the price BEFORE getting in the cab) we got dropped off at our hotel located in the Old Quarter, also known as the “36 Streets”, one of the oldest parts of Hanoi. Formerly a center for resistance against the French, this part of town evolved in the 13th century when artisan guilds were concentrated along each of the original 36 lanes. Tinsmiths were found on Hang Theic (Tin Street), bamboo basket makers on Hang Bo (Bamboo Basket Street), Hang Bac (Silver Street), and so on. While much of the Old Quarter has become modernized with cafes, restaurants, hostels, hotels and shops, you can still see the remnants of the original 36 streets- a very interesting juxtaposition.
After a solid night of sleep we woke up ready to explore the city by foot. I quickly learned that getting around bustling Hanoi by foot is a harrowing adventure. The narrow streets are packed with motorbikes, bicycles and cars; crossing the street feels like you’re playing a terrifying game of chicken. Considering there is rarely a break in the traffic flow, you just have to brave it and cross, in hopes the sea of motorbikes move around you. My plan of action- close my eyes and let Brian lead the way across each street.
We spent the morning wandering around the Old Quarter & Hoan Kiem lake, taking in the city.
My favorite thing we stumbled upon during our morning walk was this scene by the lake- a bunch of very happy Vietnamese women dancing together to loud music. The more I watched, the more it became clear that it was some form of a (public) group exercise class. You couldn’t help but smile watching them- so lively! I was about to join in, when the music abruptly stopped, clearly, saving Brian from definite embarrassment.
After a few hours it was time for our food tour – something both of us were very excited about. Prior to our trip, I learned through my research that hiring a guide to take you on a food tour was very helpful. One, because the street food scene is better understood by a local and having a guide who spoke both Vietnamese and English was very helpful when trying to order at non-tourist spots. We were not disappointed by this experience. The food was like nothing I have ever experienced before, each dish was an intoxicating mix of new flavors. Our guide, Chingh, a twenty-five year old girl born and raised in Hanoi was incredibly knowledgable and had quite a spunky personality. She didn’t just tell us about the food at each stop but also shared stories about her family life and her drive to work in tourism despite her parents disapproval of a career that it considered better suited for a male in Hanoi. She had such a great spirit. I always love talking openly with locals- it makes the city come alive and opens up your eyes to the world around you.
We made seven stops on our food tour. SEVEN!
1st dish – Mien Luon (eel noodle)
2nd dish – Nuoc Mia (Sugarcane juice)
3rd – Bun Bo Nam Bo (southern beef noodles)
4th – Cha Ca (grilled fish)
5th – Banh Cuon (mushroom + pork roll)
6th – Banh Trang Tron (mixed noodle dish)
7th – Cafe Trung (egg coffee)
With our sweet guide Chingh
After eating our weight in Vietnamese food we decided to head over to the backpackers district, more specifically a street named “beer street”…for as I’m sure you guessed…a beer. We had been reading about “Bai Hoi”- the local beer made fresh daily and sold for the insanely cheap price of 3,000 dong per glass which translates to 16 US cents. Hard to believe, right? So we found a patio spot and sipped beers while taking in the scene (this area is filled with young travelers from around the world, although Australians seem to make up the majority).
After a few beers (not the best beer I have ever had but certainly refreshing on the hot afternoon), we went back to our hotel to take a nap before heading out for the evening. We had a quick dinner at a neighborhood Vietnamese spot – before setting out on foot through the Hanoi night market, also known as Dong Xuan night market, which is a weekly market held on weekends in the Old Quarter. I originally thought it was going to be just a food market but instead the stalls were packed with clothing, shoes, jewelry, decorations, toys, etc, as well as a few food stalls. The market was crazy and a tad overwhelming with jetlag, but equally fascinating. The market was filled with locals who seemed to come to the market not just to shop but as a social activity. Young couples strolled arm in arm as little kids excitedly ran around at our legs. The market was a complete sensory overload.
After the market we crashed at 8pm. It was the perfect way to end our first day in Vietnam.