When we planned this portion of our trip we looked into various ways of getting from Laos to Vietnam. There are several border crossings, but everything we read seemed to indicate that these were somewhat unsafe and extremely inconvenient. In the end, we opted to fly, even though the short flight from Luang Prabang to Hanoi was fairly expensive, we decided it was worth the extra time in Vietnam and lower stress level.
Friends had recommended the fantastic Charming Hotel, and we were incredibly pleased with our stay there. Many travelers we met along the way who had already been to Vietnam mentioned that Vietnamese people are unfriendly, but no one could ever say that having been to Hotel Charming. The staff are always smiling, they are extremely helpful, and the rooms are small but clean and modern. Even outside of the hotel we found people to be very nice; our theory is that after spending time in Thailand where people are constantly smiling and laughing, Vietnam may seem staid to some people. But we found that if you are polite and friendly, most people will be the same to you. That being said, two women did try to “hustle” us when they grabbed us and put their hats on us and gave us their baskets, offering to take our photo. Since we couldn’t resist, we said okay and were prepared to give them a few dong (Vietnamese currency). Instead, they asked us to buy a bunch of bananas from them, which we were happy to do until they wanted us to pay $5 for them! To be clear, a bunch of bananas in Hanoi would normally cost about 50¢!
In our brief stay there (4 days with a trip to Halong Bay in between), Manor and I both kind of fell in love with Hanoi. On our second day we agreed that aside from Mumbai this was the first city we had visited that we felt like we could live in for several months. There is just such an exciting energy that permeates the city, much like Mumbai and New York…hmm, I guess we like big, colorful cities!
The streets are always full of people walking or on bicycles or motorcycles–in fact, the motorcycles kind of take over the city, which can be rather overwhelming at times and we found ourselves again unable to navigate crossing busy streets, just like in Mumbai when we first arrived. It was interesting to learn that the two cities have very different methods of crossing the street: in Mumbai, you basically make a run for it and hope the autorickshaws don’t mow you down; in Hanoi people seemed to walk across the street very slowly, letting the motorcycles whiz past them on either side, until they successfully wove their way to the other side. We soon realized the best way to cross a busy street in Hanoi was to follow a local’s slow, deliberate weaving movements and try not to panic!
Perhaps the city’s chaos is best exemplified by it’s telephone and electricity system. Tangled wires criss-crossing over the narrow streets in the historic district are so iconic, they even grace touristy t-shirts. But the locals seem to find places to relax wherever they can manage, setting up games on the sidewalks.
There are a few quiet places for some respite from the busy city and we enjoyed exploring them when we needed a break. The Temple of Literature has a beautiful garden and Temple of Confucius and is composed of multiple courtyards in the middle of the city; it also the home of Vietnam’s first university, the Imperial Academy, which opened there in 1076.
If you’re interested in some history with your peace and quiet, the ancient house on Ma May Street in the Old Quarter is the perfect thing. It’s a perserved home from the late nineteenth century, a two-story building surrounding a courtyard with idyllic balconies.
There’s some lovely French-colonial style buildings throughout the city, lending some charm to the chaos. Even some of the government buildings are in this style.
Another place to enjoy a little peace and quiet is the Hoan Kiem Lake, situated in the middle of the historic part of Hanoi. The lake is quite large, and there is small temple at one end on an island connected by a bridge. In one room of the temple is a giant stuffed turtle, believed to be good luck.
There are actually several large soft-shell turtles living in the lake, although they are endangered, and it is considered good luck if you see one. We were lucky enough to be walking by one day when a large crowd was gathering on the shore because a turtle had been sighted. While we didn’t actually see the turtle, the crowd’s excitement and joy at their good fortune was very catchy.
There are also a large number of couples taking wedding photos around the lake, most of them very traditional. But I loved this clearly funky couple the best!
Another way to relax? Smoke tobacco (or something else?) out of this giant pipe, like this guy we saw on the street. Apparently, this is totally normal, or at least no one else seemed to be gawking like we did.