I arrived in Hanoi, mid November, 2009 with one week to get my bearings before my intensive teacher training started. Hanoi is a busy, loud city full of endlessly interesting sights. I rented a cheap room in a hotel with a restaurant below which turned out to be a nice place to eat many of my meals and become friends with the staff for the month that I would reside there. It was located in the old quarter, just 2 blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake.
Turns out Hanoi can get a bit chilly in the winter. Like so many places in the world that are too hot most of the year, there are not a lot of heaters for when it does get cold. I had to go out and buy a couple of sweaters (at a couple of bucks each) and I searched out the cafes that had a heater or fireplace and served hot chocolate. The less chilly days were perfect.
Zen and the Art of Crossing the Street
You may have heard about the traffic in Vietnam being absolute chaos. Well it is and it isn’t. Later in Danang, I had my own motorbike and really got the hang of it. It is just entirely different and counter intuitive to the western mind. Anyone’s first days in the country will terrify and confound them when trying to cross the street.
The trick is that you have to stay slow and steady as you step into a steady stream of hundreds of motorbikes, a variety of cars, carts, cyclos, and the occasional truck. Darting about through traffic is a sure way to cause an accident. I started by shadowing local people. I would find someone, (the older the better cause who’s gonna run over an elder?) I’d stand beside and a little behind them and copy step by step. Miraculously the oncoming traffic parts around you like a river around a rock. No matter how dense the traffic, you just step in and slowly walk through it. Yikes!
Exercise Around the Lake
My neighborhood was awesome! I was in the old quarter, which is a maze of ancient streets still named after the specialized trade guilds they represented dating back to the 13th century.
Then in the middle of all the noise and bustle is Hoan Kiem lake (return of the sword lake). It is a smallish lake with a red, walking bridge to an island temple. It is lovely to perambulate around observing people socialize and exercise at its edges. If you get up early in the morning you see individuals and groups doing their exercise of choice. Everything from ladies with elegant red fans to loud step aerobics classes and men with rusty old weight sets pumping iron just inches from traffic.
The teacher training was demanding so the walk to and from by the lake (with a stop to stretch) was a lovely respite and a peek into the daily lives of the people of Hanoi.
The street food in Hanoi is so interesting and delicious. I never had spring rolls as good again, even in other parts of the country. In restaurants there is lots of local flair to check out, excellent French pastries and other delights from around the world.
One of the best everyday items is Bahn Mi. For less than a dollar you get the most delicious sandwich on fresh baked baguette. I have yet to find the equivalent flavors anywhere in the US. One great reason to go back for a visit.
Travel Tip: People ask me about eating street food and getting sick in foreign countries. Here is my personal, entirely unscientific, theory. If you are from another country you are going to lack immunity to some of the microbes in the food and water. You will likely get a funny tummy from time to time. Paying attention to what looks clean and what other people are or are not eating (a busy place is a good sign) is a good practice. I know for certain that I have gotten sick from a fancy restaurant as well as street food and that really uptight people still get sick. Street food is so damn good, I am not going to miss out on it. So I say: be attentive, but don’t miss out on the local good stuff wherever you are.