From the moment we arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam, we felt like we had entered another world. The constant street motion and horn honking was both captivating and intimidating. Overwhelmed, we decided to see the sights by wandering the streets of Hanoi.
We were without a guide book and set our mentality to ‘Just Go with the Flow.’ Creating an itinerary to see the sights of Hanoi wouldn’t be that difficult, as there are many sights to see. But that kind of rigidness would only set the stage for complication, being over-promised, under delivered and, thus, disappointed.
And besides, the little research we had done resulted in conflicting information regarding neighborhood boundaries, must-sees, opening/closing times and historic information. We took it all with a grain of salt and left it up to the traffic flow, recommendations of our hotel staff and others we met along the way and started our adventure of wandering the streets of Hanoi.
Adventure is a key word when talking about wandering the streets of Hanoi, because even crossing the street is an undertaking. There are no lanes or traffic signals and scooters, cars, buses and bikes honk and weave their way down the streets. Intersections are a great source of entertainment, as long as we are standing securely on the sidewalk. That, in and of itself, is often difficult as the sidewalks are rarely used for pedestrian traffic. Instead, they are parking lots for motorbikes, overflowing merchandise from stores and pop up shops for street food.
Hanoi is an old city and history has left its mark on it, from numerous ancient temples to French-inspired architecture to war memorials to the shop-lined streets of the Old Quarter. Since we were staying in the northwestern section of the Old Quarter, we introduced ourselves to the city by simply walking the narrow lanes and indulged in sensory overload.
Historically, the streets of Hanoi are dedicated to a specific craft and the street is named by the craft it sells. Hang Ga – Hang meaning merchandise and Ga meaning chicken – is Chicken Street and where chicken was sold. It is less the case now, as modern times and money have encouraged change, but is still very apparent on some streets with nearly every shop on one lane selling jewelry and on another, children’s toys. There was even an entire alley dedicated to women’s undergarments. And if we are ever in need of a new door handle or any other household hardware, we now know exactly which street to find it on.
Just adjacent to the Old Quarter is the upscale French Quarter – home to the Opera House, National History Museum and wider sidewalks – which was different, but not as different as we expected it to be. Yes, the architecture was certainly French and we could actually walk on the sidewalks, but the overall environment was still Vietnamese.
There was a slightly less hectic atmosphere and that allowed us time to slow down and better observe our surroundings. When we wandered onto Khac Can Street, we found ourselves in the middle of a peaceful, yet busy market.
One corner was abundantly covered in fresh produce and manned by three women, each working on some detail, like bundling herbs or peeling fruit. The next corner was packed with locals squatting on the low stools and chowing down on street Pho. The opposite corner had nice sit down restaurants with table service, which seemed popular with the business crowd. And the entire intersection was shaded by large, leafy trees.
But, if we really want to talk about surprise enclaves in Hanoi, it would have to be our wandering led to the discovery of the high end, luxury mall. This place was so fancy, I was shocked the doormen (yes, this mall has doormen) even let us in! Seven stories of top-end fashion and well-known designers made us feel like we were stepping back into Singapore.
Inside the mall was air-conditioned, spacious and quiet, almost eerily quiet after the two day assault of honking horns on our eardrums. If we were looking to find an escape from the chaos, this would be the place to do it. Since we were only looking for a place to cool down, we did a walk through and headed back out to brave the heat.
For an escape within the city that doesn’t feel like we’ve left the country, we found Hoan Kiem Lake – an oval lake surrounded by manicured gardens in the middle of the city. The lake has a legendary story dating back to the mid-15th century that claims Heaven sent a sword to Emperor Le Thai To to drive the Chinese from Vietnam. After his success, a giant turtle took the sword to the bottom of the lake to return it to is owners; therefore, obtaining the name Ho Hoan Kiem or Lake of the Restored Sword.
In the mornings, the park is full of locals practicing Tai Chi and throughout the day the many benches are occupied with weary travelers and residents taking a break in the somewhat cooler shade.
The Ngoc Son Temple sits on an island at the northern end of the lake and is accessible to visitors by crossing over the red, wooden Huc Bridge. Many people gave offerings, prayed and lit joss sticks, while others were there to take in the serene atmosphere and possibly take a peek at the legendary 250 kg stuffed turtle encased in glass.
Amongst all the temples and shrines, is St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It was impossible to miss with its sky-high bell towers that dominate a small square. The neo-gothic church, built in 1886, was open to visitors, but only lit by the sunshine filtering through the stained glass windows.
More than obtaining an accurate history lesson of Hanoi, we are getting a better feel for it. Every time we walk the streets of Hanoi we learn something new and are more confidently crossing to the other side.
We are delighting in the local, flavorful food and paying closer attention to the families that run the restaurants. A single restaurant is often managed by multiple generations of one family. Sometimes, the family lives in the rooms above the restaurant, using a ladder to access their living space and sharing the one restaurant bathroom.
Staying for such a short time in one place doesn’t allow us to do everything we want or see everything we should. But by wandering the streets of Hanoi, we allowed ourselves to get into the rhythm of the local, thumping pulse of the city – which was much more impactful than an organized tour of the sights.
We want to know: What sights have you discovered while wandering the streets of Hanoi? Do you prefer to wander or have a set itinerary when traveling? Tell us in the comments!