Charmed, I’m Sure – Hanoi, Vietnam

Hanoi is the eclectic, erratic and utterly delightful capitol of Vietnam, representing the perfect juxtaposition of urban, modern life and old world tradition. It is a place of utter chaos that has found a symbiotic groove in which the old world ways interface fluidly with contemporary lifestyles… and the result is absolutely charming.

The way my itinerary worked out, I actually ended up with a couple of days in Hanoi on three separate occasions, giving me six days total. I was annoyed by this at first, finding no good way to work around a couple of tricky logistics, but after my second stop in this fascinating city, I was thrilled that I got a chance to come back one more time and explore yet again.

Flowers for sale.
Flowers for sale.

Most of my time was spent in the Old Quarter and Tay Ho (West Lake) areas, and walking the bustling, twisting streets, taking in the abundance of activity, sights and sounds just never got old. There is so much to keep you engaged… from the street vendors to the video game-like motorbikes weaving in and around, from the beautifully aging colonial architecture to the ornately ancient temples wedged in between. Tourists and locals alike pack the streets and there is never, ever a still moment.

But there are wonderful ways to deal with the constant motion of this city when you need a little respite. Spa’s are prolific and for very little money you can exit the commotion and get your zen back in some soft, serene space. The rivers and lakes throughout the city are a beautiful, calm backdrop, providing space to relax and greenery to breathe in. There are also many cafe’s, bars and restaurants that provide one kind of oasis or another… often on a balcony two or three floors above it all, sometimes off a small, tight alleyway that leads to a huge hidden, courtyard, or even at one of the many street side cafes where you can sit back with a coffee or a cocktail and just watch it all walk by.

Typical housing... tight four story buildings nestled together, looking down on a river front where people walk, fish or just chill.
Typical housing… tight four or five story buildings nestled together, looking down on a river front where people walk, fish or just chill.

The people in Hanoi are much like any other city: busy. But the prevailing theme of family and community is strongly apparent here, as children happily run about while parents man the storefront and friends hang out to have coffee together throughout the day. Meals are often taken right there in the store, looking out on to the open street, and at those times, family is first, customers second.

Kids roaming the streets in their PJ's... a common occurance.
Kids roaming the streets in their PJ’s… a common occurance.

Addressing the rumors of locals ‘constantly ripping off the tourists’… prices set ridiculously high, incorrect change given, pretending not to understand etc… I found this to be valid only on one or two occasions and only in the high-traffic tourist areas where there seems to be a sort of pack mentality about. I am happy to say, however, that there were an extraordinary number of instances when the locals went out of their way to help me, or could have taken advantage but didn’t, leaving me with the clear overall impression of good will here.

Taking a break to make sure the merchandise tastes ok (it did, she gave me a sample.)
Taking a break to make sure the merchandise tastes ok (it did, she gave me a sample.)

Lastly, talking about Hanoi would not be complete without mentioning the food… from the lone woman dishing out her pho on the street corner to the myriad of restaurants with outdoor tables and tiny stools. From super basic to super fancy, eating here is done often and well, and food is a large part of the culture. Without exaggeration, almost everything I had was exceptionally good and to say I miss it already would be a huge understatement.

I guess I never really had good pho before, but I am certainly ruined for it now back home.
I guess I never really had good pho before, but I am certainly ruined for it now that I’m back home.

Hanoi is a beautifully vivid, visual feast and best told in pictures, and so I give you the remainder of my highlights in no particular order…

Flowers and a phone.
Flowers and a phone.
A typical sight, and if you close your eyes you can imagine what was also a typical sound... the constant hum of motorbikes accented by the consistent crowing of roosters.
A typical sight, and if you close your eyes you can imagine what was also a typical sound… the constant hum of motorbikes accented by the consistent crowing of roosters. I do wish the poor guy had a longer leash though.
One of many new friends I made. The city (the country, for that matter) is full of kittens and puppies, which of course come from all those unneutered/spayed cats and dogs. I worried, of course, about how many strays there were, but in this country they all seemed to be fairly well fed.
One of the many new friends I made. The city (the country, for that matter) is full of kittens and puppies, which of course come from all those unneutered/spayed cats and dogs. I worried, of course, about how many strays there were and how they all survived, but in this country they all seemed to be fairly well fed.
Curbside service, literally.
Curbside service, literally.
Lucy and Hoai, our lovely guides on a motorbike tour of the city... a fantastic way to see the sights, explore different neighborhoods to try the local specialties (like the famed egg-coffee!) and get a sense of what it's like to really be in Hanoi traffic.
Lucy and Hoai, our lovely guides on a motorbike tour of the city… a fantastic way to see the sights, explore different neighborhoods to try the local specialties (like the famed egg-coffee!) and get a sense of what it’s like to really be in Hanoi traffic.
Babies on scooters.
Babies on scooters.
Hang Gai, or Silk Street.
Hang Gai, also known as Silk Street.
An example of the beautiful old colonial architechture that still sits intersperced amidst all the tight housing.
An example of the beautiful old colonial architechture that still sits intersperced amidst all the tight housing that has been built up around it.
One of the ::many:: cute, hidden balcony seating areas I found to hang out in. Hanoi is filled with cafe's, bars and art houses that have taken up residence in the old colonial spaces, making for a gorgous place to hang out.
Hanoi is filled with cafe’s, bars and art houses that have taken up residence in the old colonial homes, making for fun, eclectic places to get out of the hustle and bustle for a bit with a coffee and a book.
Lanterns for sale.
Lanterns for sale.
Birdcages adorn practically every doorway or business entryway. For luck, for show, and sometimes for sale. Often, because they hung so high, you heard them before you saw them... and often it was an incredibly sweet song they sang.
Birdcages adorn practically every doorway or business entryway… for luck, for show, and sometimes for sale. Often, because they hung so high, you heard them before you saw them, reminding you to look upward. Birds of all kinds sang their incredibly sweet songs from every direction, giving a fairy tale feel to the city as you meander through the streets.
Buddha's hand, as it's known.
Buddha’s hand, as it’s known.
Emo street musician. Every night of the week, on multiple corners of blocked off streets in the Old Quarter, performances were being given. Jazz, traditional Vietnamese dance, accordian duet, you name it. Always a crowd, always entertaining.
Emo street musician. Every night of the week, on multiple corners of blocked off streets in the Old Quarter, performances were being given. Jazz, traditional Vietnamese dance, accordian duet, you name it. Always a crowd, always entertaining.
Hanging vines looking lovely at night.
Hanging vines looking lovely at night.
Huge, sand-filled urns that hold incense. You will find one at every place of worship, generally with dozens of sticks of incense burning. The Vietnames believe that smoke is the way words travel from this world to the next, and they send their thoughts and prayers to loved ones this way. I find that so lovely.
Huge, sand-filled urns that hold incense. You will find one at every place of worship, generally with dozens of incense sticks burning. The Vietnamese believe that smoke is the way words travel from this world to the next, and they send their thoughts and prayers to loved ones this way. I find that so lovely.
Around 1400 years old, the Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest temple in Hanoi.
Around 1400 years old, the Tran Quoc Pagoda is the oldest temple in Hanoi.
He stared at me like this for an entire block. I couldn't resist.
He stared at me like this for an entire block. I couldn’t resist.
And pop playgrounds on the street. Kids here know how to have FUN!
A pop-up playground on the street. The life of children here made me happy. They are surrounded by family and are free to roam while the parents work nearby, always keeping a watchful eye.
Lunch time.
Lunch time.
For what equated to about $2, this meal was huge and outrageously good. Bun Cha is a popular Vietnamese dish and the only thing this place serves... but they do it well.
For what equated to about $2, this meal was huge and outrageously good. Bun Cha is a popular Vietnamese dish and the only thing this place serves… and they do it well.
Art for sale.
Art for sale.
The entrance to Hanoi House... a very cute cafe on the 2nd floor of an old colonial house that is nearly impossible to find. As is typical in Vietnam, a tight unmarked alleyway leading away from the street often takes you somewhere amazing.
The entrance to Hanoi House… a very cute cafe on the 2nd floor of an old colonial house that is nearly impossible to find. As is typical in Vietnam, a tight unmarked alleyway leading away from the street often takes you somewhere amazing.
I stumbled upon this in one such hidden alleyway. Engagement photo, I assume? They are big on formal photography for every major life event here.
I stumbled upon this in one such hidden alleyway. Engagement photo, I assume? Formal photography for every major life event seems to be protocol.
This exhibit, at the Vietnamese Womens Museum, was a huge floor to ceiling gallery honoring all the women who contributed to war effort. So many faces, each telling a heartbreaking story.
This exhibit, at the Vietnamese Womens Museum, was a huge floor to ceiling gallery honoring all the women who contributed to the war effort. So many faces, each telling a heartbreaking story.
I love everything happening in this picture. We stopped for gas at a station and were curious about the big pipe these men were smoking out of, the likes of which you see people smoking out of everywhere. Smoking in Vietnam is quite prolific and they often use these pipes instead of smoking a cigarette.
We stopped for gas at a tiny corner station (no pumps, just bottles of petrol set out) and were curious about the big pipe these men were smoking out of, the likes of which you see everywhere. Smoking in Vietnam is quite prolific (mostly men)and they often use these pipes instead of smoking a cigarette.
Inside The Lantern Lounge.
Inside The Lantern Lounge.
Monks in Orange.
Monks at night.
Before rush hour really hits.
Watching the choas from above.
Lonely bike at 35.
Lonely bike at 35.
Lychee.
Lychee.
Slightly creepy carnival ride going up.
Slightly creepy carnival ride going up.
A horrific piece of history: Inside Hoa Lo, a prison built in the late 1800's by the French for political prisoners and used again for prisoners of war in the Vietnam War.
A horrific piece of history: Inside Hoa Lo, a prison built in the late 1800’s by the French for political prisoners and used again for prisoners of war in the 60’s and 70’s.
The Red Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake.
The Red Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at night.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at night.
Fire Hazard.
Fire Hazard.
Roadside, roasted corn on the historic Long Bien Bridge.
Roadside, roasted corn on the historic Long Bien Bridge.
St Joseph's Cathedral.
St Joseph’s Cathedral.
St Joseph's Cathedral.
St Joseph’s Cathedral.
Inside Cong Cafe.
Relics inside Cong Cafe.
Hoan Kiem pagoda at night.
Hoan Kiem pagoda at night.
Red panties at #42.
Red panties at #42.
I encountered scenes like this on several occasions... brides and grooms getting their photos on. Darling.
I encountered scenes like this on several occasions… brides and grooms getting their photos on. Darling.
Typical family time. The Vietnamese have perfected work-life/home-life balance and it is beautiful.
Typical family time. The Vietnamese have perfected work-life/home-life balance and it is beautiful.
The end of November can only mean one thing: Purple Christmas is just around the corner!
The end of November can only mean one thing: Purple Christmas is just around the corner!
This is West Lake, where I spent my final two nights in Vietnam.
West Lake, where I spent my final two nights in Vietnam.

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