Travel the World: Hanoi, Viet Nam

Friday, January 18, 2019

My mother and I took my 88 year old grandma to Viet Nam for week, it had been the first time she'd been on vacation in a while. We were hoping to do relaxing trips out of Hanoi, to take a cruise through Halong Bay. In hindsight, I'm not sure if Hanoi was the right place to bring her, while I enjoyed it, it seemed hectic due to some unfortunate planning on my part. 

I know what salmon feel like now. We were packed in and had to just follow the stream of people. 

 My grandma is a young 88, she's in very good health and lives on her own. Actually given my own health issues, she's considerably more active than I am! Grandma is also used to a dense population and pretty wild driving habits living in Shanghai, but Hanoi is something else. It didn't help that we arrived on the eve of the Mid Autumn Moon Festival. The city was absolutely packed and there were celebrations on the street corners. Firecrackers, stages set in the intersections of the Old Quarter, vendors everywhere. Sensory overload. 

Daytime in Hanoi

There's so many mopeds, traffic laws seem to be more like guidelines. Moped riders in this city are pros, and I quickly found walking at constant, predictable to be key. When you stride forward confidently and purposefully, drivers could anticipate and skirt you easily. Darting back and forth skittishly is the real danger.

Like in Phuket, Grab not Uber is the preferred ride sharing app for Hanoi. This is the first time I saw the option to be the ride along passenger on a bike though!

Outskirts of Hanoi. While the inner city is dense and the winding streets of the Old Quarter are packed with people and small businesses, this area is in a developing state. There's skyscrapers that spring up all of a sudden, next to the river and clusters of homes with a small footprint that are four or five stories tall.a

In side the city is a different story. Like many tourists, we stayed in the Old Quarter because it's full of little boutique hotels. There are also inexpensive hostels if you're hoping to stay long term or on a tighter budget.

So many travelers, backpackers galore.

I went to an incredible amount of museums in 2018 but this one stood out to me. The Women's Museum in Hanoi is incredible. The displays of traditional wedding clothes and daily garments as well as jewelry is fascinating, as are the floors dedicated to topics like child birth and rearing, marriage, Mother Goddess worship. 

 I found the hallway of  videos interviewing fruit vendors of Hanoi to be particularly powerful. The video addressed one issue that I had been turning over and over again in my mind - how can individuals living in poverty not feel resentment or bitterness when foreigners flock to vacation in their city? The answer was quite moving. To paraphrase; one woman answered that she simply didn't have time to compare her life with others, to think about being rich or poor. She was too busy providing for her children.

The museum also cleared something else up for. I had been wondering why the majority of small eateries, flower and fruit vendors in Hanoi were women. My understanding is that many of these women are the primary breadwinners, their families stay with their husbands, typically farmers, while the women come to Hanoi to make a living. 

 Speaking of eateries.... I had bun cha so many times over that week. I love the juicy grilled pork and noodles dipped in savory thin sauce. There was one day where I had it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My favorite place was Bun Cha Dac Kim.

O Mai. I love sour, preserved fruits so can you imagine how delighted I was to sample from spreads like this.

 This was a slightly salty, savory plum juice. I think about this sometimes and without fail, my mouth starts to salivate. It was so good! I love salty sweet things and this was just balanced perfection.

In the hidden depths of Cafe Giang, I had an iced egg coffee. I'm not a coffee drinker at all but this is absolutely delectable. Silky smooth yet thick and so enjoyable after walking many miles. 

St Joseph's Cathedral in the Old Quarter.

Banh mi all day long. Sorry I don't have great pictures because it went right into my mouth. This was a pork pate one.

An elderly lady was selling snacks, drinks,  and low quality cannabis (I'd estimate less than 0.5% THC).  She had a communal pipe too, for your convenience. A few other venders hid their contraband in more interesting places - inside a steering wheel and inside a set of fake tour guide books. 

Calamansi lime drink. I love this little citrus fruit, I don't really see it in the US in fresh form. It tastes like a tart orange- lime with tropical undertones. 

If you're ever in Hanoi, you can't miss the Ceramic Wall. It spans nearly 4km and was made with tile pieces from the town of Bat Trang. The theme changes every few meters, as does the style.  I'd love to get into greater detail about Bat Trang in a separate post, it was one of the highlights of my trip.

I was really fortunate to meet really kind individuals that made this week even brighter. Not just the exceptional people in the hospitality industry, but complete strangers and fellow travelers as well. Old men saw me squinting at maps, and stopped to help me locate streets I needed the first night in Hanoi when I was very, very lost. A man who shared a sidewalk table with me gave me a part of his meal because I had never tried that dish before. I am deeply grateful to have such great interactions with people, particularly after a few weeks in Shanghai where folks can be quite brusque.

US passport holders will need a visa to visit Viet Nam. You can obtain an e-visa yourself for $25 by uploading your documents and printing out your approval letter once it's been issued after a 3-7 days from the E-Visa site. I met people in Viet Nam who had paid $100+ per person for an agency to obtain the very same visa, I'm not surprised because the website is buried in Google results and the graphics on the site are quite bright, surprising for an official government website. It's legit, I found it by way of the Department of State's website.

Hanoi is a city that pushes every single sense to the limit, all at the same time. It can be overwhelming, walking down the street will require more situational awareness than is exercised in many other parts of the world. It's a mix of extremes, the new-new alongside the ancient. It's absolutely incredible for some, but maybe too much for those traveling with the very old or the very young (sorry, Grandma. She liked our cruise though).

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