Do you like chaos? Do you want to feel the whisper of Death in your ear each time you leave your front door? Is the ever-present sound of motorbike horns music to your ear? Then Hanoi is the city for you!
Don’t get me wrong; Vietnam is a wonderful country, full of amazing sites, friendly people and delicious, cheap food. The problem with its cities, including Hanoi, is simply the frenzy that takes place in every square inch. There is no respite from the noise and the traffic.
Motorbikes reign supreme in this city of over 6.2 million people. To put that in perspective, that is almost the combined populations of Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Ottawa and Vancouver. As far as I could tell, there are at least that many motorbikes on the streets at all times, and their drivers are honking their horns every 3-5 seconds. The traffic is like a river, flowing unceasingly through every street. When an accident occurs, the rest of traffic surges around the blockage.
The sidewalks are no escape for pedestrians, as they are for parking one’s bike on when one is not cruising the streets. This means if you’re on foot, you must take your life into your own hands and walk in the streets with the bikes, taxis, delivery vans and trucks. This does not create a peaceful strolling environment, which in my mind is a major strike against a city.
Amid all this chaos, however, lies a charming Old Quarter, with beautiful, French Colonial buildings, excellent bakeries, and every possible item you could think to buy lining the narrow, winding streets. There are also traditional wooden Vietnamese buildings, lovingly preserved and open to the public. If only one could meander through the streets at one’s leisure, rather than constantly watching for the killer mopeds…
The streets of the Old Quarter are named for the various wares traditionally sold in the shops along them, such as the “metal street” and “silk street”. While the shops are more varied now, especially in the heavily touristed areas, there is still a unique feel to the different areas.
One of the highlights of a trip to Hanoi is tasting the coffee sold by independent roasters at little street carts. While you sit on brightly coloured, low plastic stools, the roaster will grind some fresh beans, and brew small amounts of the different types of coffee for sale, so that you can chose to your liking. I have it from some serious coffee connoisseurs that this is some of the best stuff in the world.
Hanoi is 999 years old, and has been the capital of Vietnam for most of the time since it became a city in 1010. There is a unique blend of Vietnamese, Chinese and French influences in its architecture. Being an essentially poor country, much of the city outside of the touristy areas is run-down and in sore need of rebuilding and renovation. It is dusty, noisy, crowded and polluted. But ultimately, Hanoi is a diamond in the rough.