In my five months in Asia I have managed to visit Vietnam three times. I know, I must really love the country. But let me explain.
The place where I went twice already and where I first fell in love with Nam was Hanoi. For me, having lived in Taipei before and visited a couple of Asian countries on the more developed side (Japan or HK), it was a totally new experience. The downtown area, called the Old Quarter is made of two to three storey buildings that look rather rundown, a bit as if they were about to collapse. Just by looking at it, you would not guess that you have just found yourself in the country’s capital. And this is exactly where I have found this city’s charm.
Together with a friend of mine we decided to stay in the Vietnam Backpackers Hostel, which is a part of a chain of 10ish hostels spread throughout the country. The great thing about this place, next to daily happy hour and free shots every evening, is that they run free walking tours that are actually free. Back in Europe, these kinds of tours were one of my favourite ways of seeing new places. Usually they would be run by a local who is very enthusiastic about the place they come from and so will have plenty of stories that are not necessarily featured on the Wikipedia. At the end the guide would name the average price for a similar sightseeing tour and leave it to the guests to judge whether the experience was worth less or more. This time around, as I guess the guide is actually paid by the hostel, that final judgement part never came. Nevertheless, the trip was pretty awesome.
My favourite statistic about Vietnam is that there are 95 million people and 52 million motorbikes. And indeed, Hanoi is an extremely busy city with motorbikes being everywhere and coming from nowhere. That is why the first big rule in the city is whenever you are trying to cross the street, just close your eyes and keep walking. Especially at the beginning, if you don’t follow this rule, the chances are that walking to the other side will take you some good half an hour because the motorbikes never stop. On the other hand, if you just continue walking at the same pace, the bikes will just magically take you over and you will be able to get to the other side unscathed.
Once you master the art of crossing the street you can actually use it to go and see places. The first place we went to was a local market. First, we passed small shops where you could buy all sorts of fruits and spices to then get to the ‘wet’ part. This is exactly where you find fresh (and very much alive) fish of all sorts, meat (not that much alive anymore) but also soft shell turtles (yes, they are edible and yes, people eat them). Take a couple stairs up and you find yourself inside of an enormous building full of fabrics, clothes, shoes, fake bags & watches, plastic jewellery, glitzy hair accessories, you name it. There is so much stuff that I don’t think it would be possible for any vendor to sell their whole inventory over one lifetime.
Just walking the streets of Hanoi you can see all sorts of the amazing things. There is a street with bird cages hanging on the trees where from time to time the owners organise a birds’ song contest. There are motorbikes carrying king size bed mattresses or ladies basically operating a shop from a motorbike. There are people washing meat on the pavement, people whittling bamboos, people cutting they toenails in the middle of the street. Also, there is wonderful street art (this time I will let you be the judge and just leave to the pictures instead of writing too much).
On the opposite side those murals, there is a place where you can find roasted dogs. For some reason the dogs are only sold in halves so you can chose either front or back of the dog. And this is where everyone starts to grin and turn their heads around. However, if you try to understand why they eat your puppy’s great-great-great-great cousin, it makes more sense. Eating dogs in Vietnam became widespread during, what the Vietnamese call, the American War and the rest of world calls Vietnam War. Shortages of food caused people to resort to eat whatever was available and in this case these were dogs. Also today, dogs are no delicacy, to the contrary, they are eaten by the poorest members of society who cannot afford to buy other products.
Couple of steps away from the dogs and you’re at the most instagrammable (or so I heard) place in Hanoi, the train street. Although it is very narrow and trains run several times a day, life happens as if the trains were never passing through. It is packed with cafes and bars and makes an extremely chill spot to just hang around and enjoy your beer while watching everyone around trying to get that perfect shot. However, when the train finally comes, you better make sure than you and your beer hide inside a cafe as apparently train drivers don’t have it in their habit to slow down and watch our for tourists.
We ended the tour at a hidden cafe where to enter you have to go through a shop and a corridor that makes you feel as if you have just walked into somebody’s house. At the very end of the long hall and three floors up there is a cafe that serves Vietnamese specialty, egg coffee. If like me you only drink your coffee in the darkest shade of black, no add ons, that would probably not be your beverage of choice. On the other hand, if you have a bit of a sweet tooth, this black coffee topped with egg whisked together with sweet condensed milk, would be a perfect choice. Although I admit, it is crazily creamy in its texture and looks very tempting.
What I love most about Hanoi though, are not its streets during the day but only after the sun goes down. This is when locals walk downstairs from their houses and start cooking just on the pavement, in front of where they are living. Usually, they would prepare one or two dishes for which the recipe has been passed on through generations and sell it to the general public. It doesn’t really matter which stall you would chose, in Hanoi you can never go wrong with these. There would be small plastic chairs and tables where you can sit and enjoy your freshly prepared, amazingly delicious pho ba or buncha (local soups) or any other local dish.
I also adore Hanoi because it is just so relaxed. During the day you would be strolling around the lake and realise that there are plenty of locals just chilling, having a midday beer or two and basically spending their whole day chatting with each other. When the night comes, they would be doing the very same at those pop-up ‘restaurants’ – just order couple of Saigons or Hanois (local beers) and talk the night away. If the food vendor doesn’t have bottled beers at hand, no problem in that, probably in the radius of maximum 50 meters someone is selling a beer from a keg for a mere 0.2 Euro cents a pint.
As much as I Hanoi’s vibe makes me want to just procrastinate there forever, that would actually be a waste. Not a long drive away there are wonderful nature spots and anyone who has ever been to Ninh Binh would agree that this is the place to go. Trang An Scenic Landscape Complex located there has made it to the UNESCO World Heritage list, full approval there from my side. What we did there was to go on a boat ride that is fully operated & paddled by a local (or more specifically his or her feet). From the very first moment I was on this boat and started gazing around, I was in awe. The colour of the river is rather brown but as it flows it matches perfectly with dark green hills and occasional bare rocks. Every now and then there are paddy fields emerging on one of the river banks and if you look closely enough you could spot goats jumping high up on the rock formations. Further down the river is where numerous caves start and each of them is home to thousands of bats. The weather on that day was rather foggy and drizzling but that was exactly what gave this place a bit of a mystical character.
After the boat ride, it was time to go back to the habits I got while living in The Netherlands – bike riding. This 20ish minutes ride makes for the perfect ending of the trip. You would get yourself a bike to pass through beautifully green paddy fields, peddle down by the river seeing all those feet-operated boats going down the river while constantly having as a background those dark dark green hills.
This first encounter with Vietnam made a way greater impression on me than I was expecting. The views, the vibe, the food, the culture, the weather that was like a breath of fresh air for someone coming from all-day-every-day-36-Celsius-degrees-KL and the history I haven’t managed to dwell on this time round, it all made me want to come back for more. And not long after that I actually did. But this is a story for another time…
KL was definitely not one of my favourite cities in the world – we arrived, stayed that night and the…
My bestest guide❤️
More than awesome! ❤
Aaa, Tomas thanks!!! That’s definitely on the bucket list after I’m done exploring Asia!
Great writting! Beijin seems like a really good place to visit and have a bit of an adventure. Come to…