Travelling is a little like golf. Especially long-term travel. It’s expensive. You walk around in very weird clothing and if you are a beginner, you will find yourself aimlessly searching for something in the bushes a lot. If it starts raining, you either get wet or you learn very quickly to carry an umbrella. Most importantly, you keep striving for that one particular experience that sets your whole body tingling with excitement, that one amazing shot that sets the hairs on the back of your neck on end and ensures you come back for more. Walking the streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter in the late afternoon was one such experience for me. Just about every sense was engaged: the noise of the scooters as they shoot by, the sweat running down your back, the intoxicating smells of spices and the sight of the many Vietnamese preparing for the evening ahead. It’s a heady, concentrated mixture of South East Asia, concocted in one of its most interesting, crowded places. Tingling with delight, I zigzagged my way through the scooter-clogged sidewalks, a stupid grin on my face, passed men overloading their scooters with ridiculously huge cargo and women cutting up roast duck and suckling pig, businessessmen sitting on tiny, plastic garden furniture sharing unrecognizable plates of delicious snacks washed down with their fifth, six, seventh glass of Bia Hoi.
I truly wanted to bottle up this place, this moment, this experience so that I could take tiny peeks at it on those cold, wet, winter’s evenings in Cape Town. To feel the intense heat of the Vietnamese summer envelope me. To tiptoe over the slick, wet tiles of the pavement. To taste the divine soups. To be consumed by the alien and strange, yet amazing surroundings. To hear myself say once again: “What the heck is that?”
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a bit more claustrophobic, a bit more cramped, a bit more chaotic than anywhere else we had been in Vietnam. The density of businesses, restaurants and hotels is amazing. The sidewalks are clogged with parked motorbikes, leaving little room to walk apart from in the road. There is a magnificent array of sights to see in the city, but I think its biggest attraction is to wonder the maze of streets, stopping when hungry for a snack or a drink and then continuing on. That’s not to say you shouldn’t visit Uncle Ho’s mausoleum (we didn’t as the queues to get in zigzagged up and down several large city blocks in the midday heat) or the botanical gardens, or the many, many museums. They are generally quite interesting, if not bizarre, and the ones indoors offer welcome respite from the midday heat.
Like it’s southern counterpart Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi has an incredible variety of places to eat. We sampled numerous dishes, from grilled pigeon to deep fried, succulent frog’s legs to snail soup. We even tucked into a coconut-basted skewer of chicken feet. But by far our favourite meal was Bun Cha, which consists of pork meatballs and slices of pork grilled over an open flame and served in a sweet, clear broth of sliced daikon and rice noodles. The fried spring rolls we had on the side were unanimously the best we’d had in Vietnam too. The place we ate it in was arguably one of the most filthy. The once white tiled floor was covered in used up tissues and beer cans. The alley alongside the restaurant was used as the kitchen. But it was packed to the hilt with hungry diners, 2 hours after lunch time.
Later that evening we spotted a spit-roasted dog on the side of the road, served as a beer snack. It was a sight that left me in a weird mood, deep down it felt shocking but logically it is no different to eating a pig or a cow or a rabbit. I guess some things would take a bit more to get used to.
Cruising the back alleys of Hanoi, there are even the remnants of a B-52 bomber that crashed into a tiny lake. It’s been left intact since the Vietnam/American war. A gruesome reminder that this now thriving metropolis was under siege from one of the most intense air bombardments in history. In a twisted sense of capitalistic fate, small cafés have popped up alongside the lake to entice tourists in.
Hanoi couldn’t be more different than Saigon. Where Saigon sported glinting malls loaded with French and Italian designer boutiques along wide open boulevards, Hanoi’s densely populated alleys and one way streets felt a lot more chaotic and a lot less westernized. The people speak less English and on just about every street corner there is a reminder of the American/Vietnam conflict. There is even a gigantic statue of Lenin. Somebody still held in rather high esteem by the Vietnamese government and a sight you wouldn’t see in many other places in the world.
While Ho Chi Minh City has a generous sprinkling of coffee shops, Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a beer snack mecca. Libby and I ended up one evening, drinking Bia Hoi (fresh beer) on the street sharing a table with a Nigerian soccer player and his Ghanaian manager, eating unidentifiable fried snacks and talking about the state of the Vietnamese soccer scene and Nigerian cuisine. I wish I had a photo of my astonishment when the Ghanaian started teasing the waitress in fluent Vietnamese. He had been there for only 3 years.
On our last evening, we went all out. After the inevitable evening downpour we cruised the streets until we found an enormous outdoor restaurant. Covered only by an awning from the nearby building. It was absolutely packed to the hilt. The kitchen consisted of 6 giant wok burners and the chefs – who seemed barely 16 years old – were churning out plateful-after-plateful of glistening, fragrant food. We managed to secure a spot in the middle of the crowd of locals and promptly ordered their speciality – pigeon, a plate of prawns and a bowl of deep-fried frogs legs. At the table next to us sat an amazed South African chef and his girlfriend. We must have seemed rather experienced, our battle hardened stomachs ready after the smelly markets in Hué, the backwaters of the Mekong Delta, the river view restaurants of Hoi An and the buzzing sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh City. For our final meal in this beautiful, upside down country, we couldn’t have chosen better.
Despite its gruesome history and its poverty, Vietnam is an amazing place. There is an energy and drive in its people to work together that’s helped them claw their way out of a very dark place. That being said, it has many issues that it is grappling with, some as a result of history, others as a result of the pace at which it is growing. From a traveller’s perspective, it is fantastic. The scenery is amazing, the food alone is a reason to visit and the people are warm and welcoming. When I had first considered Vietnam as a place to travel in, I was a bit skeptical. The stories of the scam artists and the chaotic roads put me off immediately, but I am glad I finally decided to take a peek. We will definitely be back soon. Not only to see the parts we missed, but also to dip our grinning faces again into those steaming bowls of pho, and down copious amounts of Vietnamese coffee.