Learning how to cross the road in Hanoi is truly terrifying. Stepping out of the Friends Inn Hostel in Hanoi, Vietnam located in the Old Quarter for the first time was an experience like no other. The minimal footpath was covered in motorbikes and Vietnamese people squatting on tiny chairs eating their pho, noodle soup, dinner.
Taking a few steps forward towards the road, hundreds of motorbikes sped past us, weaving in and out of the cars, with little adherence to the right side of the road they were supposed to be driving on. We looked confused. There were no pedestrian crossings or traffic lights in sight. Unable and unwilling to walk into the traffic, we walked around the block the hostel was located on. It was hectic around the streets and we often had to walk onto the road, as the footpaths were fully blocked. We used the ATM to withdraw 5,000,000 Vietnamese Dong (about $300NZD) and walked into a small restaurant for dinner. The woman come rushing over and asked, “noodle soup?” Assuming it was the only item on the menu, we nodded in acceptance. As the only patrons of the restaurant, the soup was quickly bought over. It had long white noodles, a light chilli broth and brown slithers of mystery meat on top. The noodles were delicious, but I opted to leave the mystery meat behind.
Having achieved our goals for the evening, we were keen to set back to the hotel, never having to cross a road. I suspected we were going to get to know our block very well, with four days to go and an unlikely chance we were going to be able to brave the traffic. However, with a fresh determination we decided before night fall we had to make it across the road or we might never do it. Having been recommended, by our hostel, a small street with cheap beer only a few blocks over we took a deep breath and prepared for our first crossing. We stood at the road side for a full ten minutes, unable to move. Then a little old Vietnamese woman came up beside us and without stopping walked out into the road shuffling along only a few centimeters at a time. Taking this as our chance to get across the road, we walked along in line with her. She didn’t once look up at the traffic that was heading straight for her. Miraculously, the motorbikes and cars weaved around us, a seamless transition to absorb us into the throng. With the woman’s slow walk, we eventually made it to the other side. Only in Vietnam do the little old ladies help you cross the road.
We now understood to cross the road you must walk slowly, allowing the traffic to predict your movements and move around you, walk a little in the direction of the flow, and try to avoid getting close to any larger vehicles. By the time we had done it a few times, the extreme fear relaxed into slightly-less extreme fear. We found the touristy street, sat at Tom’s Bar and sipped on our bottles of Tiger Beer, only $2USD each. We later found that this was one of the more expensive places to buy beer, as beer was easily purchased for 50c-$1USD, but the vibe was great as tourists and locals alike wandered past.
We headed home, the traffic easing later at night, to our private room at the hostel. The room was large, with a private balcony overlooking the street. Not bad for $25USD a night. The bathroom had the shower, toilet, and basin all in the one room. Ben noticed that the floor drain appeared to be three quarters of the way across the bathroom, away from the shower. After the first shower we found the whole bathroom floor flooded. Rather than fixing the issue (although I’m not sure how it would even be possible at that point) the hostel opted to provide thick sandals to wear in the bathroom. I guess that would have worked, except Ben has feet twice the size of a normal Vietnamese person.
The next day we wandered the streets, absorbing the sights and smells. There were plenty of smells and many were not that pleasant. Thousands of stores littered the road face, each road specializing in a different product or knock-off brand. We passed the sports gear street, the bamboo ladder street, the T shirt street, and the shoe street. The meat street was my least favourite, with flies crawling over raw chicken meat. I shuddered to think that this was the same meat we would find in the local restaurants. I was quickly considering going vegetarian for the remainder of the trip. For lunch we ate spring rolls and fried rice from a small authentic-looking restaurant.
Near the centre of the Old Quarter is a small lake with a temple in the middle. We walked around the lake and stopped at the temple. At any religious site in South East Asia you must wear clothing that covers your arms and goes past your knees. Standing in shorts and a singlet, I was not allowed in. We opted to come back the next day in more considerate attire.
Our friends, Sarah and Shaun, met us on our second day and we would be traveling together until Ho Chi Minh city. Now experienced road crossers, we were able to provide the tricks to crossing safely. The four of us opted for dinner at a trendy looking Obama’s Restaurant, with a large portrait of the former president above the entrance. I suspected Obama probably hadn’t eaten there. The food was edible, but images of the street meat haunted my mind.
The next day we ventured further out of town to visit the Temple of Literature, an old temple where students studied under Confucius. Inside the temple were shrines with offerings of chippies and cookies. It was a little strange and a little inauthentic feeling. We visited the Army Museum (after making our most dramatic crossing of a 4-laned busy road. The museum had a number of old war relics, helicopters and planes, plus an artistic sculpture of plane parts that had washed up on the shore. What was unusual about the relics was that they hadn’t been restored or even cleaned, so they felt like they may have only just landed and the driver was coming back at any time.
The final must-do activity we had on our list was the Water Puppet Theater. It’s basically exactly what it sounds. Puppets come out the water and act out various scenes, similar to what you would expect as a nursery rhyme. However, it was all in Vietnamese so impossible to follow what the message was supposed to be. Luckily the atmosphere and music was pleasant enough that the meaning wasn’t necessary. In one scene two dragons came through the water with fireworks in their mouths. The puppetry was extraordinary. At the end the six puppeteers came out and I wondered if they spent most of their day standing in waist-deep water performing for tourists.
For our last meal we went to the heart of the tourist mecca and ordered a hot pot. This is where you get a pot of boiling soup over your own cooker and a plate of raw meat, noodles and vegetables, which you place into the pot and boil for as long as you like. Being on the cautious side, we boiled our meat and vegetables until they barely held any shape. The soup was quite spicy, so I only ate a small portion. Ben found it delicious. That night I was unpleasantly awoken at 1am with a raging stomach ache. It seemed my stomach did not appreciate the spicy food and this was the first of what will probably be many stomach upsets. Whilst I enjoyed our four days exploring the madness of Hanoi, the multitudes of motorbikes, people, and tourists was exhausting. I was more than ready to leave behind Hanoi and move on.
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