First morning in Vietnam and I’m up way before my alarm. I’m exhausted from my late flight in the night before but my excitement to see a country I’ve been desperate to visit is far greater than my need for sleep.
My hostel is calm and peaceful. I’m one of the first ones up and I enjoy a quiet breakfast and coffee and then I head out just after 7:30 with no idea what awaits me out in Hanoi.
From the moment I step outside, Hanoi has captivated me. It’s frantic, chaotic, mesmerising, and above all it smells so good that it makes me regret eating my breakfast at the hostel.
Hanoi’s Old Quarter is a labyrinth of winding roads and narrow paths and straight away I’m lost. Crossing the road is ordeal in itself with hundreds of scooters beeping and coming towards me in all directions but when I eventually realise they’ll never stop and take a step out, I’m reassured by how they navigate past me quite swiftly. Think I’m getting the hang of this.
Locals and tourists mix here very freely. In fact tourists themselves are hard to spot, and I didn’t notice any until I started looking. Little street cafes are dotted all over the place with people perched on the roadside enjoying stealing hot piles of Pho noodles and other enticing foods. People selling fruit and other snacks walk in front of me, effortless dragging their carts amongst the crazy traffic and all I can think is, ‘wow, they actually wear those hats?!’
First stop on my self guided tour of the city is Hoan Kiem Lake. The waterfront is peaceful and serene here and makes a nice break from the intensity of the chaos.
I can’t help but hunt out a Lonely Planet recommendation: Cafe Pho Co, famous for its Vietnamese egg coffee. I’m walking around in circles to find it until I consult my book again and read that the entrance is hidden and accessed through a silk shop. Sure enough, I find the shop and outside there is a tiny sign with the cafe’s name on. “Coffee?” I ask the shop owner pointing through, she looks at me and just nods.
This takes me to a little alleyway and suddenly I emerge into the quaintest little coffee shop I’ve ever been in. The waitress hands me a menu and I go with the recommendation: caphe trung da for one. I head up the multiple spiral staircases to the top floor which culminates in a spectacular view of the lake. My egg coffee arrives. It’s sweet, with a consistency of a sticky meringue, unlike anything I have ever had before and it’s absolutely delicious.
On the way back to meet a friend for lunch I loop around past the Don Xuan Market. It’s a struggle to stay aware of the traffic as this place is a sensory overload. Narrow alleyways of cheap Vietnamese eats and beer are starting to fill up for lunch. Sellers have their merchandise sprawled out on the streets from flowers to snakes, buckets of live eels and crabs and there’s hardly a tourist in sight.
Back at the hostel, me and my friend ask for a recommendation on where to eat. Reception said I had to go to the little place directly opposite for their bun cha. I hadn’t even noticed the place. It was unassuming, looked a little bit of a dive with plastic tables and limited seating but we followed the advice and headed over. We were hustled in and before I’d even uttered a word, dishes of herbs and noodles were being placed in front of us.
A local girl opposite told us that, bun cha, the only dish on the menu was Hanoi’s speciality. The main dish, a steaming bowl of barbecued pork served in a deep bowl with an oyster sauce broth is the main component. She showed us how we take a couple of bunches of vermicelli noodles from the plate, drop them in, add in a couple of chilli’s and spring rolls, then for the bean spouts and herbs. Voila a perfect bowl of bun cha and I’m only £1.50 out of pocket.
Feeling very full we head off to the famous puppet theatre. A little gem of Hanoi, the traditional water puppet theatre is an hour long story of Vietnamese history told by handmade puppets and with a live orchestra. It’s so quaint that it can’t be missed.
I collapse at the end of the day, exhausted but complete enchanted by Hanoi. My brain hurts from trying to get to grips with the incompressible currency, my eyes hurt from being so alert for so many hours and my legs are killing from walking but I’d be ready to head back out again in a second.
Hanoi feels different. It’s exotic and crazy, it’s fun and intriguing, it’s chaotic yet in places very serene and it’s complete impossible not to fall in love with.
Where to stay: I stayed in Hanoi Centre Hostel which was really good. It’s around £4 a night and is only a few months old. Very central and clean with an amazing free breakfast. I booked all my tours though them and they’ll look after your luggage for you while you’re on trips.
Eating and drinking: Really the best places to eat and grab a local beer are the really unassuming looking places with little tables and chairs on the pavements. These are everywhere, just be adventurous and dive in. If you’re looking for more of a sit down restaraunt away from the hustle and bustle try Quan Bia Minh. It has good views from the balcony and a varied Vietnamese menu at good prices. Cafe pho co is a must for egg coffee and try an iced tea or a Vietnamese condensed milk coffee at Nola cafe, a quirky place and a little sanctuary of calm in the craziness of the city.