Hanoi is electrifying, pulsing with manic energy all day and half the night. It’s just what I needed to pull me out of the funk I fell into last week. This city of almost four million people sprawls for miles, with rural villages on the outskirts, varying degrees of dense suburbs as you head towards the centre, at its heart the vibrant Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake districts. And while it’s a modern city in many ways, in 2010 Hanoi will celebrate its 1000th anniversary as a settlement…

It’s a brilliant city for simply walking around, following lanes and streets and shops and smells as much or as little as you like. Which is exactly what I did on my first full day here. The first thing you notice of course is the traffic: it seems like half the population was born with a scooter between their legs. The streets teem with them, zipping in every direction and parked on gutters and curbs everywhere. At first it seems chaotic, but there is a rhythm to how it works, and you need to learn it quickly if you’re going to cross a street. The trick is to walk firmly but not too quickly where you want to go. Don’t wait for a clear gap because there’ll never be one; if you walk at the right speed and pause when necessary the traffic will flow around you. It’s crazy but it works here!

Like the rest of south-east Asia much of daily life takes place on the street. And though tourism is a big industry Hanoi is still largely a town for locals, and throughout the centre you can see people sitting having food, drink or simply a chat or a rest at nearly all hours of the day. Shopping is highly segregrated, so much so that in the old town entire streets can be devoted to a single type of goods (such as silk, or baskets, medicines, etc). It’s not as strictly adhered to as it used to be, but I can attest that the street devoted to carpentry screams with the buzz of a thousand powersaws…

Apart from wandering around and taking some photos, the most interesting moment of the day was my first stab at Hanoi street food. The superb food blog stickyrice mentioned a particular bun cha joint a couple of months ago, I stumbled across his post about it last night and made note of the address just in case I was near it for lunch today. I was, and with some trepidation I ventured towards it. I say towards, not inside, because “it” is simply a couple of low tables with ridiculously small plastic stools (honestly, they’re only about 25 cm high) set up on the sidewalk. A man squats beside an open brazier, fanning the flame with great care as he grills cut meats held in flat wire frames, and a couple of women work behind him serving the dishes and sides, clearing plates and generally making the place run smoothly.

I didn’t know how it worked and don’t have a word of Vietnamese to speak, but the woman in charge pointed me to a toy stool so I sat. The great joy of places like this is that it only served a single dish: no need to worry about choosing from the menu if you’re a newbie like me, and the focus on just one product means they can get very, very good at it. Stickyrice was spot on: the meat was grilled to perfection, and served simply with a light broth and white rice noodles that you added along with chillies and chopped garlic to your bowl as you liked. Not a huge dish but enough to keep you going for a few hours, and it cost just A$1.25. A soft drink to go with cost only 35c. I’m taking the chance to eat some quality western food while it’s available, but I will certainly be trying more street food too over the next few days 🙂

Categories: travel, Vietnam | Leave a comment

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