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“Don’t panic,” I tell myself as I watch what seems to be an endless wall of unyielding scooters rushing down the boulevard. Crossing a road seems to be impossible from a visitors perspective, but is easily manageable once you get used to the insane traffic that has Hanoi’s streets firmly in its grip.

I step into the road tentatively and then slowly make my way across as vehicles swerve around me like currents around a rock. I feel like Moses parting the sea.

I didn’t choose to visit Vietnam for the power surge you get each time you cross a road successfully, but for another particular reason: After a few too many weeks spent in Indonesia, I was quite sick of Southeast Asia and while I was and am determined to stick it out on the continent, I needed a change, a break. Vietnam was as far away from my original plans as I dared stray and about as far north as I was able to go. Hanoi proved to be the perfect mixture of culture shock, chaos, a slight Chinese touch and a fabulous cuisine that made me appreciate travelling in the region again.

Caphe Trung

Scenes in Hanoi

I stay in the middle of the Old Quarter, a maze of 40 or so streets dating back hundreds of years, when artisans clustered around certain roads according to their trades. In the process of getting thoroughly lost whenever I venture out into this labyrinth, I manage to see most of them. Flower Street. Candy Street. Silver Street. A street with cages and baskets, another one with coats and one selling only colourful Chinese lanterns.

Although Hanoi is cold as well as drizzly in February and everything has a slightly dark and grim look to it, the city is alive. Streetfood stalls and small restaurants, where locals crowd around steaming plates on little plastic stools, line the roads. In Vietnam, certain foods are allotted to certain times of the day, or even seasons, and the little open air restaurants usually only offer one dish. Pho for breakfast, Bun Cha for lunch, Hotpots for dinner. There are secret alleyways everywhere, leading to amazing cafés, tucked away where one would only suspect homes and backyards. One of them being the popular Cafe Giang, hidden down a long dark tunnel and up some stairs, where people sit around the wooden miniature tables, crack sunflower seeds and sip on Cà Phê Trung – Vietnamese egg coffee.

Women in cone hats balance heavy loads on baskets strung to poles and men on scooters sell their services as moto-taxis. The pineapple lady has her strategy perfected. She waits on busy street corners, looking innocent enough, but when she spots a target, she acts lightning fast. If someone isn’t paying attention, they will find themselves suddenly wearing her cone hat and having the pole thrown over their shoulders. “You take photo now,” she says while smiling disarmingly. After all that, you kind of have to buy that pineapple from her.

Buildings at the Temple of Literature

Temple of Literature, a man paints calligraphy

Calligraphy

In the center of the buzzing and honking chaos lies a quiet haven of ancient culture. The Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius, is a colourful and otherworldly place of green courtyards, red pillars and buildings filled with swirling incense smoke. Bright red and gold altars are covered in flowers and offerings, in the middle usually a big statue of Confucius, sometimes of a king and once even of a revered rector. A thousand years ago, this was the location of the Imperial Academy, Vietnam’s first university, but nowadays students come here to write little prayers in calligraphy on pieces of paper and to wish for good grades and success in their studies.

I walk through gates with such poetic names as “Great Success”, “Crystallization of Letters” and “Golden Sound”,  along the “Well of Heavenly Clarity” and through the “House of Ceremonies”. Statues of turtles – one of Vietnams four holy creatures – carry steles with the names of those who were successful in the royal exams.

Shrine to Confucius

Inside the Temple of Literature

But the Temple of Literature isn’t the only quiet spot in town. I’m in Hanoi during Valentines Day and as I follow a big bouquet of balloons down a road, I happen upon a serene lake. Hoàn Kiếm is a scenic spot in the middle of the busy city and is a popular hangout spot for the locals. According to a legend, it was here that the Turtle God demanded his magic sword back from emperor Lê Lợi, which he had given him to defeat the Chinese.

In the middle of the lake lie the Turtle Tower (not accessible) and the Temple of the Jade Mountain (accessible by a bridge). The temple is crowded, but luckily, Valentines Day provides me with ample people watching opportunities during my walk around the lake. The day of love seems to have drawn a lot of couples of all ages, families and groups of friends to the lake for a stroll. A young man serenades a girl with a violin, an old couple embraces on a bench and several people have photo shoots on the waterfront. But most people seem to, just like me, simply enjoy the day and each others company.

The lake at night

Valentines Day at the lake

About The Author

Tiffany is a Swiss travel writer, digital nomad, and photographer, who, after a fateful journey through Africa, has decided to get her passport renewed, sell all her junk, and live out of a suitcase in various corners of the world, as well as share the experiences with other travel enthusiasts. This blog is intended to inspire you to pack your bags, leave everything behind for a while, and make you go discover the world. Check her out on .

15 Responses

    • Tiffany

      After having been to Ho Chi Minh I can assure you now that the scooters are less insane in Hanoi. Still scary at times, but definitely not on the Saigon level of absolute craziness 😉 Have a wonderful time in Hanoi, and make sure to eat lots of Bun Cha!

      Reply
  1. Sand In My Suitcase

    Sounds like you got your travel groove back :-). We’ve heard about the crazy traffic – and how it’s often colder in Hanoi than you’d think (to most North Americans, Vietnam = heat). But we’d still love to visit…

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      I did and it feels good 🙂 The cold was actually quite nice after the humid heat of Southeast Asia, but you’re right, most people I have met expected it to be warm. Definitely visit if you’re in the area, it’s a cool city and shouldn’t be missed.

      Reply
  2. Agness

    I also stayed in Hanoi a week or so 2 years ago and had the same experience. I fell in love with Vietnamese cuisine and the busy streets. We were cycling around and the traffic was just terrible! Insane I would say, but we survived that!

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Haha oh you were pretty brave cycling in that traffic, especially since the big vehicles always have the right of way and just force their way through, leaving everyone scrambling for the ditches. But the awesome cuisine definitely makes up for almost dying about 3 times a day 😉

      Reply
  3. ben

    Gonna visit Hanoi by the end of this month 🙂 I heard so many things about this place. Got me curios.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      I’m sure you will love it! Make sure to eat where the locals eat and watch out for the crazy drivers 😀

      Reply
  4. Charlie

    Oh, Vietnamese coffee is sooo good! Did you like the egg white coffee? I really loved Hanoi actually, although the streets were crazy hectic, but I thought the food was great, coffee was great, and the city was full of interesting things.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      I loved the egg coffee and especially the cool little cafés it can be found in. The food’s definitely one of the best parts of Hanoi.

      Reply
  5. Emma

    Fantastic post! I love Vietnam – even if you do take your life in your hands each time you cross the road! Your photos are just incredible, I am now following! Emma 🙂

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      Thanks Emma 🙂 Vietnam is an such a cool place to photgraphc, because there’s just so much to caputre.

      Reply
  6. MightyTravels

    How would you compare Saigon and Hanoi? I found Saigon polluted and very hectic. The food was delicious though and it was more modern that I thought.

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      I found Hanoi to be very chaotic as well, but it is a lot more traditional than Saigon – lots of street food, women in cone hats and everything seems to be happening on the streets. There is a lot more to do and see. Hanoi is a very cool city and I definitely like it way better than Ho Chi Minh.

      Reply
  7. Rebecca

    Ha, I remember the motorbikes! They’re scary at first, but once you cross the road a few times you feel like you’ve conquered the roads! 🙂

    Reply

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