Hanoi is one of those cities I felt in love with at first sight!
It’s Asia, it’s Southeast Asia but, at the same time, it has got something that makes this city a unique and different place.
Ancient and modern, chaotic and neat, lively and full of people at any time, day and night.
Life here flows according to the local rhythms, far from the typical Occidental ones.
I saw a Vietnamese doing the same thing at 6am in the morning and at 11pm at night: it does not really matter what kind of activity it is: leisure, nutrition, work and so on.
I loved the streets full of different little shops.
In the Old Quarter, the shops are open until late at night and you can find hot meals, cold beers, souvenirs, handmade items, beautiful old prints, local clothes and fake branded copies at a very accessible price!
I enjoyed walking around, seeking interesting things in the streets, meeting Vietnamese faces.
I found unpretentious: always smiling faces and a warming welcome in their eyes.
In Hanoi people are used to sit on tiny little stools. We would use these very small stools for a kid, but here everyone sits on them.
And it looks like they were comfortable sitting there while having their meal all together, with no worries at all.
Well, actually, when I sat on one of those stools, I not only enjoyed the meal even more, but also saw the world around me under another perspective!
That’s how I understood the habits of people from Hanoi, the special rhythms and details of a population that is in line with the times, but that also keeps a particular slowness and care of the time.
Women in Hanoi are a mystery.
Their age is hard to define. It really is.
They wear modern clothes and their classical Vietnamese straw headgears, cone shaped.
Not only the women wear this hat, but all the people in Hanoi do as it protects from the sun, the rain and the smog.
Even if these hats are quite bulky, they still allow you to catch the Vietnamese’s sights.
Around me there were locals carrying their bikes after having transformed them into itinerant markets with real stalls built on the bikes!
Not only they are patient, but the Vietnamese people are also agile equilibrists: I still cannot understand how they can carry on their shoulders a big balance made of wood and straw, full of food and items they sell. Their gait is normal, made of little steps on tiptoe.
I sat on that stool for a while. I waited before getting up, I slowed down my craving and, all of a sudden, I was synchronized with those rhythms.
I slowed down and took the time to look around me and steal moments and feelings from the surrounding world.
Everybody buys in the street: from the curious tourists to the local inhabitants.
They do some groceries and then cook in the same street, a little bit farther down!
In Hanoi, actually, besides the typical local restaurants, I enjoyed the street food a lot, easy to find in every corner of the city.
People from Hanoi cook everywhere!
It seems like they were cooking for themselves first and then, to earn some money as well!
Vietnam, and Hanoi particularly, excited all of my five senses:
The sight. The most vivid and recurring images of this city, that I still keep in mind, are those ones regarding the itinerant stallers and their faces.
You can only tell two kinds of ages: or they are young, or they are old; no middle way.
Probably it is because the Asian features nobly hide the time that passes by. Or maybe because of their lifestyle and habits. I do not know it yet.
Moving out from the Old Quarter, I found a relatively new city, tidier, with well structured buildings and streets, with green areas enjoyed by the Vietnamese.
The hearing. Sounds, noises, voices, chorus. Hanoi is everything but silent or quiet. The motorbikes speed everywhere and the noise of the traffic jam will be always buzzing in your head.
The touch. I could tell you my beautiful experience when I cooked hand-to-hand with a Vietnamese lady or the tender hug to greet her after the moment we shared cooking together in her kitchen. But I won’t.
When I think about the touch, I recall the movements, the way of touching, working, holding up and also killing the animals by the Vietnamese people in the local market I visited to buy some groceries for the cooking experience. Quick, firm, neat movements while handling the products disposed to be sold. The same movements they use to kill fishes, birds, mammals and whatever can be sold.
A sort of insensitivity that shocked me and that pushed me away from the magical moment I was living, for a while. I discovered another side of this unscrupulous population that does not hesitate about its own interests.
The sense of smell and taste: The strongest smells and most vivid tastes are those I found in the Phò, undoubtedly.
The Phò is a hot soup that you can easily find in the streets since the very first hours in the morning and until late at night. It is served in any way and in any corner of the old area of the town.
Besides the Older Quarter?
I loved Hanoi Old Quarter, but this big city, with its big lakes, offers way more.
In the most famous lake, Hoàn Kiếm Lake, there is a Chinese bridge that takes to a beautiful temple.
This temple not only it is an emblem, but it also keeps the centuries old embalmed turtle and its old legend.
According to the story, the turtle was keeping the sword used to free Vietnam from the persecutions during the Chinese domination. The legend says the sword was left in a river by a glorious Vietnamese warrior.
When you leave the old town centre, the city becomes more modern and less artistic.
It seems to be back in our Western world, full of international brands, hautecouture shops and similar. Nothing special, for me.
The politeness of the locals, the not excessively hot or humid weather, the lively atmosphere, the harmonic chaos, the colours and the style of that Vietnam I have always imagined: I can assure you that Hanoi won’t disappoint you and will make you happy for letting you learn something from it.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR USE
I would suggest you to stay in the same hotel I stayed, in the heart of the old town centre.
Very comfy, with a particular attention to details and a strategic place for day and night.
The staff is simply exceptional and very welcoming: 3B Hotel, 99 Mã Mây
If you want to try one of the best Phò in the city, go straight to New Day, in the Old Quarter. I came back the second night to have another one!
I truly suggest you to avoid the restaurants that look more “western style”.
They normally offer copious barbecue of meat and veggies, which apparently look nice and tasty. You never know where the meat come from.
In Vietnam is absolutely legal to have dog meat, the so called “titchò”, very cheap.
Sometimes the meat is served without specifying the origin.
I still do not know if I tasted it or not when I had the chance to eat one of this abundant barbecues.
I just remember that I left the entire meal in my plate, looking for another Phò.