If I had to do one thing for the rest of time, I would walk the streets of Hanoi. There’s magic in those streets, where every sense tingles with a vivid intensity.
The colours, sights, smells and sounds you take in with every step and the thunderstorm of motorbikes and taxis that explodes every day.
And the food, ah the food. Those delicate but powerful flavours of the noodles cooked just that little bit differently in each street restaurant, the little baguettes with a myriad of mysterious fillings or the barbecued pork that smokes as it grills on a street corner in the warm evening air.
Perhaps it’s the feisty characters you meet there, whose tough fronts drift away into heart-meltingly honest, unreserved smiles that light up their faces like a firework show.
You walk and walk and walk and every corner reveals something new for the mind to try to absorb. Nothing is certain, everything is new, and just when you think you know the place it plays another magic trick on you.
Like the night market you come across completely by mistake, teeming with people at half past two in the morning buying and selling nothing but fresh flowers that exhale their perfumed vapours into the warm darkness.
Or the chaos of the Old Quarter with its infinity of cafes, shops and market stalls in a spider’s web of lanes and roads. And then the tranquil shores of Hoan Kiem Lake where old ladies do tai chi in the early morning light and young lovers sit hand in hand in the golden evening glow.
The street you find where every shop sells the same thing: toys, sweets, babies clothes, herbs, meat, steel rods and everything in between.
Another turn takes you onto a different road of only metalware shops. Their tireless workers sit outside industriously tapping, buzzing and banging away at sheets of aluminium on its way to being pans, or kettles, or kitchen units.
Then you find you find yourself on another strip half a mile long of little furniture shops, where the air is rich with the smell of glue, varnish and freshly-sawn wood.
Or you can sit in some café with a sweet iced coffee and let Hanoi flow past you. And watch the bikes and cars and people buzz by, the ladies in those pointed wicker hats straining under the weight of the baskets they carry like scales, and the scooter drivers that weave and zip and criss-cross each others’ paths like super-charged particles.
The food markets are smelly, brutal places where fish spend their last few hours kept alive in tanks or bowls just large enough for them to open their gills, butchered pigs, cattle and dogs lie in pieces waiting to be cooked and duck eggs are kept under a cloth in case the fetus inside cracks open the shell and crawls away before it can be sold as a snack.
It’s just so different, so distinct so unique from anywhere I’ve been before. Anything but easy and sometimes downright infuriating, there’s a totally ingenuous charm about Hanoi that sunk its teeth into me the second I arrived and makes me feel free every time I visit.
It’s so ultimately Asian yet there’s a strange echo of its days as a French colony, when it was known as the ‘Paris of the East’.
And sometimes when you find yourself on a mellow summer’s evening in some little square or a quirky café it can feel just a little bit Parisian, infused with that Vietnamese zing you can’t quite define.
The real charm lies outside of the tourist spots, where the people live their lives indifferent to foreigners. The heat and cramped conditions mean the pavements are an extension of their homes and everywhere you look you see life being lived unselfconsciously.
A man gets a trim and a baby gets a bath, the girls try on shoes and the ladies sit and natter. They eat, they sleep, they play and laze together on those streets and somehow it’s all so everyday but extraordinary at the same time.
Hanoi teaches you to let go. Let go of your preconceptions however well-traveled you are, let go of yourself and give in to the power that courses around it.
If you do, you’ll be mesmerised by its energy, its intensity, its gut-wrenching pace. And the people, who are full of grit and fire yet have a softness, a magnetism, a feisty sense of humour, a vivacity that stays with you long after you leave them behind.
It’s a one-off, an underdog, an organised chaos. That hectic, electric, magnetic Hanoi.
Three things to do in Hanoi:
1. Wander around Ho Tay (West Lake), in the North of the City. It’s a large, ancient lake teeming with life. Lots of cafes, restaurants and quirky little streets, you can spend a very happy few hours walking around the whole thing and watch the fisherman in the evening light. The views are stunning and it’s a really nice chillout away from the main tourist area.
2. Take a Vietnamese cooking class. It’s wonderfully simple to make and absolutely delicious. There are plenty of places, perhaps the best one is the Hanoi Cooking Centre, and they will also take you to Chau Long food market which is an experience in itself. You’ll be nicely surprised what you can do!
3. Hire a bicycle and just ride and ride. The streets are chaotic but pretty safe and you will be blown away over and over again at what you ride past. Totally unforgettable.
This is my submission for the ‘3 Things in the City’ I Love contest by Velvet Escape, Traveldudes and Wimdu.co.uk