Take a walk with me. Past the street sellers hawking their wares. Past quiet temples hidden in tiny spaces in the maze of the Old Quarter. Watch out for the motorbikes weaving their chaotic way through the narrow streets, little changed in the last few decades, save for tourist amenities. Don’t look at the map – you’ll only increase your chance of being run over. Besides, you’ll swiftly get lost again. I swear we’ve been here before. Anyway. There’s the cathedral, a majestic and fume-blackened reminder of colonial days. And there: steaming beneath the embrace of a banyan tree, a street-side stall churns out banh goi, nem cua be and banh ran ngot. The English translations (‘pillow cake’ or ‘fried nem’) on the sign above these snacks don’t elucidate these amazing-smelling mysteries. You just have to order and hope. Welcome to Hanoi.
We arrived from Halong late-afternoon and plunged into the capital’s tumultuous tide of tuktuks, trays of food and touts. We had a Google Map screenshot of where our hostel was and, after almost a month on the road, were quite confident in our navigation of new places. At least for the first half hour. Then again after what we found what we thought was the right street. And again when, after walking in a circle we were sure it was the right street. It was. But no hostel. We swallowed our sweaty pride and asked for help. Our would-be-rescuers stared at our map, at the maps on their own phones, as perplexed as we were that the hostel didn’t seem to exist at all. The sun, and our hopes, had started to set and we were starting to worry about where to go. We tried asking one last person, a guard at a fancy-looking hotel, who didn’t speak such good English. A well-to-do Vietnamese couple from the hotel came over asking if they could help, looked at the name of our hostel, looked at us and at eachother. ‘Your hostel is several kilometres away from here.’ Facepalm. ‘We’re about to go out. We can drive you if you like.’ And they did, in their fancy SUV, brushing off our offer of money and restoring our faith in the people of Vietnam after the madness of Halong Bay. We couldn’t thank them enough (or apologise for getting their leather seats so sweaty) but they just smiled and wished us a good trip. Random acts of kindness, hey. Beautiful people.
The hostel was appalling. The worst in Vietnam and, looking back, of the entire journey. The dorm was filthy, the bathroom was foul, the shower didn’t work, the toilet was broken, the bathroom door didn’t close, let alone lock, there was a hole in my bed…the list goes on (not to mention someone – not me, surprisingly – contracting some sort of disease after having licked a table in the vicinity). Of course, you are free to choose your own destiny but let me give you some advice: don’t stay at The Drift if you are ever in Hanoi. It is $2.50 a night and there is free beer. It is not worth it. Drift some place else, if you catch my drift.
We drifted (I’ll stop now) into the Old Quarter in search of food, after having showered by crouching naked under a cold tap and trying to forget about it by drinking the free beer hoi provided by our establishment. We were tired, hungry and disorientated in the narrow winding streets of old Hanoi. After having done a few laps of what looked like the same streets, we wearily stopped at a stall, barely lit by a streetlight, run by a little old woman ladling out steaming bowls of pho – Vietnamese beef noodle soup. We pulled up little plastic stools as, grinning toothlessly, the lady served up our pho, mixing the noodles with the broth and encouraging us to add the chilli pastes, lime and leaves that she’d placed on a tray next to the soup. We tucked in with gusto, slurping up the broth and clumsily stuffing the noodles in our mouth with plastic chopsticks. It was incredible. We’d had pho many times in Vietnam, but this was the best. It was also where we learnt to eat it properly. The only Western patrons at the stall, we were the subject of much amusement for the local regulars due to our unwieldy way of eating. Chuckling, the elderly gentleman opposite me demonstrated how to eat noodle soup, winding the noodles around the spoon with your chopsticks, then dipping the spoon into the broth so you could eat the two together. After a few attempts, I looked up at him for approval, my mouth full of noodles. Still laughing, he gave me a thumbs up.
We ate lots more street food in Hanoi. Any stall with tempting aromas was basically an excuse to have a meal. We ate banh goi (‘pillow cake’) – like Vietnamese deep-fried cornish pasties – nem cua be (‘sea crab nem’) – similar to spring rolls but flaky, delicate and stubby – banh trang – the amazing salad-like dish we ate in Ben Tre – bun bo nam bo – stir-fried beef with mango and noodles in a tangy sauce – bun cha – barbequed pork with vermicelli noodles – xoi yen – sticky rice topped with fat and other toppings of your choice. Hanoi’s got it all. We also tried ‘egg coffee’, Vietnamese coffee served with whipped egg whites so that the top of the coffee is almost like a coffee-y marshmallow. Ducking under the eaves of a silk shop, we walked down a tiny corridor and up a rickety staircase to a fairy-light-twinkling balcony overlooking a small garden terrace. Here, we had the BEST egg coffee. Super sweet; super strong.
We explored the network of tiny streets of the Old Quarter, each street specialising in a different trade, as we learnt when we were trying to find someone to fix my backpack (a broken backpacked backpacker is a sad business). When we found the right street, I bartered with a guy who said he could fix it. He ended up doing so for 45,000VND (at the time, about £1.50). We went to Ngoc Son Temple ‘the temple of the jade mountain’, in the centre of Hoan Kiem lake where I befriended (it’s Facebook official) a groovy Vietnamese lady. According to legend, a golden turtle carried the magical sword of the emperor into the watery depths of the lake where, presumably, it still lies. A mummified descendent of this divine being stares, cross-eyed, from a glass case within the temple. I can’t decide whether it’s hilarious or terrifying.
We walked around Hoan Kiem lake about a million times during our stay in Hanoi. The first time because we wanted to, a second and third time because we were talking to a Vietnamese student who wanted to practice his English and we didn’t want to be rude, a further time with newly arrived Oscar and numerous other times. The lake was the main thing I used to orientate myself in Hanoi so we kept going back there. Also, it looked beautiful at night, the scarlet bridge arching over to the temple lit up and its reflection glittering in the still, black water.
Oscar and I headed West of the citadel over the railway line, strolling through Lenin’s park, where a huge statue of Lenin looks out toward Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. The monstrous blocks of stone, surrounded by guards stood to attention in pristine white uniform, are in stark contrast to Ho’s wish for a simple burial. We visited Hanoi’s citadel, only discovered recently, rather run-down and filled with seemingly random exhibitions. We wandered deliriously for what seemed like hours through rooms filled with identical-looking bricks. What is the difference between a rectangular and rammed brick? Does anyone know these things? We left half-mad and not sure why we’d entered in the first place.
Hanoi is a city which gleams with golden temples and glasses of beer hoi. Swirling incense mixes with traffic fumes and steam from the food stalls on every corner. Neat rows of foreign embassies stand next to crumbling citadels, eclipsed by new tower blocks. Hanoi is a mix of the old and the new, the revered and the tacky, the sincere and the scams. The beating heart of Vietnam, the ‘river within’, captures the country in a nutshell.