I am writing this from a chair barely inside the doorway of The Cart – a small coffee and sandwich place in a narrow alley not far from St Joseph’s Cathedral. My laptop tells me I have a choice of six different WiFi options courtesy of the surrounding hotels. My coffee, on this occasion, is Italian but during warmer seasons I’d choose the more ubiquitous iced Vietnamese variety.
Lifting my eyes from the keyboard I can see a lady, complete with conical hat and baskets, selling oranges. Their vibrant ripeness is complemented by the green leaves left on for purely aesthetic reasons.
A little further down is a similarly attired and kitted lady selling pineapple. As she crouches she’s skillfully cutting the fresh fruit and depositing it, ready to eat, into plastic bags.
From an adjacent alley, I can see an overspill of small stools. I’m not sure what they serve in the mornings but it’s a winner with breakfasting school-uniformed kids. I know from experience that, come the evening, it’s frequented by a slightly older crowd. This time they’re in mixed sex groups barely into their teens. There’s lots of painfully shy flirting. It’s very cute.
And as I type a flower seller passes by, bright yellow blooms in a wicker basket on the back of her ancient bike.
So where am I going with this?
The point is: This is Hanoi. All of this. Forget your war museums, mausoleums and pagodas. This is it.
I will spell it out for you:
THERE IS NOT ONE SPECIFIC THING WORTH SEEING IN HANOI.
And yet Hanoi itself is unmissable.
Spend your time rushing around to see any of the sites on the above list and you may miss its charms. Worse, you’ll get so stressed by this crazy, congested, polluted, sometimes unforgiving city that you’ll become blinded to this incredible street theatre.
I am lucky enough to live here and, when I chat to backpackers, almost without exception, those of them who love it tell me:
“We decided just to take it easy here.”
It’s the only way.
My own days off here are punctuated by a string of coffee shops and restaurants, with scooter rides in between.
That brings me to the next tip. Every time I read of backpackers complaining of being ripped off by taxi drivers I wonder why they aren’t catching xe oms (motorbike taxis) instead.
I’ve noticed this among the expat crowd. Those who are driven in cars dislike the place. Those who ride on bikes – love it.
You can get pretty much anywhere between Hoan Kiem and Westlake for between 15,000 and 30,000 dong. Heck, you can hire you own xe om driver for under $10 a day.
Another tip: If you’re headed out with a long itinerary of “must sees” then you’ve also got your daypack. Right? In it is a litre of water. Possibly sun cream. Maybe a hat. A book? Almost certainly a Lonely Planet.
The chances are too that if your day is going to be a route march of the sights then you’re dressed to keep cool. Shorts? Vest? Flip flops?
My days are normally spent under a fan in a coffee shop or restaurant. For most of the year I can get away with jeans and a T-shirt. I’d probably dissolve into a ball of sweat if I tried to walk far but as it is I’m usually comfortable.
And when I do venture outside no one bothers me. No cyclo driver ooh oohing. No old ladies trying to sell me hats. No postcard sellers. There’s no kidding anyone I’m Hanoian but they still know I’m not going to buy.
It’s an attitude. It’s long trousers. It’s bothering to have a shave. It’s not having my head in a Lonely Planet.
If any one does approach then a quick “khong” (pronounced “com”, it’s Vietnamese for “no”) is enough to end their interest.
A lot of people will tell you that Hanoi is a walking town. I disagree. It’s a motorbike town and for me there’s no better feeling in the world than buzzing around its tree-lined streets.
Hanoi is no place to have an itinerary. It’s no place to have a list of places to tick off. It’s no place to try and achieve something when you’re fresh off the plane and still trying to battle jetlag.
Don’t chase Hanoi. Find somewhere with a good view. Sooner or later everything you need to see will pass you by.
Don’t walk. Watch.
Strangely, once you kick back, once you relax, once you start smiling, then so do the Vietnamese people you encounter.
This is a wonderful city and I have chosen to make it my home.
And after three years here I am yet to see the War Museum.