Hanoi is absolute mayhem. Pure, brilliant mayhem. It’s a noisy and chaotic concoction of scooters, bars, coffee shops and street sellers, with tall thin buildings all crammed together along vast grids of narrow streets. Like an oriental Amsterdam on speed, or maybe what Amsterdam would be like without weed. I’ve fallen in love with many places that we’ve been to thus far, but I haven’t pictured myself actually living in any of them until now.
We’re staying in the Old Quarter, in a delightful Hostel with a beaut private room and a breakfast of banana and chocolate pancakes included (amazing pancakes). We went to a dreamy coffee shop this morning, cafe NOLA. Looking nothing more than a dingy doorway from the outside, we stepped inside to find a labyrinth of winding staircases, mini gardens and balconies; like Alice in Wonderland, surrounded by beautiful paintings and artwork. After coffee, we went to the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, exhibiting women’s current and historical roles in the culture. We then stopped at a tiny sandwich shop in the French Quarter, run by two ladies who make Bahn Mis, which are traditional Hanoi pate sandwiches (we didn’t ask what was in the pate, we’ve learnt it’s best not to). We spent the rest of the day wandering the little streets. We’ve eaten dinner at the same Vietnamese street cafe both evenings so far; a tiny place with tables that spill out further and further into the road as the evening goes on. We then wandered to one of the hundreds of bars, whose tiny plastic tables and chairs fill the pavements and roads and anywhere else the employees can cram them in, to watch the chaotic world go by.
I got my hair highlighted today. I had planned to get it done before we came travelling, but I never got round to it and thought it would be fine. However, I was really starting to hate my 6 inch dull blonde/brown roots, so I Googled hair salons in Hanoi that cater for blonde hair (of which, there are very few), and picked the one with the best reviews. It was, without doubt, the best hairdressing experience I’ve ever had. An absolute genius has designed the hair-washing sinks here so that you’re actually lying flat on your back with your head resting COMFORTABLY on the edge of the sink. I got a full head, neck and shoulder massage, which was divine, and purple shampoo (which my stylist told me off for not using already). This is probably a boring story, but I had a fabulous time (unlike poor Elliot who had to wait for me).
It’s raining today. Persistent, heavy, British-style rain. We’ve been pretty lucky with weather so far; we’ve barely seen any rain so it was definitely due. We went to the Prison Museum yesterday, and treated ourselves to a really nice meal at Garden House in the evening. Our living costs are pretty low here, and we’re still managing to squeeze in a couple of G&T’s most nights, so we decided we deserved a really nice meal; we both had stir fried duck with rice and spring rolls. Hanoi is such an alluring city; the kind that invites its visitors to wander and explore every nook and cranny. The only negative to this city is the constant risk of being struck by one of the 1000’s of scooters that meander the maze of roads, and the feelings of dread and anxiety that stem from putting our lives in the hands of these unpredictable motorists every time we’re required to cross a road (which is a lot).
We’re currently sitting in Note Coffee, a beautiful cafe decorated floor to ceiling with post-it notes written by customers, waiting for the rain to pass. We were semi-prepared for rain today, but it’s still not ideal when the plan was to wander around.
We’re back in Hanoi after a couple of days on Cat Ba Island (separate post incoming). Weekends in Hanoi are extremely lively; a lot of the Old Quarter is completely pedestrianised from Friday to Sunday, in order to allow maximum seating space for the bars. Even the main roads around Hoàn Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword) are closed, seemingly to allow children to play freely in big open spaces that maybe their city flats lack.
Last night (Saturday) we decided to be adventurous and go properly out, to a club. After extensive Googling, we settled on Savage, a bit out of town but apparently good. There are pretty stringent laws about bars and clubs closing at midnight, so we were interested to see if/how clubs got around this… It turns out it’s all pretty shadey. We arrived by taxi, only to find a club that looked completely closed up. We hovered, checking with Google that we were in the right place. After a couple of minutes, the shutters opened, and a Vietnamese man ushered us inside, closing the shutters again behind us. Very ominous. We scuttled down a few steps in the dark, to a big steel door, through which we entered a rather contemporary club. It was like being back in a European club, with a huge, chilled out bar area, and then a dingey, smokey room off to the side playing techno. It was pretty good, would definitely recommend to a friend.
Today has been absolutely glorious. The weather was beautiful, so we had a day jam-packed with things we didn’t get round to doing before we went off to Cat Ba.
We started the morning off with our first ever Egg Coffee; a Vietnamese delicacy! I believe it’s a strong black coffee, topped with this incredible sweet, thick (eggy, I assume), cream. We didn’t really know what to do with it, but other people seemed to be whisking theirs, so we whisked ours too… It combined to a beautifully creamy rich coffee, which tasted how I’d imagine the love child of a coffee bean and a Cadbury Creme Egg would. They do a cinnamon version to, so I’m hoping we go back tomorrow for another. It was pretty delicious.
We went to the Hanoi Museum of Fine Arts, which was super interesting, and then we stopped at a beef noodle salad street cafe for lunch. There are a lot of tiny street cafes like this is Hanoi, which specialise and serve only one or two different dishes. This salad was particularly good, with a peanut and dried onion topping.
We then went to the Military Museum… It was the second museum of the day, and I was quite tired, but Elliot really enjoyed himself so that’s what counts.
Next on our itinerary was to visit the Train Street. This street is not unlike many other tiny streets in Hanoi, with tall, thin buildings containing tiny shops and cafes, except there is a train track running right down the middle of it. The “high speed” train passes through every day at 3:30, so we were keen to catch that. It was really quite terrifying, the train was HUGE and we had to press ourselves against the wall so as not to get squashed; I’m not sure what I was expecting but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be as big nor fast as it was. Nonetheless, it was an thrilling experience.
At this point in the day I was hungry again to we stopped at a French bakery for a pastry. Then we spent the rest of the afternoon around the lake, watching the world go by.
We’re actually a tourist attraction ourselves here. Like a weird, Westerner freak show, people are absolutely fascinated by us. We were interviewed for the second time today. Oh yes. The first time was for a Vietnamese childs school project about “foreigners just like you”, as described by his parents. The second interviewers were a Russian couple, asking English speakers our opinions on the quality of pronunciation and grammar of Vietnamese locals.
Other than interviews, we regularly get people approaching us to take photos with us (or of us), and adults pushing their unwilling children onto us to engage in English conversation to practice the language. Very strange, I think it’s the blue eyes and blonde hair (and Elliot’s beard), that people seem to find interesting. Bizarre… We did briefly think about starting to charge for the photos.
Our last morning in Hanoi, our last Egg Coffee in Cafe Giang. It’s a sad day, I’m gutted to be leaving this beautiful city, but excited to see what Vietnam has to offer further south. We’re getting the night train this evening to Phong Nha, a National Park with huge caves and immense Botanical Gardens. I’m not sure if it’s because we’ve just spent a few days in Sa Pa, where it’s significantly cooler, or if it’s just extra hot here at the moment, but the sun/heat is really getting to me. Hopefully I’ll acclimatise once again very soon. We’re currently sitting by the lake, hiding from the sun.