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August 1, 2011

Hanoi: it’s different!

I like Hanoi. It is so different from other Southeast Asian capitals!

Going for a walk on a misty morning might just feel like a journey back in time. There are no tall buildings or skyscrapers or metro lines in the city. Strolling down on one of the wider French-style avenues, you catch a glimpse of key military and government buildings left and right. All of them having the red star or the hammer and the sickle, or all three. The buildings are protected by dish-hatted sharp-looking soldiers and you can’t help but wonder if they will shoot you if you snap a photograph. In fact they try to look strict, but the badminton court lines painted on the asphalt in front of their guard posts reveals what they really do when no one is watching. 

Apart from the colonial buildings built during the French rule, the architecture of common buildings has a fascinating resemblance of Dutch architecture in terms of façade width: these guys, just like the Dutch, used to pay taxes according to the width of the façade of the building. No wonder most houses you will see have a distinct brick-shape, the width being the smallest dimension.


Services are also more limited than in other capitals around. In Bangkok for example we got used to be able to find a place to eat all around the clock. In Hanoi old quarter we had a hard time finding anything to eat at 22:30! In fact most places MUST close at midnight, a few stay open later, but they switch off the neon lights outside.

Another distinct feature of the city is it’s traffic. By the time we landed in Vietnam, we have been to a couple of traffic-crazy cities, but none of them came close to Hanoi. Take all the motorbikes from Jakarta, multiply them by three, combine them with all the horn-pushing freaks from Peru and oblige them to sound their horn constantly: that’s when you get something like the traffic in Hanoi. There is flood of motorbikes everywhere. Not just on the roads, but the common thing is to park them on the sidewalk. As a result the pedestrians are forced to walk in the middle of the road, surrounded by the bypassing other motorbikes, cars and pedicabs. Traffic lights are not very common, thus for a pedestrian to get to the other side of the street the required steps are the following:

  1. take a deep breath
  2. watch out for incoming traffic, but start the crossing
  3. don’t slow down, don’t speed up, walk in an even pace
  4. you are on the other side: celebrate:)

People are so attached to their motors that it is not uncommon to see drivers eating or sleeping on them. In the evening it is customary to take the so far outside parked motorbikes inside the houses. Even fancier hotels do that, so don’t get surprised when you get greeted with a couple of vehicles in the hall when you perform a late night return.

Motorbikes can officially carry maximum two people, but everyone knows it is a joke. The empirical limit is 5 people plus a couple of flat-screen TVs and a medium-sized chicken.


Apart from the crazy number of motorbikes, Hanoi also features the worst car drivers I have seen on the trip. Breaking is kind of a last resort when the horns don’t have the desired effect. Passing from the right is OK. Even if there is no paved road on the right. Passing from left with oncoming traffic is also OK, the passing is the important thing!

You will find a large number of cyclos or pedicabs as well. They are vitally the same as the tuktuks in Bangkok, except that they are pedal operated, and tourists sit in the front. The rule is the same here: never take them, or take them once for the feeling but bargain hard before. And above all, don’t wet your pants if the driver decides to take you against oncoming traffic (remember: with you being in the front).

If you like embalmed bodies of great leaders, pay a visit to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Visits are allowed on most mornings but be prepared that you cannot take anything with you, you have to wear proper shoes and long trousers and no way that you can speak, put your hands in your pockets or show any other signs of disrespect in front of the plastic-like corpse of Ho Chi Minh.


The food in Vietnam is generally delicious. Can be spicy at times, but nothing you can’t survive. The most famous dish is the pho bo, which is essentially noodle soup with beef, often served as breakfast. Many locals sit outside on tiny plastic chairs while enjoying their lunch or evening meal, or just a drink. Vietnam has the largest number of these little plastic chairs, and in total they are estimated to reach until the Moon, if they are stacked on top of each other. Talk about Vietnam space program!
Dogs and snakes are also commonly consumed, but you need to go to special places to get them. In fact there are certain cities around Hanoi that are specialized in certain things. In one city you go to eat snake meat, in another you go to have a cheap suit tailored to you, in a third one you go if you want quality silk dresses. Hanoi itself has also streets specialized in certain goods. You will find silk street, gold street, veggie street, shoe street, food street, etc.

Let’s steer finally to the silk dresses. The traditional wear for women is the so called ao dai. It is an eye-catching long sleeved, long-legged silk dress, and it is not uncommon to see girls wearing it. The plain white version also serves as the official school uniform.