First and foremost, Hanoi is a beautiful city. I am not particularly fond of it at the moment but I spent most of my week trying to get a driver’s license. If I judged every city I went to based on that criteria, I wouldn’t like anywhere. It’s got a personality, albeit a decidedly more European one than Thailand had. I still prefer it over the sterile design of modern China.
I suspect however, that I would not like Hanoi that much more even in a neutral encounter. As soon as I arrived I was besieged with what felt like the pushiest scams salesmen at the airport. An hour and a half later I was let off at the wrong stop so they could try to sell me on more hotel scams. The saving grace is that sim cards and data in Vietnam is cheap enough ($2 for unlimited internet) that I managed to find my way to my hotel. It is an immediately overwhelming city. There are people and motorbikes everywhere, both constantly trying to get your attention to sell you on something. They beckon, hands down yelling at you, continuing their yelling even as you walk by. On the upside, they’re a good example of how to hail a cab in Southeast Asia, with your arm outstretched and palm facing down.
I thought I learned how to cross the street in Asia in China. No, they’ve taken it to whole other level here. Instead of playing glare chicken like you do in China, here you just walk straight into the road. You either look straight ahead or off into the horizon in the general direction of the cars and walk at a slow steady pace. Then at the end of every intersection, I wonder if I hadn’t shaved in the last day or two because I’m pretty sure a few of those motorbikes grazed hairs on my leg.
I’m convinced residents of Hanoi waste huge parts of their brain daily taking in the sounds of the street. Everyone honks to let you know they are there. Cars are equipped with a particularly long horn that echoes and fades off. “HONK honk honk honk hooonk…” which as far as I can tell means “HERE! I’M STILL HERE! OVER HERE!” What’s terrifying to me is that Hanoi is the smaller, less busy version of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). I suspect I may not like Saigon very much.
Despite all this cacophony I am trying to enjoy the city. I stroll by the residents playing badminton all over the parks. Some even string up nets on gates and light posts. I’m eating lots of popsicles due to the excessive heat. All the popsicle vendors in town glare at me, as if daring me to buy their wares. How can you be unhappy selling delicious happiness? It’s like having sad clowns work all your ice cream joints.
The rest of the food may be the only thing that could make me want to stay in Hanoi longer. I ate a lot of Vietnamese in America and it doesn’t even scratch the surface of what I find here. There are rice noodles here, in ways that I perhaps just do not know how to order back home. The pho is northern style, uncommon in America, less adorned with a huge plate of herbs and more about the hearty flavorful stock. Pho was invented in the north and fancied up in the south. Just about every meal has been fantastic. A balance of refreshing while lighting my mouth on fire. Of complex strong flavors that meld with the rice noodles and vegetables that accompany many meals. Everything is somehow heavy yet fresh at the same time.
I’ve been following this list of 10 best foods in Hanoi, ironically written by someone now living in Los Angeles. I am impressed as I have had nothing but amazing meals following this list. Her Los Angeles recommendations are pretty spot on too so I’ll have to check out her Vietnamese recommendations there one day. She must’ve stayed near where I stayed as many things appear to be on this street. It should be a crime to have so many delicious things in such a small area so that I never have to walk far to find it. I even mapped it out so I could find it on the go: Hanoi Eats. Of note, the ice cream had the wrong address on the original blog but is fixed in the map. Good thing I come back to Hanoi in a week to check on my motorcycle license, it’ll give me an excuse to try even more delicious foods. I’m still looking forward to leaving this bustling city of honking behind for a week in the meantime.