Hanoi on the weekend. The road around Hoàn Kiếm Lake is closed. It’s the rare respite from the city’s rumbling hordes of motorbikes. By definition, a respite is brief. So take a turn just around the corner––and it’s go time.
Walking around this city takes some adjustment. Because you’re not just walking. You’re squeezing between people, shimmying around a parked motorbike, tap dancing on and off what sliver of sidewalk remains for pedestrians, all the while making sure you don’t get flattened by oncoming traffic because you were distracted by the intoxicating smells coming out of the cacophony of restaurants.
It’s like jumping into a pool of cold water. At first, Hanoi is a shock to the system, pulling the air from your lungs. Panic, and you’ll drown. But if you can wade around for a bit, eventually you’ll acclimatize and mellow out. Make it long enough and you can immerse yourself into one of the most dynamic cities there are on this planet.
Not to mention, delicious with steamy, flavourful bowls of pho for breakfast, Obama-approved bun cha, and crunchy banh mis blanketing the city.
One of the first things you need to be able to do to survive in this town––and get to the food––is learn to be one with the motorbikes. Because, they will not stop for you. They will simply bend around you as you slowly shuffle across the street, like a steady stream flowing past driftwood.
Whatever you do, don’t run.
Walking with the motorbikes
Ngọc Bích is a local food guide and Hanoi transplant from northern Vietnam. She met up with me for some papaya salad and to give her tips for sharing the streets with the motorbikes.
“Traffic here is quite complicated,” she said. “Especially the people. They don’t obey the rules.”
That doesn’t sound great. But Ngọc clarified that drivers usually don’t ride so fast. So she suggests that you move confidently and slowly across the street. You can try putting your hand up to let a driver know you’re trying to cross the street. If they beep twice, that means they want to go ahead of you.
“So you just wait for them to go first,” said Ngọc. “And then you can go after that.”
Falling for Hanoi
I have to admit, it took me a bit to warm up to the motorbikes and Hanoi itself. But that’s not because I’m some namby-pamby foreigner. Ngọc struggled with Hanoi at first, too.
“At first I didn’t really like Hanoi because it’s crowded, there’s pollution, and traffic jams are a big problem,” she said. On top of that, Ngọc said she wasn’t used to the Hanoian people or their food.
But after four years, that’s changed. Now, she prefers Hanoian food and her life in the city over the northern Vietnamese province she comes from.
“In Hanoi, it’s busy, but there are more places and restaurants,’ she said. “So you can go out with friends and have more parties.”
Eating in Hanoi
One of the ways Hanoi gets under your skin is, surprise surprise, the food. Ngọc showed us the ropes, starting in the Old Quarter with bánh cuốn––freshly steamed and stuffed rice wrappers.
“It’s one of the most famous dishes from the north,” said Ngọc. “It’s a typical breakfast.”
But that, my friends, was just the beginning. There was bun cha with grilled pork (or egg rolls in my case) and white rice noodles, spicy papaya salad, an eggy banh mi, and the legendary Vietnamese egg coffee.
Ngọc explained that coffee and milk were brought by the French during the colonial period. During a shortage in 1946, Nguyen Van Giang replaced the milk with a whisked egg.
We also chatted about the differences between French and Vietnamese baguettes. Ngọc explained that it’s the rice flour in Vietnamese baguettes that makes them crunchier, though I’ve since learned that this explanation is widely disputed. Either way, Ngọc said she prefers Vietnamese baguettes or the French variety.
So there you have it! Pack up your bags and baguettes, France. Vietnam will take it from here.
Culture and Karma in Hanoi
With its stellar food reputation, it’s easy to forget that Hanoi is just as much of a cultural destination with the Temple of Literature and 1,500-year-old Tran Quac Pagoda just a little over a mile apart with Uncle Ho’s resting place in between where an inordinate amount of signs warn you against chewing gum. You can also bone up on your karmic retribution at the temples.
Did you know telling jokes and scaring others leads to an anxious mind? How about that wholeheartedly supporting ordinary people as if they were talented people brings an average person with limited abilities? And I also say Vietnamese Al Pacino warning against creating computer viruses.
For our next stop in Vietnam, we hop on the train for a two-hour ride south to Ninh Binh where we’ll saddle up on the motorbike for the first time and check out the backdrop of King Kong’s mythical Skull Island.