When we left Japan, we flew direct from Tokyo to Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city and second largest by population.
Based on overwhelming recommendation from bloggers and travel forums, after our first night at the Sheraton Hanoi (which you can read about here) we moved to a hotel in the Old Quarter. This was a complete consensus in the travel blogosphere. Everyone says ‘stay in the Old Quarter’.
So that’s what we did.
An Onslaught of Smells
Hate may be too strong a word. But distaste may be about right. That’s how I initially felt about the Old Quarter in Hanoi. For certain, I had an intense dislike for this area of the city. It’s dirty and smelly. Choking exhaust fumes mixed with rotting things, over ripe fruit, sewer smell and a frequent pile of dog shit. Throw in some burning incense from the shrines and I couldn’t get a clean breath. Add some 40 degree heat and crazy traffic for good measure.
Wandering about, I often got a whiff of yummy cooking smells but then would often regret inhaling deeply because the next steps were an onslaught of yucky.
Incense is the worst for me. Sweet and cloying. It gives me a headache just thinking about it. And you can’t hold your breath long enough to get through all these smells.
I can’t show a picture of the smells but check out this mess of wires.
Crazy Traffic – Crossing the Street is a Dangerous Endeavour
Walking down the street is an adventure. We literally had to walk down the street full of cars and motorbikes. There are sidewalks. Often nice wide ones. But sidewalks in Vietnam are for motorbike parking and street cooking. Or even for motorbikes to drive on.
So, crazy traffic and cloying choking smells in a sauna. Add in crossing the road.
It’s almost mesmerizing. Sit back and watch the traffic dance. There are no traffic lights (or yield signs or stop signs). These are completely uncontrolled intersections with no rights of way. But somehow it works. Traffic just weaves in and out and around each other. To a newcomer, crossing the street just looks like chaos and a dangerous endeavour. Surely, you’ll be hit by a car or motorbike.
Prior to arriving, we’d read accounts that you just need step out into a small gap in traffic, maintain a steady pace, and carry on. It’s true or else you’ll never get to the other side. Don’t pause for God’s sake. Don’t backtrack. And don’t run. Slow and steady. I found walking in a diagonal with my eyes closed worked fantastically (only a slight exaggeration).
Imagine our surprise when we got to an area with traffic lights! Oh, the joy. There really were some. In the far corners of the Old Quarter, mostly in the Embassy area and some near the Opera House. Though we quickly learned that not even close to everyone stops for the red lights.
Loving the Hanoi Craziness
After a complete three days and two nights of hating it and cursing the stupid fools who wrote compelling words about Hanoi, I found myself walking briskly down the street. I was dancing with traffic as I crossed the road without hesitation, and holding my breath in strategic places. And I was looking forward to the dinner we were heading for. Sweet and salty and spicy. Fresh herbs. I barely heard the horns blaring at nothing.
I was loving it! The chaos, the stink. The yummy smells and the noise. Even the hot evening air.
If you go to Hanoi, I have to recommend that you stay in the Old Quarter. It’s just got to be done. I haven’t experienced anything else like it and it’s a pretty cool vibe. Once you get used to it.
Hannah loved Hanoi right away. She defended her flaws and knocked down every one of my complaints.
Even though I loved it towards the end, Hanoi overwhelms the senses. At least it did mine. Right off the plane you have to deal with touts and taxi scams. Traffic is heavy and there are no seeming rules of the road. Vehicles just nudge their way in. They even drive on the wrong side of the road if it’s convenient. Crossing the street is a skill that likely won’t be useful in any other country.
After three nights in the Old Quarter, I was giddy happy to step back into the quiet solitude of the Sheraton Hanoi. Seriously, I didn’t know I was such a Princess.