3Sixty

3Sixty

Hanoi Off The Grid

A seasoned traveller strays from the beaten path in search of the real McCoy.

Words & Photography: Flash Parker 

The concierge unfurled one of those tourist maps with the city’s main attractions rendered in comical proportion – an ancient temple twice the size of the Taj Mahal and a train station larger than Hong Kong and Macau combined! The map made everything seem larger than life, and in a city like Hanoi, everything is.

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Along the tracks exists a whole other world. Make way for the Reunification Expres

     “Hanoi is overwhelming for tourists,” the concierge told my travel buddy and me, circling the big attractions with a red marker pen. “These are the places you want to visit. Everything else, you will want to skip! Also, tourists should take taxis when they can,” she continued, looking into my eyes so earnestly that I had no choice but to believe what she would say next. “Hanoi’s streets can be dangerous, and the people are not always friendly.”

Outside the Red Circle

I’d been to Vietnam before on a trip that saw me rumble from the muddy waters of the Mekong Delta to Ho Chi Minh City, out the other side to the dusty sand dunes of Mui Ne, and northwards to Danang. Now, those memories were being challenged. I’ve always thought of Vietnam’s edginess as a visceral energy, a restlessness of spirit that inhabits 90million souls. 

     If the concierge was to be believed, achieving a real experience, and moving outside the red circle, was going to be difficult. I was determined to show my travel partner the Vietnam I’d already experienced, and wilfully accepted the challenge.

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The whole of Vietnam seems to either own a motorbike or a bicycle. Crossing the road takes both skill and confidence.

     Hanoi, in sharp contrast to bustling modern-day Ho Chi Minh City, emerged from the Vietnam War (known here as the American War) largely intact. The city is sold to visitors as an intoxicating mix of exotic old world grace and new Asian pace, rich in colonial heritage, cultural marvels and time-tested traditions, and bursting at the seams with modern amenities and attractions. Vietnamese nightlife is, was, and always will be the stuff of legend.

     We planned on chipping away at Hanoi’s not-so-friendly reputation until the city presented its true colours. Borrowing the concierge’s red marker, we took to the streets.

“The city is sold to visitors as an intoxicating mix of exotic old world grace and new Asian pace, rich in colonial heritage, cultural marvels and time-tested traditions, and bursting at the seams with modern amenities and attractions.”

Into The Real Hanoi 

Loo

     We meandered down Hang Ga and Hang But, past upmarket boutiques on one side and hawker stalls on the other. Slipping into what looked like a coffee shop, we found 

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Community reigns in Hanoi, and the street is where you’ll get to know the people, but these stools take some getting used to.

     The owner, Ricky, apologised for closing early. “Probably for the best,” Ricky said. “I’ve had a couple of beers, and my hands aren’t very steady.” In lieu of ink, Ricky invited us for a bite at his favourite street cart. Settling into impossibly low plastic stools on a busy corner, we were surrounded by boisterous locals and served piping hot pho (beef noodles). “The next time you have pho,” Ricky said, lifting the bowl to his lips and slurping loudly “you’ll think of this little corner of the world.”

     While agreeing that Hanoi can be overwhelming for first time visitors, Ricky scoffed at the concierge’s description of the city being unwelcoming. “Sit down at acafé outside the Sofitel Legend with a cup ofcivet shit coffee, and wait five minutes. You’ll make more friends than you’ll know what to do with!”

All hard lines and severe edges, there is no denying that the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum makes a bold statement.

Civet Chat

Wanting to investigate the veracity of this claim, we walked to the Sofitel, a neoclassical masterpiece that dates back to 1901. Jazz music drifted from Le Club while the city’s best dressed denizens congregated at Le Beaulieu – known for exquisite French cuisine, an outstanding wine list, and, once upon a time, for hosting politicians, diplomats and war correspondents.

     At La Terrasse, we watched the world pass. Vietnam’s café culture – criminally underrated – is on par with that of France and Spain’s. Of course, sipping a latte in Hanoi’s trendiest digs costs a fraction of what it does in Europe!

Here, while sampling civet poop coffee, known locally as ca phe chon, we met a local couple and joined them for cocktails at Hanoi Rock City – a spectacular multipurpose music garden that hosts homegrown talent like DJ Y Rough on all-night vinyl spin trips, as well as rotating art installations, flea markets and thrash metal dance parties.

     At the independent Manzi Art Space, a beautiful little gallery with its own top notch café, our new friends introduced us to foods we’d never even heard of. Entering back alley galleries we’d never be able find on our own, we lost ourselves in the indie rock scene at Mandrake and ATK. Trying to cling to the pulse of this city is like riding a bamboo basket boat into the bay – good fun, but you never know where you’re going to land next.

Local Insight, Hidden Treasures

Later, weaving through the warrens of the Old Quarter, it became obvious that if we spent too long trying to decide where to go next, someone would make the decision for us. Our map was passed from shopkeeper to taxi driver to student to businessman and back again; the locals each had their own ideas. 

     The concierge’s pen – once a tool used to detach us from Hanoi’s essential experiences – danced   across the map making notes in the margins and pointing out details we simply couldn’t miss.

Hanoi is home to hundreds of micro-brew bia hoi joints – and a pint costs pennies.

    There was Tamarind Café, a quaint vegetarian restaurant, and Hoan Kiem Lake where goateed men in billowy threads practised tai chi and children studied moves across wooden game boards. As the streets became increasingly congested and motorised traffic ground to a halt, we found ourselves among throngs of shoppers at the manic Dong Xuan Market. Women turned frogs inside out for a happy chef and fish danced in big blue bins. Here, I collected a few handshakes as well as ingredients for bún riêu cua (a hearty vermicelli soup made with mashed paddy crabs) and a bespoke suit (impossible to wear in the sweltering heat, but a deal’s a deal!).

Iconic conical hats can be seen everywhere in Vietnam – and make a solid fashion statement.

What Would Confucius Do?

Popping out of the market, we followed the tracks of the Reunification Express, and found a different side of Hanoi operating on the rails – perhaps the only place where motorbikes can’t go! Street vendors operate on the tracks, pulling back against crumbling brick buildings when the train’s whistle sounds in the distance. It was unlike anything we’d ever seen; Hanoi was unlike any place we’d ever been.

      Jumping off the tracks, we headed to the Temple of Literature, home to Vietnam’s first university and earliest recorded Confucian temple. Wandering the five beautiful courtyards, we wondered what Confucius would do next, and decided that the philosopher would ponder the nature of life before the dark and impressive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at Ba Dinh Square, where old Uncle Ho is famously laid to rest against his wishes. I wonder if Confucius saw that coming!

     Hanoi’s many museums offer fascinating exhibits and architecture. The History Museum, built by architect Ernest Hebrard between 1925 and 1932, is a fine example, and the Women’s Museum impresses and edifies. The infamous Hoa Lo Prison, commonly known as the Hanoi Hilton, was largely destroyed in the 1990s; what remains are the gatehouse and a few rooms, which have been converted into a museum. While exhibits drip with anti-colonial and anti-American sentiments, a sense of historical importance resonates throughout.

Paper lanterns hang over diners at an outdoor restaurant, so thick in spots that they block out the sun.

The Journey Continues…

In the evening, we started off having frosty bia hoi at Bia Hoi Viet Ha on Hang Bai, and ended up touring Hanoi’s many excellent mini brewpubs including the Czech-style pilsner pourhouse Goldmalt. At a pub adjacent to the Botanical Gardens, we witnessed no fewer than seven wedding photo shoots, and were asked to participate in three! Everyone, I can assure you, was smiling.

     As the sun began to set, our new friends gave us a lift back; my travel buddy hopped onto the back of a manually -powered cyclo, and I climbed onto a motorbike for a xe om ride – translated literally as motorbike hug.

     Back at our hotel, we unfurled what was left of our tattered map, and realised that we had 101 places left to see. We made a note in the margins: Book another week in Hanoi, and have the concierge make a few copies of our map.

GETTING THERE AirAsia flies to Hanoi from Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. Go to www.airasia.com for details.

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A street vendor on her way to set up shop.

Travel Facts

  • Visitors flock to Hanoi to be fitted for custom suits, shoes, dresses and every other article of clothing you can imagine, and end up paying more in excess luggage charges than they do for these new purchases!
  • Hotel standards are high throughout Vietnam, and rates are cheap compared to neighbouring countries like Thailand and Southern China.
  • Vietnamese street food is of exceptional quality, and is always good value. Try a steaming bowl of pho in Hanoi, freshly baked bread in Sapa and braised mountain goat in Ninh Binh.
  • Vietnam has a fascinating micro brewing culture with more than 100 microbreweries and beer vendors that set out chairs for patrons along the river in Ninh Binh in the evenings. Look for signs that advertise bia hoi.

When To Go

Vietnam can be visited year round, but keep in mind that the country is large enough to see significant seasonal variance from one region to another. Temperatures in the north can dip to 15°C in winter, and skyrocket to 40°C in summer. Extremes are amplified in the mountains and the hill country.

COME HANG OUT IN HANOI!

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  • Jonathan

    Interesting article but you forgot to mention the real microbreweries making czech beer.. there are almost 50 of them here

    • http://www.airasia.com/travel3sixty Travel 3Sixty

      Hi Jonathan! The initial focus was on local beer, but for beer lovers, that’s definitely something cool to know and it makes Hanoi worth visiting just for that. Thanks for dropping by! :)