After a 12 hour flight where I had managed only an hour or two’s sleep, we walked down the stairs from the plane and whoosh; the humidity hit. I knew what to expect. I had done my research. I had tracked the weather in Hanoi for weeks prior to the trip and I thought I knew what 29°C and circa 80% humidity at 8am would feel like. I did not! It was kind of like stepping into a bathroom when the person before you has just had a hot shower, but maybe three times as warm! It was quite overwhelming, but a fitting introduction to the climatic conditions that Esther and I would be battling for the majority of our trip.
After minimal sleep and maximum visa scrutiny and luggage wait time, we walked out of the airport to find the bus which would take us into the heart of the old town. This was not straightforward. My Lonely Planet guide advised that for $3 we could get the Vietnam Airlines minibus to take us to their offices in the old town, which would be perfect as it was only a short walk from our hotel. After much gesticulating with a lovely lady at the information desk who did not speak English I managed to locate the correct bus stop. Although the bus driver did not. We waited over an hour for a bus which was supposed to run every 30 minutes before we gave up to source alternative transport. Along with another 3 tired travellers we sourced a minibus from another bus-stop and paid $5 to drop us at each of our hotels, which was a god-send.
Of course as it was 11am we could not check in yet, so Esther and I dropped our bags, bought a bottle of water and headed out to explore the Hanoi that was on our doorstep. I dread to think how much money I spent on water when I was in Vietnam; I drink litres of the stuff everyday in the UK but I swear I was polishing off a litre every couple of hours it was that hot!
Two minutes from our hotel was the St Joseph Cathedral. It is an impressive neo-gothic building with a little square in front of it. It is open for tourists to attend mass, but sadly it was shut whenever we walked past so we never went inside. It surprised me how prevalent Catholicism was; estimates have between 10 and 20% of the population identify as Catholics. Buddhism is more popular, but folk religions such as Taoism and Confucianism are practiced by most Vietnamese people.
This walk also was our first encounter with the madness that is the Vietnam road system. It is a cacophony of engine hums and horn tooting. Traffic lights are ignored. Mopeds/motorbikes have right of way all the time. As a pedestrian you feel like you are taking your life into your own hands every time you cross the road. You literally have to just step out. You soon learn that the traffic will not stop for anything. Bikes will just go round you, providing that they can see you and you don’t make any sudden movements (like stopping!), but the cars and buses will not stop or manoeuvre around you. It took some getting used to, but soon Esther and I were simply striding out into the traffic to cross one, two or four lanes of traffic like the locals did.
We continued our walk to Hoan Kiem Lake which is south of the old quarter. It is a beautiful body of water surrounded by luscious gardens and topiary. I was exceedingly jealous of the small fields of peace lilies that surrounded the lake; I have not been able to get mine to flower for the past couple of years and now I know why! I need to keep it constantly at 30°C and in intolerable humidity!
In the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake is Thap Rua (Turtle Tower), build in adoration of the golden turtle from a legend which gave the lake it’s name. Legend has it that Emperor Le Loi was sent a magical sword from heaven to defeat the Chinese and push them out of Vietnam after a 1000 year occupation. After the war a giant golden turtle grabbed the sword and took it to the bottom of the lake to return it to the gods, hence inspiring the name of the lake which translated to “Lake of the Restored Sword”.
Walking around the lake gave our first experiences of the local traders plying the rich, white tourists with their wares. Often it was books, fans, bracelets or deep fried dumplings. They were not forceful, but you can guarantee that every street seller you meet will welcome you with a call of “buy something?” or “one dollar”. Politely saying no was fine and Esther and I were too tired to get involved in haggling on the street. We did however partake in an ice-cream purchase from a small shop next to the lake, however as the temperature had risen a good few degrees the ice-cream pretty much melted off the stick immediately, It was a very short reprieve from the stifling humidity, but was very tasty!
At the north end of Hoan Kiem Like is Ngoc Son Temple on a small island and accessed via a beautiful red bridge. This was the first temple that we were to visit in Vietnam, and although it was not the most spectacular it gave us our first view into how intricate and ornate the detailings in the temples can be.
After this short walk, we were exhausted. Still dressed in our flight clothes, both Esther and I needed a break from the heat. So we checked into our hotel, had a shower and enjoyed the air con before heading back out to find food. Stepping out of the hotel room was horrific; we were literally hit with a wall of heat and humidity that was so alien to us! But we powered through; after all we had two more weeks of this to
endure enjoy! We had our first bowl of delicious, fresh Pho, some freshly squeezed juice and another bottle of water, all for less than £2. Crazily cheap and although this is the inflated tourist price it is still dirt cheap to us so I was more than happy to pay and still felt like I was getting the bargain of a lifetime every time I ordered food!
We spoke with a very savvy street vendor who eventually sold Esther a lovely fan. She did well; capitalised on the fact that we were literally pouring with sweat from our inability to cope with the heat and plonked a conical hat on each of our heads and started asking questions about us. She was also very good at guilt-tripping me with stories of her four children when I said I didn’t want a hat or a fan. She must make a good trade as she had excellent English skills!
We wandered around the Old Quarter taking in the bustling atmosphere. It was my favourite part of Hanoi, and one of my favourite parts of Vietnam overall. Streets are names after the trade that they historically were home to and you can still see it in the current day, although maybe slightly more commercialised.There were streets dedicated to clothing, another to toys, another to hardware, another to food. Everywhere was so vibrant and full of life; it was infectious. My favourite street was Pho Ma May which was home to some of the best street restaurants in Vietnam. Sitting on tiny plastic stools, eating a bowl of steaming pho with a side of delicious spring rolls is a little slice of heaven. I almost managed to forget just how hot and sweaty I was!
Memorial house is also on Pho Ma May.It is a restored property which shows what a traditional merchants’ house would look like. It was small and dark, but some of the furniture was beautiful as was the woodwork in the roofing. The stairs were very steep, which is a traditional design to stop bad energy circulating around the house. It was fascinating seeing how people would have lived in Vietnam in years gone by and to see the furnishing and architecture which is so different to what I am accustomed to.
We went back to the hotel to freshen up (AGAIN) then we headed back into the busy streets of the old quarter for food and beers. Our first stop was Gecko bar, which offered 2nd storey, air-conditioned views over the madness below. And 2-for-1 beers (at £1) which also helped our decision. I could have stayed there for a couple of hours, watching the traffic merge seamlessly from and to numerous directions and ladies sit on the street corners selling bread and other quick foodstuffs. Instead we headed off to eat more spring rolls and other melt in your mouth deliciousness all for a couple of quid.
After a few more beers we headed home; it was 9 or 10pm and I was exhausted! The humidity and the lack of sleep the night before had finally caught up with me and I was looking forward to crashing. Unfortunately, that’s when the monsoon rains decided to hit, so we took shelter in another bar which you entered via a staircase out the back of a clothes shop. Rather an odd set-up but they had beer and shelter so it was ok with us! 30 minutes later, our eyes were drooping and we decided to brave the rain to get back to the hotel. The barman was very worried that we may get hit by lightening but we re-assured him that we only had to run for a minute or so and we’d be back to hotel.
We got back, set our alarms for an early start and passed out. After one day it was official: I loved Vietnam.