Hanoi Under the Skin


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Hanoi is a place where filthy abundance and noise follow you everywhere and the action takes place low to the ground. The fluid movement of traffic resembles a drift, like dunes. Time slows, suspended in particulate-filled air. While locals make business and take draws from traditional pipes, the sound waves of motorbike horns and tonal conversations compete for space through which to move

Woman Selling - Hanoi
Hanoi Street Vendor, Vietnam

Some people call this relaxed and insist that Hanoi is laid back. In comparison to what, we’re not sure.

Regardless of the following musings, we recommend a visit to Hanoi. It is truly unique and visually enticing; it will keep you pressing the shutter button on your camera from start to finish.

In the Hanoi guidebook entry that will never be written…

Hanoi Traffic and Pedestrians, Rules and Tips

Stop lights. Totally useless, installed as props for the recent APEC summit. Optional at best. Pedestrian? What’s that? It’s never a good idea to cross the street. But if you must, consider these four simple rules:

  • Green light: think very carefully about how much you value your life
  • Blinking green light: no way
  • Red light: as if
  • Use locals as shields and develop sophisticated lateral-movement scooter dodging techniques

Common motorbike configurations we’ve seen:

  • Woman flipping her clamshell phone for a little chat while gearing up to full speed, 8-abreast through an intersection
  • Family Affair. Husband steering motorbike, 6 month-old baby in lap, wife on back with 3 year-old daughter on lap; large kitchen appliance and shopping bags strapped on the rear.

You are on a one-way street on your motorbike and have an urgent need to go the opposite direction? No problem, just mount the sidewalk and head the other way.

In the Hanoi of Audrey’s dreams, all the horns are suddenly disconnected overnight (visualize The Grinch). Next time Dan is in Hanoi, he’s bringing an air horn and plans to honk it while crossing the street.

Organization vs. Chaos

Streets are labeled in mercantile fashion, as in “silk street” or“iron street”. These names are obsolete now, but businesses offering similar goods do still cluster in one area. Why is there no “mystery meat street,” “cigarette street” or “plastic cleaning supplies street”?

Baskets of Fruits  Hanoi
Baskets of Fruit, Hanoi

When we visited the Temple of Literature, there was a sign explaining Confucianism and the importance of Confucian order and structure in Vietnamese society. We enjoyed contemplating this while motorbikes honked incessantly in the midst of visible chaos outside the Temple walls.

Vietnam, Land of the Oral?

Hanoi impressed us as a remarkably oral kind of place. From the moment we got off the plane, we could hear people coughing and clearing their throats in a kind of audible, collective respiratory distress. On the streets, the spitting starts. Young and old, men and women, are heartily invited to join in.

In one guest house, one of the permanent residents treated us all to a devastatingly dramatic, 30-minute long, morning constitutional performance every day at 5:30AM. As he cleared his throat repeatedly, his flapping uvula dredged up god knows what animal bits didn’t quite get washed down fully the night before. Out of a deep sleep, the sounds tricked me into thinking it was grinding time at the slaughterhouse.

Nothing As it Seems (Bait and Switch)

  • Prices are rarely posted. Anything is negotiable and nothing stops someone from charging you 10x what the last customer negotiated.
  • Room negotiations are exceptionally prone to bait and switch, where rooms magically become available and unavailable for three to four different prices each in the matter of five minutes. Choice strategy: allow them to continue talking as you grab your chin and thoughtfully say “hmm”.
  • Once you book and occupy your room, it will invariably be shown to potential guests when you are not there. Make sure you keep all potentially embarrassing items locked up in your bag when you go out for the day.
  • Taxis are a rip-off here as anywhere in the developing world, if not worse. If drivers can get away with it, they will drive two blocks and charge you $10. Meters are meaningless and often rigged. Some drivers, including those at Vietnam Taxi pretend to know no English, but are fully capable of saying “fxck you” if you complain about getting charged 10x for the same ride we had taken the day before with an honest taxi. Get your hotel to call a legitimate taxi for you – there are honest meters out there.

Amenities

Many guest rooms and restaurant bathrooms come equipped with combs for your use. Consider the less-than-elegantly appointed bathroom at Cha Ca La Vong restaurant, which offers the use of two well-used combs should you feel the need to straighten your locks between bites of turmeric fish.

Vietnam and American Visitors

At the market, an old Vietnamese man watched me as I took pictures of the fresh fish. He asked me something in Vietnamese that I didn’t understand. He points to himself and says “Vietnam” and motions to me “America. Ahhh, America.” and puts his hands up, as if he’s about to dance. I have no idea how to translate his language – verbal or body – and drift off confused. He approaches me later and says “Ah, America” again and enthusiastically shakes my hand and smiles. It seems to me that Vietnamese bear little to no ill will towards Americans when one could argue that they have ample reason to. Another experience in the “metaphor for Vietnamese life” column where “today and tomorrow is enough and the past is the past.”

People on the Street - Hanoi
Hanoi Street Food

Garbage Collection

Throw it on the street, or you run the risk of being scolded. Searching for a trash can at a street fair, my hands full of trash, I was approached by a Hanoian woman who said, looking at my trash “You throw away in the road. Is no problem.”

Garbage collectors visit neighborhoods at various times throughout the day and night. Near St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the garbage collectors rang their cow bell-like pipes at 5PM every day and repeatedly muttered something that sounded vaguely like “bring out your dead…” You could time your watch to it.

Dog Meat Eaters

Hanoi is somewhat famous for its row of dog meat restaurants. As adventurous and curious as we are, we opted not to take a bit of Fido. Apparently, eating dog is considered to bring good fortune and is supposed to make you both strong and good in business. There's no discrimination here either, as one breed makes as good a meal as another.

Language

I acquired about six words of inhibited Vietnamese on our travels due to my language acquisition skills. Thank you, hello, goodbye, soup, chicken, and beef. I figured these would help us maneuver out of tight spots. Problem is this: intonation. The word for chicken is “ga” and , to my ear, virtually indiscernible from the differently accented “ga”, the French-influenced word for railroad station. I understand now why each of my attempts to speak the language yielded fits of laughter – I was ordering railroad station soup and asking directions to the chicken.

Land of Opportunity…To Sell, Sell, Sell

The Vietnamese are some of the most ferocious capitalists on the planet. This behavior from a Communist country strikes me as odd, but it's fun to watch. You know the cartoon where the chicken hawk looks at Foghorn Leghorn and sees a roast chicken? Many Vietnamese similarly seem to visualize tourists – in a similar vein – as wallets with legs. I once tried to connect with a Hanoian by telling her about my Vietnamese friends in Prague. “There are many Vietnam people in Czech Republic,” I said. “Vietnam people think Americans have much money,” she responded. I just couldn’t see the connection.

The motorbike drivers outside of our guest house had 3 distinct sales pitches, applied in different sequences depending on whim.

  • “Woo-ooo” – this was my favorite. First time I heard this, I thought someone was complimenting me on my appearance.
  • “Hello” – in a pitch similar to one you'd use to greet an excited puppy, but deep and almost guttural
  • “motah buyhh” – the Hanoian pronunciation for the English word “motorbike”

Cultural Artifacts

Karaoke is big, as it is everywhere in Southeast Asia. Some odd varieties exist here, including karaoke pop hits being sung by a children’s choir. Imagine Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did it Again” being sung by a group of Vietnamese pre-schoolers.

Sidewalk restaurants are often equipped with tiny stools and tables. By tiny, I mean a clearance of three inches off the ground. For those of us north of six feet, our knees are virtually forced into our eye sockets as we eat. Every time I felt discomfort, I imagined what Shaquille O’Neal’s visit to Hanoi would feel like.

Photo Essay – Hanoi, Vietnam

Video of Hanoi Street Scenes

Hanoi Travel Tips: Transport, Accommodation, Food

  • How to get there: Fly from Bangkok on Air Asia or take the bus/train from Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon.
  • Where to stay: Sunflower Hotel – located right next to St. Joseph’s Cathedral in a nice part of Hanoi’s Old Town. $13/night for a room with an ADSL connection inside the room. Address: 22 Au Trieu Street, Hanoi, Tel: +84 (04) 9288064-65, Email: sunflowertravel@vnn.vn
  • Note: Taxi drivers sometimes will tell you that your hotel is closed or take you to another hotel of a similar name where they have a connection and can get a commission. Be clear on where you are going and make sure you have the right address.
  • What to eat: Read A Taste of Hanoi.
  • What to do: Wander through old town and around Hoan Kiem lake. Visit the Museum of Ethnography and Temple of Literature. Just take in the chaos and energy of the city.
About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

6 thoughts on “Hanoi Under the Skin”

  1. This is a great honest review. I will be in Hanoi next month. I look forward to it with anticipation and excitement, but much trepidation too. Thank You.

    Reply
  2. @Paul: Glad you enjoyed our review of Hanoi. I’m sure you’ll have a great time, but the city can be a bit crazy so better to be prepared. Safe travels and have fun!

    Reply
  3. Daniel, what’s a great article. I agree with you that you can be ripped off by taxi driver but not all the time. If you would love to avoided it, just take a reliable taxi such as Taxi Group or Mai Linh. You will be fine. To go with the correct hotel from the airport, just book transportation services from the hotel where you will be staying in Hanoi. If any trouble, just contact with them. That is the way for you guys to take it easy.

    The other things is how to cross the street. Just close your eyes and say “Oh my Buddha” and keep going. I’m just kidding.

    Here is some tips to cross the street :

    – Keep walking slowly and never step back. All vehicle will get out of your way
    – Please raise your arm as as signal to let drivers know somebody crossing the street
    – Don’t suddenly stop, they won’t expect that.
    – Don’t run, just walk slowly.
    – Find a traffic light to cross the street.

    I hope you guys will be an expert of crossing the street after a few days staying in Hanoi

    Reply
    • Thanks so much for the Hanoi travel and Hanoi taxi recommendations. Really useful.

      A big thanks too for the tips on how to cross the street in Hanoi (and Vietnam in general). Oh my Buddha, indeed 🙂

      Reply
  4. hahahaha, use the locals as shields whilst crossing the roads in Hanoi!! I love that! And it is so true, we generally just piled ourselves in the middle of the crowd 🙂 Although you do get braver every single day that passes! I love Hanoi so much and can’t wait to return!!

    Reply
    • Human shields…it’s a must. Seriously though, crossing those streets is a harrowing exercise, but one that we’re all in together — whether it’s Hanoi or even HCMC.

      Reply

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