The intoxicating chaos of Hanoi

At the end of November we left our relaxing stay in Thailand, made a short stop back in Kuala Lumpur, and excitedly boarded our flight to a brand new place to explore: Vietnam. We spent a wonderful three weeks here and we were truly sad to say goodbye to the country and its wonderful people by the end. It’s impossible to cover everything we got up to in a single blog, so I’m going to kick things off by highlighting some of our first impressions on the country.

Our first taste of Vietnam was the bustling capital: Hanoi (Hà Nội in Vietnamese). Arriving in the center of Hanoi is a moment in my life that I’m positive I will never forget. We were in a taxi on the way to our hostel, weaving through motorbikes, bicycles, rickshaws, pedestrians, cars, wooden carts, and older ladies carrying loads of fruit on bamboo poles balanced on their backs. Neither of us could stop grinning as we stuck our heads out of the window to get a taste of the city’s frenetic scene. It was unbelievable how chaotic it was but how it all flowed so smoothly —the definition of organized chaos. We’d never been anywhere like it and immediately felt that we’d really enjoy exploring the city. And that, we did!

Most of our time in Hanoi consisted of discovering new food, sipping (egg) coffee, and sitting on corners watching daily life go by. We had a great hostel, good recommendations, and a new cuisine to try so we didn’t waste any time and were out exploring the moment we put our bags in our lockers.

We stayed in Hanoi’s old quarter, where everything under the sun seems to be going on, so the moment we stepped outside we were hit in the face with a completely different culture and way of life. The first thing we needed to do was cross the street—a very simple task in most places, but a huge challenge in Hanoi! Our taxi driver gave us advice: Go slow, do not stop, do not run, just go slow, and everything will be fine. We went for it, holding onto each other and cheekily following a local person for guidance/protection. We dodged motorbikes, cars, and cycles who never stop (remember, everyone has to keep moving slowly) and made it across in one piece —huge success! From then on we grew in confidence and were able to cross any road, no matter how busy, by the end of our stay. Our food tour guide actually made us say “sticky rice” so we’d stick together every time we crossed the street. We clung onto this phrase and found ourselves saying sticky rice throughout our time in Vietnam. Learning to cross the road…It was like being a child all over again. Go us!

The city gives off an incredible energy and it’s a wonderful thing to soak up and join in on. One of our favorite things was sitting on one of the city’s many tiny seats (they don’t do “normal” sized seats in Vietnam, which is a hilarious sight if you can picture Alastair’s six-foot-two frame on a toddler’s chair) with a 30 cent (8,000 VND) bia hơi on a corner and watching what ridiculous things people were carrying on their motorbikes. Motorbiking is integral to their culture and it’s how everyone gets around from a very young age. To put it in perspective, the population of Vietnam is 95 million and there are 45 million registered motorbikes.

We have always loved Vietnamese food (based on what we’ve had in the UK), but it all looked very different and we weren’t exactly sure what to order. On one of the first nights we signed up for a guided food tour so we could learn about the food and likely try something we wouldn’t by ourselves. This turned out to be excellent and gave us go-to dishes we could order. We tried all sorts, including a warming crab noodle soup, the famous phở, fried fermented pork, various spring rolls, a sweet green-bean donut (incredible!), bún chả (white noodles, grilled pork, herbs, and a sweet yet savoury dipping sauce/soup), green papaya salad with dried beef jerky, sticky black-rice pudding, and our favorite lunch of bánh mì.

Vietnamese coffee is very strong and aromatic. It smells sweeter than the coffee we’re used to, but even as a regular black coffee drinker I found the scent pretty intoxicating. The coffee shops are generally rugged and simple and are a fun place to experience the culture. Our absolute favorite thing we discovered in Hanoi was the egg coffee. Yes, this sounds disgusting, but please don’t let its name put you off. It was incredible, almost comparable to a Tiramisu, and therefore more like a dessert than a coffee. If you’re ever in Hanoi, check out Cafe Đinh and order one! Another good place for a normal, not egg, coffee (their egg coffee was nothing compared to Cafe Đinh’s) was The Note Coffee. People write on post-its and stick them on the wall, which created a really cool effect.

Chaotic roads, delicious food, and strong coffee were consistent themes that followed us throughout our time in Vietnam and we enjoyed seeing the differences in them as we travelled from place to place. We’ll post more soon on the other areas we visited so you can see what we mean. Overall Hanoi was a perfect start to the trip and it made us very excited for what was to come.

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