Choosing a photo to sum up my few days in Hanoi was impossible. It needed to be green to reflect the fresh, leafy ambiance of the place, but it also needed water, a nod to the beautiful lakes that distinguish and elevate Vietnam’s capital city. Just as important, the photo needed colonial French or Chinese architecture and of course, there must, must be a motorbike. In the end, I settled for the image above because it feels like spring and after the enervating heat of Cambodia, I was overjoyed by the temperate weather, 22 to 28 Celsius and brilliantly sunny, with no humidity!
I was tempted to lead with the image above, of the pagoda in front of the 18th century Temple of the Jade Mountain, which sits on an island in Sword Lake. The small lake on the edge of the Old Quarter is enchanting; ringed by a lush promenade, it feels somewhat like New York’s Central Park. Traffic rushes and honks around the perimeter but the temple is a bastion of tranquility.
The photo above was another contender thanks to the Chinese architectural flourishes and the contrast between the calm of those seated and the motion of the bike in the foreground. In Hanoi, as in Vietnam generally, life is lived in the street; pho stands and beer parlours spill over sidewalks, food is bought, sold, cooked and eaten, hair is cut, shoes are cobbled, shirts are mended, keys are cut.
Pho, usually a beef and rice noodle soup, is the national dish of Vietnam, typically eaten for breakfast, but just as often for lunch. I’d actually never eaten pho until my first day in Hanoi when I took a city tour with Paloma Motorbike Tours. My charming driver/guide Linh gave me a fast course in how to season and eat my first delicious bowl. I could taste the MSG for sure but it was an experience I would not have missed.
Paloma was brilliant! My group tour turned into a VIP solo run when no one else signed up that day. We whizzed through the Old Quarter and French Quarter, we stopped for Vietnamese coffee before the Sword Lake temple, and then did a walkabout at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and toured the splendid park surrounding the former home of Vietnam’s greatest revolutionary; Uncle Ho’s face appears on every denomination of the local currency.
To cap off the tour Linh and her supervisor took me for a massive lunch at an indoor/outdoor restaurant overlooking the Red River. The 4.5-hour tour, including snacks and meals, cost $60 USD, not a bargain but good value and loads of fun.
After Paloma I was ready to tackle Hanoi on my own, that is, on my own with GPS and Trip Advisor in my breast pocket. The internet has transformed international travel and thank goodness for that. Hanoi’s crazy quilt streets and labyrinthine alleys would have been impossible to navigate without Google maps showing me the way. I even had a Vietnamese translation app on my phone although I never needed it: “Thank you” was the only phrase I learned.
I loved Hanoi and wish I’d had a couple of more days there. I’m told by someone who knows that it’s viciously humid in the summer and dreary wet all winter but au printemps it was pure delight.