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Impressions of Hanoi Vietnam

We spent almost 2 long weeks in the following areas of Hanoi in March 2023.

The Old Quarter
West Lake Tây Hồ 
French Quarter (well almost)

The chaotic Old Quarter 

The Old Quarter is located at the historical core of Hanoi.

The old buildings that define the narrow streets are generally not ageing gracefully. The place is showing its advanced age and there is a is kind of a hodge podge of old and new.

If I had to pick one word to describe the Old quarter it would have to be chaotic.

Unwalkable sidewalks force pedestrians to walk in the narrow streets already jammed with motor scooters that treat pedestrians as human traffic cones.

Crossing the street involved just wading in and letting the traffic diverge around you. The trick is to maintain a constant speed, in a constant direction, otherwise you will get hit.

Eating establishments are set up on the cluttered areas in front of buildings. Short little kindergarten chairs and low rider tables where Bun cha is scarfed down in grand quantities.

The place is dirty, noisy and crowded.

Pollution

Solid waste generation obviously outstrips the capacity of the infrastructure to carry it away. There is a tendency for people to dump garbage in the streets.


Visual pollution

A visual jumble of telephone poles and overhead electrical wires. Aesthetics are hit and miss


Air pollution

The air quality sucks and is generally not great. People in the West often ask “why do Asians were masks?” – come visit Hanoi and you will discover why. There is only so much dirt one’s lungs can process.

Noise pollution

It’s noisy. There is the constant honking of horns, continual, nonstop honking. It is difficult to know if any given horn is for your benefit or just one of the hundreds of others. I guess you just focus on the loudest. It is not really angry honking, more here I am – mind your step.


Spatial pollution (clutter)

The place is cluttered and a jumble of obstacles, Asian sidewalks how do I block thee.  There is nowhere to move, except into traffic.

Impressions

There are the mazes of back ally’s, narrow, crowded and twisted as they are – nowhere is off limits for motorcycles sneaking up on you.

Higher end hotels rub shoulders with back packer hostels.

People hang out smoking tobacco in bamboo bongs while they shoot the shit.

Massage shops, restaurants, tourist information joints, flower shops featuring the most amazing orchids.

The cafes sell yummy Vietnamese egg coffee – definitely worth a try.

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Older ladies in pointy woven hats sling goods via pole and balanced baskets. They hawk seafood, fruit and vegetables along with household goods.

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Then there is Beer Street

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Beer Street is busy and loud full of tourists in varying degrees of bewilderment, jet lag, and soberness.

Touts try to get you into their pub by shoving menus in your face.

Armies of street hawkers selling smokes, vapes, hats, and lighters work the crowd.

Loud music between competing pubs adds to the dissonance.

Beer Street and the surrounding streets are blocked to traffic on weekends and evenings so that more people can be jammed in .

 

Hoàn Kiếm Lake 

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A fresh water lake in the historical center of Hanoi, the lake is scenic and attracts tourist and locals.

In the morning there are exercise classes, ballroom dancing, chi gong practitioners, tai chi players, runners, walkers, watchers, and men fishing.

 

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People everywhere. Where there are available areas to walk it can be a constant game of pedestrian chicken.

Busses of Chinese tourists get dropped off for the single-minded purpose of posing for the camera. Chinese tourism brings lots of revenue but also has a tendency to piss off the locals – especially when unlicensed Chinese guides are illegally employed (or when tourists wear t-shirts emblazed with PRC propaganda referencing territorial disputes in South China Sea).

 

Dodgy Duc


Some people in Hanoi are not exactly honest. Some hotels steal the names of other successful establishments. Brand X Hotel and Spa, an establishment that has no spa, advertises it is in one area of town when they are actually in another. Photos of the hotel across the street are used in their advertising, that sort of stuff. I am convinced that half of the reviews on the booking platforms are fake. It is the wild East of deceit.

On the other hand, you can be the recipient of some of the most attentive, go out of their way customer service found anywhere. An almost embarrassing level of customer service in some cases. All depends on how much money you are spending – money talks here.


The French Quarter

This section of Hanoi has wider boulevards making this part of town a little more walkable.

Along the tree lined boulevards are:

Expensive hoity toity restaurants
5 star hotels
High end shopping opportunities
The Opera House
Churches
Vintage cars on display (parked on the sidewalks of course)

The French left behind a bunch of colonial architecture. Like they say you can’t take it with you. 

The old French-style homes and villas are painted butter-yellow usually with red roofs, green shutters and showcase amazingly intricate iron work.

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West Lake

West Lake is a large freshwater lake northwest to the center of Hanoi, surrounded by gardens, hotels, villas, and upmarket suburbs including the expat enclave of Tay Ho.

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The lake itself is full of trash and tires.

Not as chaotic as the old quarter but there is still no place to hide from manic horn beeping motorcyclists.

A pathway circles the lake for walkers, hawkers, fishers, and cyclists.

The fishers line up at the edge of the lake some of them employing multiple lines. They fill plastic buckets and coolers that wriggle and thrash with live catch.

Narrow lanes and winding alley ways are all over the place, some leading to nowhere, others spit you out somewhere you might actually want to be.

There are excellent places to eat, some hidden gems you have to really search for. Had one the best meals in Vietnam here.

Hazy air


There are some hold out green spaces squeezed between blocks of high-rises used to raise chickens, ducks, grow vegetables and burn garbage.

There are many historical Buddhist sites, pagodas and temples in the area.

Temples are an oasis of calm, incense, idols, and stunning bonsai trees – God only knows how old they are.

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To sum it up

On the whole I felt like I spent waaay too much time in Hanoi.

Vietnam is a place that you either love or hate. I guess it depends on how much money you spend to insulate yourself, or to enamor your hosts.

To be honest my relationship with Vietnam got off to a very rough start. The Vietnamese visa process was a complete fricking botch job and ultimately very expensive. Unfortunately the rest my time in Vietnam was colored by this unsavory experience.

I am not really a fan of traffic, pollution, rip offs or lots of noise.

Not sure if I will ever be inclined to go back to Hanoi or Vietnam. Not my favorite city –  or my favorite country. The place just rubs me the wrong way.

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About the author: Michael was born under a wanderin’ star. He is an Engineer who became an explorer, a photography bug, and hack traveller writer with the propensity to be snarky. “Retired” in 2012 at the age of 44, he and his wife Yvonne travel and house sit around the globe on a full time basis. Michael’s goal is to share the process of escaping the rat race, exploring the globe, and some of the experiences along the way.

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