I step off the curb and within seconds Joe grabs me by the waist and yanks me back towards him with a loud ‘watch out!’ I’d remembered to look left, right and left again like the hedgehog taught me, but didn’t spot the moped speeding along the pedestrian path, which left a trail of smoke as it steered back onto the road.
That was my first experience of Hanoi’s unusual traffic system, or lack of. The locals themselves poke fun at it, with vendors flogging ‘red: go, amber: go, green: go’ t-shirts. Within hours of arriving in the city, very sleep deprived, and soaked to the bone, we figured out how to cross the tsunami of bikes, cars and buses…you just keep calm and carry on! The chaos will move around you (at least that’s what we’ve found so far).
Despite the chaos of roaring horns and too many close calls, the Vietnamese people are always calm. Even when beeping (which they do A LOT), their expressions are never angry or frustrated. Lonely Planet describes them as ‘energetic, direct, sharp in commerce and resilient by nature’. This could explain their head on approach to traffic.
I’ve found they are extremely welcoming and accommodating people. The staff at the ‘See You At Lily’s’ hostel provided free breakfast when we arrived before check-in, spent over an hour with us going through our itinerary, and even refunded us the full amount for an excursion to Ninh Binh when Joe became sick with the flu, which was $80!
Iain Stewart is an author who visited Hanoi in 1991, when the country was one of the poorest on Earth. ‘The streets were swept, the cuisine was outstanding, and visitors were welcomed.’ Although the city has grown in wealth and size, nothing he said has really changed in almost three decades. Most areas are plagued with litter, but you’ll still find a humble shopkeeper persistently sweeping his doorstep, nodding at passers-by. The sight of dead rats, cockroaches, and someone peeing in the street would make most people shudder at the thought, but in just two days we saw them all and were happy to stay longer.
Adele’s ‘Hometown Glory’ was on repeat in my head on the first day as we dodged our way through the bustling Old Quarter. It amazed me how close two worlds collide here. Poverty and wealth walk hand in hand, with boutique shops below crumbling colonial architecture. It’s as if the old Hanoi is struggling to let go, or a new lease of life is happy to carry on supporting it.
Every crevice of the city is a food transaction waiting to be sold. Large pots of homemade grub sit on portable stoves with families crowded around on stools chatting. It felt like we were intruding on an intimate moment between loved ones, but it’s as if the world around them didn’t exist. We have our evening meals at the dinner table, they have theirs on the streets of Hanoi. The smell of grub classics like pho bo (beef noodle soup) and bun cha (barbecued pork with rice) helps mask the toxic fumes of the traffic. It would be far less enjoyable to go exploring without all the local delicacies on display!
Would I recommend a visit to Hanoi? Definitely! But remember to go with the flow, metaphorically and literally or you could become a flattened hedgehog.