I’ve spent a total of about five days in Hanoi, using it as a home base between my time in Halong Bay and Sapa. I have to say I love this town! And that’s despite it being so humid and hot that I’m never not sticky with sweat. There’s just something about this place – it makes me happy! The amazing owner (Ahn) at the little hotel (Camellia No. 6) I used as home base also helped; she was both coordinator and friend to me in my time here.
Round 1: I flew to Hanoi from Hue. Since Danny (who I met in Nha Trang) was still in town for one more night, we decided to meet up for a good night out. And it turned out to be an epic night that has not been topped in this town.
We started by checking out the scene by Hoan Kiem Lake, watching the locals play what seems to be a blend of hacky sack and badminton. They invited us to play and when we declined then (of course) tried to sell us drugs. Why is it that I only get this offer when hanging out with guys? We passed, but then were approached by a local who wanted to practice his English. But he didn’t really need practice, his English was perfect. When Danny told him his English was good, he simply said “I know.” Ha! Needing an exit, we opted to get some food, and ended up at a place overlooking the lake that actually had a good view and good food. A nice surprise, really.
After dinner I wanted to check out a bar I’d read about, Mao’s Red Lounge. It was okay, pretty mellow, but with cold beer and decent music it was an acceptable place to chill out. Bars close pretty early in Hanoi – well, midnight – which came pretty quickly between the beers and the lively conversation. We decided to wander and went down the street to Local, where a group of obnoxiously loud tourists (Americans, probably) were thankfully leaving. Unfortunately they were leaving because the bar was also closing. Not to be deterred, we semi-followed the obnoxious drinkers who were obviously going on to somewhere else.
But then we passed a place that looked open and chill, and decided to pop in. The guy at the door gave us the once-over and then waived us in. They pointed us to the back room, and then had us move to a table that was not within the line of sight of the front door. I wasn’t quite sure why, but, hey, no questions asked. So we settled in. The back room was a little more clubby than the front bar anyway, with a great DJ playing some danceable music (a rarity here). We were also the only tourists in the place. Turns out we had happened upon the Funky Buddha, which I’d heard about.
Close to 1:00 the police show, making clear the reason they insisted we sit out of the line of sight of the front door. So, we were asked to pay our bill, but not asked to leave. And the DJ cut the music. The police just hung out, watching the room, for about ten minutes. It felt like we were all just trying to appear like upstanding citizens . . . “just chilling, not causing any ruckus, officers.” Then the police just left. Eventually the music came back on, only quieter, and the place took on the feel of an after party.
We befriended the locals at the table next to ours and ended up doing shots with them and sharing our shisha. One of the guys (Tom) turned out to be the owner, and he sat with us for a while, just shooting the shit. I think he may have just been impressed by the tall, bald white dude, but he was a really nice guy. He gave us a card for his other (what he called “more commercial”) club, Bank, which looked like a credit card and had his cell number on it where the bank account number would appear. He told us to text him if we went the next day, but unfortunately neither of us made it there.
Eventually even that party had to come to a close and we headed out.
The old quarter was all quite in the middle of the night. Well, except for the meat delivery, apparently. We saw a scooter go by carrying freshly slaughtered pigs. At first we thought we imagined it, but then there was another, and another. Madly we tried to get a photo of it, and eventually, with the right camera setting, we got one! And it is one of my proudest photo accomplishments:
Somehow I dragged my hung-over, sleep-deprived self out of bed early the next morning for the city tour I’d so stupidly previously signed up for. But, I met another American, Amy, and we were fast friends. Although I ended up opting out of the tour after lunch in favor of a nap, I met up with Amy that night for the water puppet show and dinner. We also went gallery hunting, but I didn’t see anything I couldn’t live without.
Round 2: Came back to Hanoi after Halong Bay. My number one mission was to get a new camera after dropping mine in the water. So I spent about half a day going to several camera stores and electronics stores trying to find something comparable to the model I had. I bought the thing about four years ago, but somehow it seems like technology hasn’t improved much. I had a hard time finding anything with a high speed shutter setting (that’s how I got the amazing photo of the pigs, above, after all; so now I consider it vital). So, I ended up settling for something that was not as good because that’s all I could find. Sometimes you need to know when to give up!
In these few days I had some great food (BBQ pigeon is quite good), checked out the night market, got a decent hair cut (after doing some research on who can cut white people’s hair in this town), and visited the Fine Arts museum and the Ngoc Son Temple. I also did the street food tour Amy recommended. It was great – tried some stuff I never would have found on my own and they didn’t stuff us so full that I was miserable.
Round 3: My last day in Hanoi before flying out to Hong Kong I came in really early on the night train from Sapa. By now I’d seen most of what I wanted to in Hanoi. But I decide to finish up with a couple of the museums I had been wanting to check out – the Women’s Museum and the Ethnology museum. And the motorbike driver who took me round trip to the Ethnology museum threw in a drive around West Lake, which was fun to see in the evening.
Since I got in at like 5:00 a.m., I wandered down to the lake to see the locals doing there morning walks, bike rides, tai chi, and other calisthenics. Another good thing about being up so early is that I had time for lots of meals throughout my day. I finally had the fish noodle soup (bun ca) in the alley where my hotel is – so good! And hit up some of my old favorites (egg coffee, bun bo, sweetend ice coffee, bun cha, spring rolls).
I also just enjoyed being in Hanoi. The old quarter was historically separated into different areas for each specific type of merchant, and it retains some of this division today. There are still streets dedicated to different types of vendors: separate ones for toys, bedding, silk goods, cell phones, electronics, cameras, grave markers, auto parts, hair accessories . . . you name it! I had fun figuring out which category of street I was wandering down. I also love the street food here! I loved sitting in the little plastic seats on the street, eating my noodles or drinking iced coffee, and watching the world go by. By just sitting still I saw that some vendors deliver – a motorbike would stop by the street food stall with their daily purchase of coriander or cucumbers. What service! These are the little things that make it so special here.
I have really loved my time in SE Asia. Although I felt strangely at home in this part of Asia, I was also often reminded how amazing and different it is. I was seeing something new and fun . . . like this on my last morning in Hanoi:
I spent my last day soaking it in and honestly feeling a bit sentimental about leaving. I have come to love Vietnam. The people are amazing if you approach them with an open heart; a kind smile and patience go a long way when language is a barrier. Also, the end of my time in Vietnam marks the end of my three month SE Asian journey. I came here for a much needed break from reality so I could hopefully gain new perspective and reassess my priorities. And I have done that. I feel more ready to tackle my future than ever before, even though that future remains uncertain (I am currently homeless, after all). But I am starting to feel ready to go home – which is good, since I was afraid I never would. But, well, not quite ready . . . I still have two weeks in Hong Kong and Taiwan to work my way back West!
I fully intend to come back to Vietnam. My heart feels full in this place, and it is with a mixture of sadness and excitement that I am moving on. I wanted to throw a coin in Hoan Kiem Lake to express my intention to return (like at the Trevi fountain in Rome). But since there are no coins in Vietnamese currency, I threw in what I had on me – the extra key to my luggage lock J Here’s to next time!