Hanoi’s old quarter is fun, but don’t stay there unless you are totally up for walking in the road at all times, dodging the buzzing scooters, ciclos and taxis, because the footways of most roads have been totally taken over as parking for those same scooters, as well as shop displays and impromptu cafés. On some streets there really is nowhere to walk but in the roadway – but then most local people, if they’re going more than a couple of hundred metres, don’t walk, they jump on their scooter.
On the other hand, since September 2016 the roads around Hoan Kiem Lake have been closed to traffic at weekends (from 7pm on Friday to midnight on Sunday), with large numbers of pedestrians eager to reclaim the space (there’s free wifi too). On the Saturday morning a group called MyHanoi encourages children (of all ages) to play traditional games (including skipping and tug-of-war as well as specifically Vietnamese ones), and on the Saturday night when we were there the London Symphony Orchestra played the first ever concert by a British orchestra in Vietnam, relayed on three big screens. Of course most Saturday nights are less significant, but there are buskers of all kinds, including Vietnamese theatre and comedy, and the beer stalls lay out ranks of low plastic stools right across ‘bia hoi corner’ (the junction of Luong Ngoc Quyen, Ta Hien and Dinh Liet).
Oddly, only the tourists drink bia hoi, a light beer that has to be drunk more or less the day it’s made as it isn’t pasteurised, while the locals choose pricier bottled beers. Perhaps that’s something to do with the skinny girls in uniform promoting Tiger and Tuborg beers. Bia hoi is a Czech-style pilsner (many Vietnamese worked in Czechoslovakia and East Germany when they were still communist – in fact an estimated 60,000 first- and second-generation Vietnamese still live in the Czech Republic, and Nguyen, the Vietnamese equivalent of Smith or Jones, is the ninth most common surname there). Until recently there was a midnight curfew in Hanoi, but in the bar district (and tourist hotels) this has been relaxed to 2am at weekends. The Vietnamese tend not to stay up late, and personally I don’t see why tourism should force them to change their habits.
Down in Ho Chi Minh City we didn’t notice the bia hoi sellers, but the Hoa Vien Bräuhaus (at 18 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, District 1) is run by Ngo Hong Chuyen who lived in Czechoslovakia from 1983 to 1990 and developed such a love of Pilsner Urquell and other fine Bohemian lagers that he just had to open a microbrewery when he returned home. This lively welcoming brewpub now doubles as the Czech consulate!
The History Museum (8am-noon, 1.30-5pm, closed the first Monday of the month; D40,000) has some excellent displays (although I didn’t learn much beyond what’s in the Contexts section of the Rough Guide), including some lovely sandstone Champa sculptures dating from the 7th to the 13th centuries. It’s now absorbed the Museum of the Revolution, across the road, which is more tedious, although a section has been added on doi moi (the economic liberalisation which began in 1986 – China began the same process in 1978, but doi moi is always presented as a purely Vietnamese breakthrough). There’s also an interesting history display just off the reception lobby of the Metropole Hotel, the city’s classiest and most historic place to stay (now owned by Sofitel), which also puts on a daily tour for guests.
The beautiful Temple of Literature stays open slightly later than it used to (April-Sept 7.30am-6pm, Oct-March 8am-6pm (to 9pm on Saturdays), but now costs D30,000, not D5000 as in our 2009 Rough Guide. Regardless of cost this is the place for students graduating from school or university to be photographed, making for striking photo opportunities for tourists too.
We had an excellent dinner at Koto, immediately east of the Temple of Literature at 59 Van Mieu, a training restaurant run by a children’s charity (KOTO stands for Know One, Teach One; knowoneteachone.com), which has a reasonable vegetarian choice (I loved the braised tofu and aubergine), and they also do roll-your-own wraps. They’ve also opened Koto Kuruhu at 39 Le Duan in Ho Chi Minh City. I was also happy to find a new salad bar (not actually officially open when we were there) called Delisa at 8A Lý Đạo Thành, serving lovely fresh ingredients in an attractive little space, although my portion wasn’t huge for the price.
However vegetarians should really head for Chau Long, on the east side of Truc Bach lake, where Aummee at no.26 is a classy vegetarian restaurant; it has a very detailed menu which gives the English and Vietnamese names for ingredients. Just south at no.44 are the Hanoi Cooking Centre, offering meals, classes and food tours (not specifically vegetarian), and The Bookworm, a book shop and exchange with plenty of English titles (9am-7pm daily).
The traffic in Hanoi seems chaotic but somehow it flows! And it will flow around pedestrians too, as long as you keep moving steadily; just be aware that scooters turn right on red lights and don’t yield priority. There are some dodgy pirate taxis here – stick to Hanoi Taxis Group (0438 535353) and MaiLinh (0438 333333).
I became very aware that, behind the free-market chaos, Vietnam is still a Communist state – firstly the incompetence of the Visa on Arrival system (see my first Vietnam post), but also the presence of LOTS of police and also all the whistle-blowers by the beach in Danang who prevent cyclists from stopping anywhere except the supervised scooter parks. And I mean just stopping to take in the view, not only parking – most annoying. The toilets on our Danang-Hanoi train has been replaced with high-tech new ones that were oversized so that one had to clamber over them to get in and close the door – typical of the nonsense produced by communist central planning, where obeying orders and fulfilling the quota overrides common sense and the public interest – I was very familiar with this in Eastern Europe. Finally, the BBC News websites (.co.uk and .com) were blocked in Vietnam – except, interestingly, airside at Hanoi airport where it came up without a hiccup – presumably they don’t want transit passengers to notice the censorship. Speaking of airports, our quarantine form was never looked at going in or out, and leaving from Hanoi the passport checks were very slow, as a database seemed to freeze. By and large, however, things seem to be going in the right direction. We were flying to Hong Kong, which seems to be going the other way politically, with the Mainland Chinese government trying to limit free speech and opposition.
In Hanoi in particular I felt there were too many tourists (and they all seemed about two inches taller than me, to make it worse), and of course there’s the usual ratio of ugly white guys with local girlfriends. Hanoi really should just be a transit town between the highlands, Halong Bay, and other parts of the country, but a lot of people seem to spend time there enjoying the cheap beer and cigarettes.
I’m very aware that we passed through Vietnam too quickly and didn’t get outside the main cities (apart from what we saw from the trains) – the real Vietnam is still waiting for me somewhere. I could see that Vietnamese culture is as strong as Chinese culture, and very distinct from it and other local cultures. Certainly it’s very different from Laos and Cambodia – in particular they follow a totally different form of Buddhism, so it’s not so important to avoid PDAs (public displays of affection) and displaying bare flesh. I expected to speak more French, but that now seems to have vanished.