Knowing that Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, was smaller than Ho Chi Minh City made me think it would somehow be a little less crazy. I foolishly believed life would move at a slower pace, people wouldn’t incessantly blow their horns, and the old quarter would be full of relaxing cafes and charming French architecture.
Instead, Hanoi has a similar level of craziness and chaos to Saigon. The streets are narrower and shadier, yet the scooter traffic zips by with the same orderly chaos and noise. The old quarter, where we based ourselves, has nearly impossible noise levels. We changed hotels here more than anywhere else, constantly searching for a place to sleep uninterrupted until a reasonable hour. It was a construction site on a nearby building, the scooters, and the traffic. Or it was the Voice of Vietnam, the national radio network, being blared at ear-splitting levels at 7:30 am from a speaker across the street.
Irrational expectations and sleepless nights aside, Hanoi is pretty cool. The old quarter is always bustling and is packed with shops. The further from the main tourist center you get, the fewer tour offices there are, and the more interesting things get. The nearby lake is also really pretty and a relatively calm oasis. It’s a great place to sit, or walk, just about any time of day.
You can visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum in Hanoi. We never made it due to an increasingly strong feeling of tourism fatigue. Rather than hitting the sights all day, we preferred to find a good place to watch life go by and sit around enjoying Vietnamese coffee or some “bia hoy.”
“Bia Hoy” means “fresh beer,” and is just slightly chilled beer that comes out of kegs. It doesn’t have preservatives, so it really is (and must be) fresh. There are places all over the city to sit and drink it for as little as 2,000 dongs (about 12.5 cents) a glass. Most spots consist of an elderly person and a few kegs, some glasses, and lots of red plastic chairs. Several street corners in the old quarter are packed with people in the evenings, chatting and drinking lots of bia hoy. I’d have to say it’s easily my favourite feature of the city.