Hanoi is a traditional Asian city in many respects: surging crowds, chaotic traffic, the decrepit mansion cheek by jowl with the fashionably modern and pristine, uninhibited romance on the streets, an explosion of cafes for the middle class, a plethora of bars for the richer classes, and the inevitable trappings of modernisation: pollution, conspicuous consumption and the all pervasive smart phone.
Nhat Tan Bridge
But there are at least some key differences between say, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or even it's southern sister - Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City - and Hanoi itself. First, like some other cities in India like Calcutta, Hanoi has no specific sense of urgency. Despite the crowds and the traffic, you never get a feeling that people are impelled (or indeed compelled) to move forward at a rate that makes the empty monotony of life obvious and unbearable. Shopkeepers are attentive, taxi drivers are forgiving and restaurants are long-sufferingly patient. There is an ease about the pace of life that makes it both quaint and timeless. You cannot walk on the footpaths on account of the hawkers, but you can sit on them wherever you like without shame or fear of rebuke; It is not easy to hail down a cab here but you can jump into and out of a rickshaw at will.
Taking a break
Secondly, people are friendly without any of the ingratiating sweetness that usually grows like a giant toadstool in every tourist hotspot. The people you meet in restaurants and parks and temples are ordinary people carrying out the ordinary business of their everyday lives. They are unselfconscious and inattentive. When they smile, it is by way of a tentative companionship - strangers who find themselves enjoying the same meal or spectacle - not a precursor to a commercial transaction.
It's easy to be a communist and a buddhist since neither believe in divinity
That's not to say that there are no tourist hotspots: any guidebook will recommend The Hanoi Opera House (with a national ballet that rivals any gymnastics troupe) the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre (not for the impatient or those with a decided taste in music) the Hoa Lo prison (too sanitised for a weak imagination), the Temple of Literature (touristy), the Tran Quoc pagoda (beautiful) the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum (austere but impressive) and the serene walks along Hoan Kiem lake. But none of these are deal breakers. Hanoi might even be enjoyed without a noteworthy visit. Well, maybe not without a visit to Tran Quoc pagoda, or the walks around Hoan Kiem lake and the old French Quarter!
The beautiful Quan Troc pagoda on West Lake
Watching the sunset at Hoan Kiem Lake
Lastly, there's the sense here that people genuinely don't want to give up their past or let progress and trade hold their future choices hostage. There's a pride in language, food and culture that doesn't assert itself by shouting like the class bully; instead it wins you over through understatement and the quiet dignity of a people who understand their identity. In this it is more refreshing than Bangkok and less subdued than Rangoon.
In northern Vietnam the Chinese influence in strong
Hop on Hop off
No place, though, is ever made famous without a famous cuisine. And while the British have (at least) their fish-and-chips and Cornish pasties, the Vietnamese are far more richly endowed. From the ubiquitous Pho to the almost equally popular Bun, from salads to wantons, from beef and pork to a tantalising array of creatures from the sea, there is something here to please every palate, somewhere to meet the size of every pocket. And talking of pockets, the warm and cold liquid stuff retails cheaply here. The concept of taxing the population (indigenous or foreign) for a tipple is alien to Hanoi. Bia Hoi pubs aside (you couldn't ask for cheaper beer), neither a large hotel nor a tiny restaurant would ever think of cheating its customers by overcharging for liquor.
Bun Bo Nam Bo
The restaurant ambience here is startlingly diverse. From the arty interiors of Chim Soo to the hole-in-the-wall snugness of Che Cap Tham Cu, there is food aplenty. Some of my personal favourites included Bun Bo Nam Bo and Koto. The only thing you can ever be sure of is that the local food will be tasty, different and fresh.
Salad at Koto
It's plain to see that all ingredients are fresh
Eventually Hanoi is as much a place as a mindset, a location in the traveller's imagination that asks no more than tolerance, empathy, friendliness and adventure. From its night markets that somehow seem more alive than those that greet you in the day to its interesting street characters and bustling cafes - that serve a delicious brew - Hanoi brings together a myriad of experiences, stimulating the senses in a way that makes a visit to this city thoroughly enjoyable.
Sugarcane at the night market
Open wares, hidden owner
The Red River
The barber and the tea seller
Special Note: All photos on this post were shot with the iPhone 7 Plus. I was most wary of carrying this as my travel camera, but it served me well. I noticed that the Portrait Mode worked well in good light; the tele lens was less contrasty than the wide. I would recommend this as a travel and street camera - not as sharp as a Ricoh, not as versatile as a Fuji - that for its size and convenience, is a great carry everywhere piece of gear.