How to do nothing in Hanoi

By the time we leave for Canada on April 16, we will have spent a total of 10 days in Hanoi, interrupted by two trips away – one to Halong Bay and one to Sapa. We are halfway through our final week and the best advice we received was from a Travelfish article called, “Do nothing and see the best of Hanoi.”

Of all the places we have visited over the past few months, Hanoi is one of our top contenders for “most favourite.” Parts of the city are 1000 years old. The streets are narrow and chaotic, with alleyways leading to what? Opium dens? Are there even such things as opium dens any more? Hanoi feels slightly seedy and illicit in parts – we may not partake, but it’s fun to know it’s there.

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We have been to a few museums, but we think you’ve had enough of the guided tours. We know we have – we want to stick to the street theatre.

In Hanoi, the action is all in the street. Most people live in small places, so the sidewalks and parks become an extension of their homes. We’re close to Hoan Kiem Lake; a city treasure that is encircled by trees, gardens and benches. If I was so inclined, I would get up at 6:00 am to join the tai chi exercises on the lake, but I’m not, to we have enjoyed our afternoon and evening strolls and people-watching instead.

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It is very common to see people of all ages wearing pyjamas at all hours of the day and night. Women wear loose two-piece outfits, usually in a small floral print. They may call them something else, but they’re jammies.  The older gents can’t be bothered to pretend.

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You don’t often see Asian men with long white hair. Cell phones, on the other hand, are everywhere. The poorest vendor will be texting while waiting for business.

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No need to be stuck away in the kitchen while everyone else is having a good time.

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Also a common sight – a tiny matriarch guarding her turf. This woman was barking out stern instructions to a young man trying to park his scooter. He listened.

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Why not make a joyful noise at 9:30 in the morning? Karaoke rules in Vietnam – we’ve often run across wannabe singers in stores and markets.

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Dogs rule in Vietnam as well. Most of the cats we’ve seen look starved and matted, but some of the dogs live at least as well as their owners. They ride on scooters, they eat yummy leftovers and they get their hair done.

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There is no shyness around private ablutions and personal grooming right on the street. We’ve seen many men peeing, small children squatting down in parks, and our favourite – the public cleaning of  teeth with toothpicks. I think it gives the men something to do – sit on a park bench for hours and pick their teeth, punctuated by spitting on the ground.

Picking lice out of hair is another thing we often see – one woman bent over another woman’s head, carefully picking through with tweezers. It makes sense – quarters are cramped, buildings are old, it is hot and humid, and bugs thrive.

With few exceptions, the Vietnamese people have lovely feet. Their heels are smooth, their toes are uniform and their nails are well-tended.

A travelling pedicurist, complete with a small fan for the customer’s comfort.

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If you were walking down the street, and suddenly realized your hair needed a trim, you’d be in luck. There are plenty of barbershops and hair salons, but you have to admire the resourcefulness of anyone who sets up a chair and mirror on the sidewalk. (And the bravery of their clients.)

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Shopping in Hanoi is mind-blowing. There are day markets, night markets and street vendors. There are gift shops and fake North Face stores by the hundreds. Luxury boutiques showcase tiny perfect dresses in their windows.

Even the vendors tend to specialize. If you want feather dusters, this lady has you covered.

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The Old Quarter in Hanoi has a section called “36 Streets” – a carry-over from the old guild days where specific trades and crafts had designated streets. You can go to the shoe street, the silk street, the basket street, etc. – a very logical shopping process. Or, you can come across a business that mixes it up a bit. This men’s clothing store also sells rice by the pound.
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The war may be over, but you never know when a hankering for camo will strike.  Don’t- mess-around gear, or fun outfits for the whole family – your choice.

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We stumbled upon a mannequin street. At least a dozen stores devoted to the sale of mannequins, which prompted us to wonder about the business plan of setting up such a shop. How many mannequins does one need to sell to pay the rent, and what is the demand?

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It’s not all low-brow fun though. We passed by a very fancy white and gold shopping centre, complete with uniformed doormen, shiny tile floors and  elegant brass trimmings.

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Home to the likes of Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Cartier, this was a look-don’t-touch excursion for us. We’re pretty sure these precious items are not knock-offs. The mall was almost empty, but possibly 8:30 pm on a Monday is not the optimum time to shop for a $2,000 handbag.

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It was a pleasant change to escape the traffic and heat and stroll through air-conditioned luxury for a few minutes, and I did spritz my wrist with j’adore on the way out.

Hanoi is also all about the food and street food is everywhere. A lot of the typical Vietnamese eating happens on tiny plastic stools on the sidewalks.  There is usually just one selection, so you squat down and eat what’s put in front of you. You will also need to change your attitude about hygienic conditions, but it’s best to stick to places that are crowded.

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On the other hand, you want to keep a few standards – what works for a Vietnamese tummy might not work for you.We would not eat anything that came out of this little hole-in-the-wall. It’s probably fine, but I can’t help but wonder where the rats are. Btw, I saw my first city rat last night – running down the lane leading to our hotel. I discovered a talent for high jumping I never knew I possessed.

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Last September, Anthony Bourdain took President Obama out for dinner in Hanoi to one of his favourite no-frills restaurants – Bun Cha Huong Lien. By all accounts, the locals were beside themselves. Obama is a hero to many Vietnamese and the fact that he sat on a plastic chair and slurped soup in a working-class neighbourhood joint was beyond.

Naturally, we made the pilgrimage. This is a place that could best be described as “modest.” See the four items pictured on their sign? That’s the menu. The restaurant was well-known before for their bun cha – the Hanoi speciality of fragrant broth, slivers of tender grilled pork, tiny seasoned pork patties, and noodles, served with a heaping plate of buttery lettuce and fresh herbs. But Barack and Bourdain have made them famous and now they’re packed every night.

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This is not date night – service is brusque, turnover is quick, the tables are sticky and the floor is dirty. Walls are unadorned except for a few photos of Obama.  In less than an hour we had finished our dinner of bun cha, a skewer of grilled meat and a couple of seafood rolls.  The food was outstanding and set us back $10, including two beers.

“I’ll have what Obama had” – no doubt the first time the girls heard that from a tourist.

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Banh Mi is another Vietnamese staple, and there are a number of variations. This one was a baguette served warm and crusty, spread with rich pate, then filled with thinly sliced grilled pork, an egg omelet, cilantro, cucumber, shredded carrots, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and chili sauce. Washed down with icy beer.

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Hanoi  coffee culture is a huge deal – cafes  are on every corner and four to a street. They all have their own atmosphere, but what they have in common is exceptional coffee.

Coffee drips from a metal press into a small cup – it takes about 2 or 3 minutes, but is worth the wait. Vietnamese coffee (ca phe sua da)  is served cold, in a glass filled with ice, a 1/2 inch layer of condensed milk and topped with strong coffee – highly addictive. Neither of us ever take sugar in our coffee – this has changed everything.

Hanoi has a few other coffee specialities – coffee with whipped egg white on top (like drinking creme brûlée), coffee with frozen yogurt on top, and my new favourite – coconut coffee. Coffee with condensed milk and coconut milk mixed into a slushy on top. Oh, you have no idea how delicious that is – coffee and dessert rolled into one.

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I thought I would leave you with something sweet! I will get another quick blog posting out to you in a couple of days. There are so many more images and small stories to tell.

18 thoughts on “How to do nothing in Hanoi

  1. Joan Fisher April 13, 2017 / 3:47 am

    Your comments are hilarious! Love the high jumping one. I wouldn’t do well if I saw one either. (Can’t even write the word). Was the first pic of the Hanoi Hilton? Looked a bit familiar. I was al out nauseous there.

    You will be sorry to see the end coming, but it has been one super trip you had. You have made both of us want to go back.

    Just for kicks, I’ll mention an event u might remember. A few of us went to Touch of Class last night. Not a sit down dinner anymore but more a walk-around and sampling of delicious foods. Doing that with a drink in hand is not so easy especially if you need a fork. Not a fan.

    Enjoy! Keep in touch. Joan

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 13, 2017 / 4:04 am

      I saw a rat by the pool at our hotel in Siem Reap, Cambodia, but I thought I might get through Vietnam without a sighting. Oh well – they are out there by the thousands (millions?), and I have to learn to cope.

      Interesting – the Touch of Class is still going! It is hard to balance drink and food – I’ve never been good at cocktail parties. I tend to hold my drink in an iron grip and sort of lunge at the food, hoping I don’t spill anything. Then my feet hurt, and I just want to sit down and have a good feed and a good gab.

      We are looking forward to getting back to see everyone, but yes, we will miss all this life and heat and food and people immensely.

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  2. Eveline Boysen April 13, 2017 / 5:42 am

    Dear Ginny your photos and comments have managed to make me miss Hanoi, very much!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 13, 2017 / 7:34 am

      Eveline, we’re going on a walking tour of the Old Quarter tomorrow – really looking forward to it. There is something about this city…

      Although we would always need the fresh air and sea breezes of B.C. – we have both been working through raspy throats – the air quality here is pretty awful.

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  3. rohana laing April 13, 2017 / 8:18 am

    Hi from Mexico. What a different world Asia is to Mexico! So interesting, Hanoi, thanks for your photos and stories. Are you getting more ‘politicized’ seeing the extreme differences between rich and poor.?..I expect you are asking questions, especially in Vietnam after the war with the US…I am interested to hear your impressions and conclusions. maybe not in your blog though. Here people are quite open about their political views, so far, but figuring out how to change things for the better is a daunting task to say the least….

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 14, 2017 / 1:57 am

      Hi Rohana – yes the differences between Mexico and Asia are striking – the people, food, art and architecture in particular. Otherwise – the devotion to family, the outdoor life and the importance of religion are what they have in common.

      We make a lot of comparisons between Mexico and SE Asia as we go along – especially about the economic disparities and the corruption that keeps people down.

      This is a big topic – hopefully we will meet up at some point to talk it through.

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  4. Joy April 13, 2017 / 8:59 am

    Just loved Hanoi. Are you doing the tour with the students that want to practice their English? Looking forward to seeing you.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 14, 2017 / 2:01 am

      We loved Hanoi too – it is pretty full-on. We just got back from a tour with the students – it was fun. They all want to be tour guides!

      Looking forward to seeing you soon.

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  5. Laurence April 13, 2017 / 9:15 am

    You are so right, this Vietnamese coffee is deadly addictive which is a good thing in a way because it is so strong you can’t sleep after having one, you might as well have another haha!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 14, 2017 / 2:02 am

      I’m wondering if I will still enjoy this coffee in Canada, or if it is meant to be consumed in Vietnam only! Although I guess a daily dose of condensed milk is something I can live without.

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  6. Elisabeth Charlotte Dieryckx April 13, 2017 / 11:28 am

    The comments of the good food, has made me hungry! How lucky you are to have experienced so many different areas in the Far East. ! Coming back to Canada, but to which area?
    Can we hope to see you both back on Gabriola sometime soon? thank you for all your interesting blogs , photos and comments.
    hugs, Lis Dieryckx

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 14, 2017 / 2:05 am

      Hi Lis – We are back on V.I. for about a week, and then over to Gabe for just 5 days, until May 1, when we will be in Vancouver for 2 weeks, and then gone again until the early fall.

      If I don’t see you in late April, I will most definitely see you in September. So many dear friends to see – we are looking forward to being back very much.

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  7. Linda & Gary April 14, 2017 / 12:12 pm

    Great post again. Love your street shots. Can actually smell, hear the streets from them and your descriptions. Enjoy.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 14, 2017 / 6:14 pm

      Thanks Linda! We have just one more day to smell those smells and get our fill of honking bikes. We’ll miss this.

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  8. Sue Brown April 14, 2017 / 12:52 pm

    Ginny and Steve, I just finished reading How to do nothing in Hanoi and love your description of what you ate….and drank. It was wonderful and about as close as I will ever get to trying authentic cuisine of that area. I watched the Anthony Bourdain show so it was particularly interesting to hear your comments. I am truly enjoying living vicariously through your experiences. Sue B.

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 14, 2017 / 6:19 pm

      Hi Sue – you know how you always think you can make the same food at home that you’ve had while you travel? Then you get home and realize it isn’t going to happen – the ingredients may be available, but the atmosphere is not.

      So we’re enjoying every last morsel today. I’m sure we’ll be back in Vietnam again at some point.
      I tried to access the AB episode from here, but couldn’t so I’ll have a look when I get home.

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  9. Heather Scott April 14, 2017 / 7:55 pm

    What a delight it was to get a “taste” of Hanoi from your text and pics! Thanks for leaving us with a snapshot of coffee (love my coffee!) although these versions are a far cry from my morning java!

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    • leavingourselvesbehind April 15, 2017 / 3:24 am

      We just had our last coffee in Vietnam – all the more special because we can’t have them whenever we want.

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