My plane from Europe arrived in Ho Chi Minh city, from where I had the next flight to North of Vietnam. After a few hours of transfer, I count Ha Noi as the first city where my Vietnam journey started, leaving exploration of Ho Chi Minh city for the last few days of the whole trip. In Ha Noi I spent 3 days, starting to know more about the culture of Vietnam.
First, you need to acclimatize - high temperature, relatively high humidity, and feel of thick air can be a good surprise for the body, the very first second you step out of the airport - the last zone, that was keeping you well refreshed. Carrying a big backpack, even if it is comfortable, can get very frustrating and tiring. Therefore - first things first. After settling in the hotel room, and having a refreshing shower, exploration can start.
My hotel was outside of the city center, which for some might seem like a dodgy surrounding. Maybe it counts as dodgy, but maybe it doesn't. Nevertheless, I was only happy about this fact - fewer tourists and more authenticity.
Transport in Ha Noi
Of course, staying far from the city center means - either you have to walk far, take public transport or get a scooter-taxi. As it gets dark comparatively early, long walks in darkness, in the city which culture you don’t know, are not the most appealing options. But, if you walk, there are some tricks that you have to learn and understand.
- The most valuable skill is crossing the street. Pedestrian crossing places exist, but actually, they don’t - that might be only a mirage. What you have to do - get to the side of the road and start moving: keep an eye on the traffic (both sides all the time!) and very slowly, persistently move across the road, blending into the flow of the traffic.
- I am not sure if sidewalks are meant for pedestrians, as they are mainly used as parking places for scooters, roads, and driveways for scooters, or partially taken by the local shops and eateries emerging from the ground floors of the buildings. In any case - be careful even on the sidewalks!
Public transport (bus) is a good option, if you know, from where and where you have to get. Some google search might help, because not always the information in the bus-stops is well understandable.
- Some bus stops have live time schedules that indicate the time left till its arrival. In Riga, we are also upgrading to have such tables.
- Getting into the bus, or getting out of the bus, might be another skill to master because they might not stop in the bus-stops. They slow down to the minimum speed and you either have to be able to get in or get off, while it slowly rolls aside the stop.
- Once you are in, you can get a bus ticket. All busses normally have a driver and a ‘ticket person’ - get into the bus, prepare your cash and wait for the ‘ticket person’ to approach you.
- Buses are super cheap. The price of the ticket varies based on the route that the bus circulates - the longer the bus-line, the more expensive is the bus ticket. But it doesn't matter how far you are planning to go on that bus.
Even if the traffic is very dense, it seems moving all the time and even taking car-taxi can be an option. However, if you don’t have to carry a big backpack and you want to move fast through the city - take a scooter-taxi (Grab taxi is one of the options). Getting scooter-taxi has its own quirks too.
- The driver will give you the bowl-type helmet. So your head will be safe.
- They might offer you to place your hand-bag or other bags you have - on the small surface between their legs. I didn’t risk it, so I don’t know how it is. I placed my camera bag between him and me.
- ‘Honda’ (the main brand) scooters are, I would say, Asian-size. Although they might seem fine at the first sight when you get on it... Oh, man... If you don’t find where to put the legs, they will be dragging along the asphalt.
- And then - question what to do with your hands - if the scooter has metal bars on the side of the seat - grab them, otherwise, you will have to hug a Vietnamese guy. Of course - your preferences.
- Rides might get crazy. Constant beeping from all sides, tight spaces and close proximities to other crazy drivers or scooters that carry objects of various sizes and shapes, trains that appear from nowhere in the middle of the traffic, unexpected turns, crossing other drivers’ paths, and sometimes almost going against the flow… But you don’t have any other options than to trust the driver - they know what they are doing. It’s their culture.
- Always negotiate the price of your ride before you get somewhere. Pay afterward, because your pre-payment might get forgotten after those complicated maneuvers on the street. And then - it is very hard to explain with sign language, that your money is already in his pocket because there are very few that speak English. You might as well try to explain things in your own language - the result would be the same.
- Because of the language barrier - have some maps, locations, or addresses prepared - having this information, you can easily point to the driver and get where you need.
From these options, scooter-taxi is my favorite - load of adrenaline and adventure for a cheap price.
Food in Ha Noi
Food in Ha Noi can be found everywhere if you don’t mind eating in small, local eateries, where the chef is a local older lady preparing at least one of her specialties. More developed places might have more options to select from their menus. In the city center, you can, of course, find restaurants with menus and waiters.
One of the first meals I had in Vietnam was quite a surprise. The place had only 4 small tables of which two were already taken and the young people had full tables of really good looking food on small stoves, placed in the middle of each table. No one really spoke English and the menu was only in Vietnamese. A young girl came and, pointing to other tables, tried to explain what was available. Made my choice, by pointing to the most expensive food on the menu. After a moment, the girl brought dinner parts: a small electric cooker, small-sized bowl; a pot with broth, which already contained various ingredients; a bowl of fresh salads and herbs; a few more cups with sliced chili pepper and various hot sauces; and finally, a huge plate of unspecified meat-like food. The girl showed that all the ingredients should be placed in a pot, boiled for a while, and eaten. Following her instructions, I finally got to the eating part. Meat, broth, greens, and veggies - all that was really tasty. At first, the meat looked like little chicken legs with tiny, tiny bones with too many toes. My guess was - frog legs. But further discoveries revealed something else - small chest parts with little ribs and spine; strange, giggly ‘things’ with two round holes, grayish color, firm and chewy texture, were floating in the broth. Yes, there were whole frogs with chest, skin, extremities floating in the pot, not only frog legs. After living 2 years in France, it was Vietnam where I ate frogs for the first time.
Don’t be afraid to try the food in small eateries, that even do not have a name for the place. Most of the time such places look like local family businesses and seem to also be a gathering place for family members and friends.
- Service is always humble and friendly. And it doesn’t matter, that the only language they know is their own and that you don’t speak their language. They will treat you as a friend.
- Most of these small places serve only 1-2 dishes. Therefore, when you decide to eat in one, just sit down - everything will happen.
- Tables and chairs are meant for tiny people and tall, long-legged Europeans with big butts might not find such places as the most comfortable ones. But they are worth trying.
- There are several traditional dishes - try as much as you can. They all are delicious!
- Depending, if your main dish is a soup or salad type, it is usually served with a variety of fresh green leaves in a separate bowl, broth, chopped chilies, spicy sauces, etc.
On the streets you can buy different snacks and fruits from locals, who are selling their goods from push-cart food-stands, food-stands mounted on their bikes, or bamboo shoulder poles with two baskets.
- The bamboo shoulder poles with two baskets are a very iconic image and a symbol of cultural identity. But, first of all, it’s a practical tool that has been used in generations, allowing women to carry 20-30kg of loads to markets.
- Definitely try different pastry-type treats and cookies with unknown ingredients, shrimps, or baked-in crabs with edible shells.
Vietnamese sweet dishes are another thing to try on the streets. Variety is so big that I didn’t manage to taste it all during my trip.
- Chè is in general any traditional Vietnamese sweet beverage, dessert soup, or pudding. It can be made from a wide variety of ingredients - fruits, vegetables, beans, seeds, jelly, coconut cream or milk, sticky rice, and tapioca powder. In the food-stands where you can get such dessert, ‘squishy and sticky beads’ may not always seem attractive, but I loved this unforgettable kind of sweet treat.
- Being in Ha Noi, you definitely must try the Vietnamese ice-cream from “Kem Tràng Tiền”, which has been the most popular ice-cream place since 1958, with flavors such as chocolate, young rice, coconut milk, and green bean. And this ice-cream melts immediately - just right on the street at the entrance of the shop.
Getting a fresh and refreshing drink on the streets is the best thing! And I am not talking about sparkling water or other popular carbonated, sugary drinks from the refrigerator. It’s about nature and its natural sugars. There is always some aspect of danger to these drinks, such as - wasps or angry animals - but it’s worth it!
- When you find a young lady or a scruffy guy with a machete on a muddy street near a pile of coconuts, take at least one. They will professionally chop off the green flesh of the coconut, put a straw in the little, just cut-off hole, and the best drink - coconut water - can be savored.
- If you see a lot of bees swarming around the food-cart, that has long, light-green-yellowish stalks, it, obviously, means lots of sugar. That’s a place where a lady, grinding canes through a special machine, will squeeze a super sweet sugarcane juice for you. Usually, a little bit of lime juice is added, to make the drink less sweet.
- I am not a coffee fan, but one thing I tried - Weasel coffee - claimed to be Vietnam’s special coffee. It includes partially digested coffee cherries, eaten and defecated by the Asian palm civet, and should cost quite a money. Why not try something that has already been eaten by someone? Not sure if the coffee I was drinking had been pooped out by a civet, but it tasted like coffee.
What I am still not sure about, especially in smaller, local eateries - do you leave tips? I tried in the first evening, but my action made the guy at the cashier look embarrassed and he refused to accept the money. So - better don't give tips in local eateries.
Markets in Ha Noi
Being in Ha Noi, I visited a market not far from the hotel only one morning. I ran quickly through the, still wet and smelly, meat and fish stands, but it was already so late that these fresh delicacies were either sold out or cleared off the tables so that they do not decay in the daily heat. Only fruits and some greens were sold on the streets. On the way back to the hotel I bought various fruits for breakfast.
In the city, you can find day and night markets selling not only different delicacies, fruits, and foods, but also other different items, such as cheap clothes, shoes, and jewelry.
Other aspects of Culture in Ha Noi
The First 3 days in Vietnam were amazing and full of many new experiences, wonders, and admiration. The old town of Ha Noi has small, tightly squeezed homes with old facades. The ground floors that are usually facing the street, like almost everywhere in this country, are either local eateries, small pubs, or widely open living spaces of flats. There are also some old trees that give some coziness. Even if everything is so densely packed in the old town, everyone can easily get through the narrow streets - scooters, pedestrians, and tourists, as well as merchants who have overloaded their carts, bikes, or scooters, relentlessly move their goods around.
The streets are full of bikes and ‘Honda’ scooters, that carry objects of various sizes and shapes - from wooden boards and refrigerators to large families and a whole store with porcelain dishes. It’s almost like the art of engineering and I could just stare and admire how they, first of all, find ways to pack all the objects they want to transport, on their bikes and scooters; and second, actually transport them successfully.
Interesting scenes can be found passing through the ‘street barber salons’. A chair, a mirror, and a barber with its tools. No doors, no walls. The view, of course, is peculiar, especially if you literally have to pass through the pile of hair during your peaceful walk. But that’s how it is!
Walking through the streets, you can notice a lot of different - Vietnamese, Chinese, Buddhist, Hindu, and other - smaller and bigger temples. In Ha Noi, I visited the Temple of Literature, built-in 1070 by Vietnamese emperor Lý Thánh Tông. It is one of several temples in Vietnam which is dedicated to Confucius, sages, and scholars and is featured on the back of the 100,000 Vietnamese dong banknote. On the day of my visit, it was full of university graduates celebrating their success. It was a green and peaceful oasis in the middle of the never-resting city.
In the center of Ha Noi, you can find peace near Hoan Kiem Lake and its surrounding park. It is a wonderful place where the crowded streets are turning into a relaxing atmosphere, as the streets around the lake are closed for traffic, leaving a large area for pedestrians, tourists, and merchants.
If you think that you can enjoy the time in complete peace, you might be wrong. Once you are in the area, you become an attraction for locals. And don’t mistake them for beggars, because these youngsters just want to practice their English. Be prepared for the first opening line like: "Hey! You are taking pictures, so you have a lot of time..." After having conversations with several dedicated people, you realize that continuing helping everyone, you can lose the whole day! Most of the time, they have standard questions learned at school (actually - if they are lucky having English lessons at school). After, they have a task to practice their skills in the city, talking to foreigners. They even record themselves to practice later.
Water Puppet Theatre (Nhà hát Múa rối nước) is another activity worth experiencing while in Vietnam. As entertainment for rice growers whose fields were flooded for a long period of time, water puppets have been a tradition that began in the 11th century in northern Vietnam, and can still be enjoyed in the Water puppet theatres. Water puppets are made of wood and their masters are deep in the water up to the waist, moving the dolls with underwater bars that are not visible from the rows of viewers.
One of the most popular water puppet theaters - “Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre” - was founded in 1969, which is also the only such theater in Asia that runs 365 days a year. During the show, which lasts for one hour, you can see several scenes, each of them reflecting a Vietnamese culture-related event, tradition, or symbol. It is indeed interesting, something inexperienced and unseen so far. While watching, you can only admire how performance is done so gracefully and fluently, while being up to the waist in the water all that time. The spectacle is accompanied by live music played on traditional instruments and the narrator's texts (although in Vietnamese), giving even more authenticity.
An interesting experience is a full body massage in a local SPA salon in the old town. After the footbath in the hallway next to the reception table, a lady - massage specialist - finally comes in and invites into a narrow, dark room with 3 massage tables next to each other, separated only by curtains. The massage table is freshly made - hopefully... The masseuse is standing in the 'cabin' while you are undressing and getting on the table. She covers you with the towel and climbs on the table. The next thing you feel is the bottom of the masseur touching your bottom when she sits on you. Then, a pair of brutal hands start working on your back, paying special attention to the upper back and shoulders. I felt my shoulders being very tense and it seemed that the massage lady felt exactly where the attention was needed. Despite the fact that the SPA salon was not as I would have imagined a SPA salon, the sensation after the massage was good. But it’s not over yet. When massage is done and you are dressing up, the massage lady is not going anywhere. Here the tip (as it’s not a cafe or a bar) is not only welcome, but is even obligatory, and 4USD is only the minimum acceptable amount.
Next Stop - Ha Long.