In March I spent a few days in the Vietnamese capital of Hanoi on either side of a shoot in northern Vietnam for an NGO that works throughout the region. It was my first time in the country and I was so lucky to see it from many different angles: urban, rural, natural wonders, hyper-local color.
I’ll share more photos over the next few weeks, but for now here are highlights from Hanoi:
On my first morning I joined the back of a line for Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum that must have been two miles long. I spent the next hour and a half inching my way towards an imposing building in the middle of a square filled only with grass and snaking lines. The crowd was primarily Vietnamese, not foreign, and I was struck by the fact that this was the daily turnout, not a special occasion.
When we got to the entryway of the building, voices almost instinctively hushed and a guard motioned for me to unfold my arms and keep them at my sides. We were then ushered into a room with a wraparound hallway, where the guards shooed onward anyone hovering even slightly. It was in this chop-chop fashion that I viewed Ho Chi Minh’s tomb – and Ho Chi Minh lying placidly on top of it. For a few seconds my mind was blown as I stared at his actual embalmed body.
But by the time I was hurried out of the room twenty seconds later, I had become convinced that the gray-yellow flesh was actually Madame Tussaud-style wax, and that I was a fool for having believed otherwise. Then I checked the Internet, which said that the party line is that he is real, though conspiracy theorists believe he rotted long ago and was replaced with a fake body. I took an informal poll to see what the Hanoi residents in my circle thought, and it seemed to be an even split. Whatever the case, it was cool.
There are beautiful Buddhist temples all over Hanoi, sometimes wedged into the smallest spaces and sometimes occupying entire city blocks.
The one above, ringed by haphazard electrical wires, felt representative of Hanoi: chaotic, with pockets of calm.
My friend who used to live in Hanoi recommended the Temple of Literature as a “respite from the craziness,” but ironically, it was overrun with schoolchildren on the Saturday morning I visited, and I ended up giving up on peace and laughing at their antics instead.
Speaking of antics… I have never scooter dodged the way I did in Hanoi. There are millions of them, far more than anywhere else I’ve been. I took the photo below for the buildings rather than the scooters, but the incidental quantity of them is indicative of their ubiquity.
No wonder there are so many temples in the city, because crossing the street is an act of faith. There are barely any lights or crosswalks, and I don’t remember seeing a stop sign once. You basically take a deep breath, walk confidently into oncoming traffic, and hope for the best.
On weekends, thankfully, the wide streets and plazas around the lake in the Old Quarter are closed to cars and scooters, and pedestrians take over.
The night market starts at an intersection of one of these streets and continues northward for a few blocks.
Also around there is a famed water puppet theatre.
Puppeteers stand behind a screen in a pool of water and manipulate marionettes in an art form that’s been around since the 10th century. I didn’t expect much, but there were firecrackers and jumping fish and it was a lovely performance.
And it turned out to be a rare hour of peace in Hanoi.
On that note, let’s get back to the subject of trying not to get run over…
Whenever I go anywhere I check Atlas Obscura to find out what weird and wonderful off-the-beaten track places there are to visit. In Hanoi, they pointed me to the “train street.”
For most of the day people go about their business as normal, and kids play on the tracks.
But at certain times – which were conveniently marked for tourists on a bench – a train whizzes by just inches from the houses. I don’t like to think about what happens if you’re in the way.
I got to the street a half hour before “show time” and there were already a bunch of foreigners hanging out, waiting. Three minutes before the scheduled train, the neighborhood folks started coming outside and taking their places as well.
Soon, we heard the train’s whistle, and it appeared from around the corner.
A few seconds after that, it zipped by. The whistle nearly blew out my eardrums and I could see my reflection in the paint.
Thirty seconds later, the train disappeared out of sight and the crowd dispersed. It felt sort of like the Ho Chi Minh experience in that respect.
Another thing I was told I could not miss was drinking an egg coffee on the roof of the “hidden cafe.”
It’s actually called Cafe Pho Co and it’s at 11 Hang Gai but hard to spot because you have to walk through a nondescript shop to get to it. I dutifully ordered an egg coffee, thinking that in theory it sounded both delicious and gross. Well, that’s what it tasted like in practice as well.
The first spoonful hit the tongue like the most wonderful coffee mousse custard soufflé, but then quickly developed an aftertaste of fried egg breath. The only thing to do to dispel the awful flavor was to take another sip. Eventually I realized that spoonfuls from the bottom of the cup were heavier on the coffee and lighter on the egg taste, but by then I was ready to throw in the towel. I would recommend an egg coffee to anyone visiting Hanoi, but I would encourage them to use my hard-earned wisdom as your guide: sip from the bottom, abandon halfway, and have gum at the ready. It could be 100% delightful that way.
I did enjoy a much less complicated pleasure in the form of another Hanoi specialty recommended by my friend: an avocado shake, which I ordered at a lakefront cafe.
As you can see, the sky was hazy. As you cannot see, it was also muggy. This is apparently par for the course in northern Vietnam during winter. The two weeks I was there, we had blue sunny skies only once (but I got lucky, because that was Halong Bay day).
Since I had no time to travel to central or southern Vietnam, I went to the Museum of Ethnology to get a better sense of the rest of the country.
They had dioramas of various ethnic minorities doing the handicrafts they are known for. (84% of Vietnamese people are the main ethnicity but there are over 50 other groups.)
The real draw of the museum is outside, where there are houses typical of a selection of the ethnic groups.
The coolest one was this humongous structure with a rather crazy entryway. Forget being afraid of heights in this community.
Here’s the inside, in case you’re curious.
I need to wrap this thing up… But a quick word on food. I ate really well in Vietnam.
I’ll show you more pictures in other posts, but for now I will encourage you to hit me up if you need tips for where to eat in Hanoi, and thanks to Ben and Liz for supplying me with such great recommendations in the first place!
Finally… a bunch of the buildings I loved in Hanoi. This one took the cake:
I didn’t notice til the fifth time I passed it that the interior was as magically lost-in-time as the outside:
Then there’s this building that I became obsessed with and almost got run over by scooters in order to take pictures of:
More mid-century amazingness:
And some colonial-era gems:
And finally, I have no idea what era this building is from, but it is spectacular.