How to cross the road in Vietnam and more travel lessons from the streets of Hanoi, starting with why you need to linger, look up and look more closely, stroll in small doses, take lakeside breaks to recuperate, and make time to perch on a plastic stool to partake in a glass something.
I’ve just returned from a few weeks in Vietnam which ended with a week in Hanoi. Once again the country and its capital took my breath away. On my Vietnam Cuisine and Culture Tours we spend the last three days in Hanoi, where some participants leave us, while others continue on a Halong Bay extension.
But this time our three-day Halong Bay cruise was curtailed after the first night due to a typhoon heading our way and I and the last few participants left on the trip found ourselves with an extra day and night in Hanoi, which gave us two more days in Vietnam’s capital.
As the tour had officially ended, the four of us just hung out in Hanoi, wandering the streets, shopping, eating, drinking, and attempting to get lost (I’ll save that story for another post). And after they left I had another four days in Hanoi to myself before my flight home to Siem Reap.
As we walked Hanoi’s streets, I was reminded why, back in late 2012, Terence and I went to Hanoi for a few weeks to do some magazine stories and ended up renting an apartment and settling into Hanoi for a few months. I was also reminded of my first lessons on how to cross the road in Vietnam, which I learnt in Hanoi.
How to Cross the Road in Vietnam and More Travel Lessons from Hanoi’s Streets
Lesson #1 – Linger Longer, Absorb, Experience, Savour
It was the start of the holidays in Vietnam when we arrived in 2012 and while tourism in Vietnam was beginning to boom and buses disgorged visitors outside one of Hanoi’s main sights, the lovely Temple of Literature – the country’s first university, dating to 1070 – the Vietnam capital (fortunately) didn’t have the crushing groups that overwhelm Beijing’s Forbidden City, nor the crowds that swarm Bangkok’s Grand Palace every day.
It was the same at Hanoi’s other star attractions – Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Presidential Palace, and the One Pillar Pagoda. When we visited Hoa Lo Prison, also known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, there were just three tourists. And on our visit to pretty 11th century Quan Thanh Temple, Terence and I were the only visitors.
Come evening in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and even on Ta Hien, a lane lined with narrow bars selling bia hoi, cheap fresh beer, that attracted as many young locals as it did backpackers, there was nowhere near the number of budget travellers that throng Khao San Road.
It seems that most tourists ‘doing’ Vietnam or travelling around Indochina on a trip that will invariably include Cambodia and Laos, allow only one or two nights in Hanoi before making a beeline for UNESCO World Heritage-listed Halong Bay to do a cruise, to Sapa in the north for hill tribe trekking and markets, or to the south to the tourist hot spot of enchanting Hoi An in central Vietnam.
Little has changed in seven years, despite a recent surge in foreign tourists. For most visitors, Hanoi is still little more than a stopover city with a handful of highlights to be ticked off a list. Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body? Check. Water puppet show? Check. Old city cyclo ride? Done. Then they’re out of here.
Yet Hanoi, as we discovered during three months renting an apartment in the city in 2012, and on subsequent visits for stories, is a destination that isn’t about its sights at all. What makes Hanoi special is its street life. Hanoi is also a city that shouldn’t be rushed. Hanoi is a place where you should linger. Hanoi must be slowly absorbed, experienced and savoured – on its streets.
So what should your priorities be? Stumbling upon secret alleys as you get lost in the lanes of the labyrinthine Old Quarter. Slurping steaming bowls of pho bo (beef soup) or bun cha (barbecued pork with noodles and condiments) from a tiny plastic stool. Nibbling on nuts as you down cheap icy beers at a boisterous bia hoi joint. Battling the battalions of motorbikes, seemingly intent on running you over, each time you attempt to cross the road. Okay, so not every experience is going to be a positive one, but that’s part of Hanoi’s chaotic charm.
Lesson #2 – Walk the Streets
Hanoi is a city where life is lived on the streets so you need to walk them. Oh yes, we say that about a lot of Asian cities, but in Hanoi life is truly lived on the streets and when you travel here you’ll see for yourself. The streets are where people sit to chat, eat, drink, and even sleep on a hot and sticky night when it’s far cooler outdoors than in.
Hanoi’s streets are where families share meals; where neighbours gather to gossip; where strangers share a tiny table to sip glasses of tea and smoke cigarettes; where toddlers play unsupervised, riding plastic toy bikes in circles on the pavement; where vendors sell countless kinds of wares from carts, bicycles, wheelchairs, and their shoulders – food, fruit, fashion, fake flowers, and potted cumquat trees.
When we lived in Hanoi, I bought a blue and white porcelain vase from a mobile sales woman who passed along our street at least once a day. She had dozens of the things delicately arranged around her bicycle like florets on a dandelion. When I pointed to the one I wanted, buried deep within the complicated bouquet, she plucked it out as you might pull a petal from a flower.
All of this means of course that Hanoi is a place to be walked. You need to be on the streets engaging with locals to have these encounters. Yet for a city of wide boulevards, slender lanes, leafy parks, and serene lakes, Hanoi is not always a city that’s suitable for walking. Because everywhere you look in Hanoi there are motorbikes.
Lesson #3 – Pause and Take a Deep Breath
A whiff of fresh, fragrant herbs – coriander, dill, basil, and Vietnamese mint – wafts my way as a petite woman in floral patterned pyjamas and a conical shaped hat passes by me pushing a bicycle, balancing a round rice basket on the handlebars piled high with fresh vegetables, herbs and flowers.
Plumes of heady incense drift in my direction as I wander by a dimly lit temple where two rosy-cheeked old ladies in headscarves light incense sticks at a shrine. I smell shampoo. Water drops onto the street from a small balcony above where a teenage girl bends over a red plastic tub to pour a jug of water over her long jet-black hair.
A scrawny white kitten meows incessantly at the entrance to a skinny shop-house where his owner has tied him to the barred security door to prevent him running away – or getting run over. Because just steps away from his living room is a constant barrage of motorbikes, bicycles, cyclos, and cars. The din is deafening.
I stop to take it all in, the smells, the sights, the sounds, the colours. Kaleidoscopic colours: scarlet, cobalt, crimson, emerald, and canary yellow. This is what assails my senses each time I leave the hotel to hit the streets in Hanoi.
Lesson #4 – Take a Closer Look
At first glance, Hanoi seems just like any other Asian city, with its gritty streets, crazy traffic and footpaths sprinkled with food stalls. It’s frenetic and alive. At first sniff, it smells like car fumes and barbecued food, and, on bad days, sewerage from the old city’s drains.
But take time and you’ll discern some distinct differences between Hanoi and other Asian cities. For instance, the streets of Hanoi are lined with the world’s skinniest houses – four or five storeys of rooms more narrow than their floor to ceiling height – the most splendid colonial villas with elegant balconies and grey-blue shutters set in palm shaded gardens, and colourful temples with courtyards strung with red lanterns and dark interiors with gleaming gold Buddhas.
Yet aside from the restored French mansions, many now home to embassies, ambassador’s residences, restaurants, and art centres, no single building seems to have remained in its original form. Look up and you’ll see remnants of what was once a mustard-coloured colonial home, with the addition of a boxy peppermint-painted floor that was likely added in the Nineties. On street level there’s a sleek twenty-first century glass-fronted shop, painted in fuschia, its shelves inside stacked with modern candy-coloured motorcycle helmets.
Hanoi is a city that rewards close scrutiny. Its idiosyncrasies lie in the details. Take a closer look. And don’t forget to look up.
Lesson #5 – Stay Off the Streets and Footpaths During Rush Hour
Scooters cram the footpaths where temporary bike parks form outside office buildings and schools where parents wait to collect their kids. They mob the streets, ten abreast, bike abutting bike. It’s surprising there aren’t pile-ups, particularly during peak times when the lights change and hundreds of the wheeled beasts charge forward. Crossing the road in rush hour can be frightening.
During peak hours it’s best to stay off the streets – and off the footpaths, where you risk getting knocked over by a bike reversing out of an alley to hit the road, or by frustrated riders fed up with the gridlock, who jump the kerb and dart along the pavement to the next set of lights. Once one guy does it, they all follow. The footpaths here are just less congested traffic lanes.
Lesson #6 – Stroll in Small Doses and Take Lakeside Breaks to Recuperate
You must stroll Hanoi in small doses so you are at your most alert and when it all becomes too much take a break to recuperate. Make a beeline for the nearest park or a wooden bench with tranquil water views. Hanoi is a city that’s dotted with lakes, but Hoan Kiem in the historic quarter is my favourite.
Stroll around the lake and you’ll spot elderly ladies in a line massaging each other’s shoulders, people power-walking and practicing Tai Chi, and men huddling around watching a game of Vietnamese checkers. Newlyweds pose for wedding photos, the groom in a white shirt and suit, the bride in an elegant ao dai, the traditional long silk tunic dress, or a big flouncy, gem-encrusted Western-style wedding dress.
Lesson #7 – Perch on a Plastic Stool to Partake in Something
When you need a break, go perch on a plastic stool somewhere to sip a glass of something: a lemon tea perhaps, or Vietnam’s robust yet creamy coffee made with condensed milk, or down a cold beer with the locals at a rowdy bia hoi place, from where you can watch the traffic chaos on the streets in safety.
There are tea stands, cafés and beer joints – along with street food stalls and roaming vendors pushing mobile carts – on every city block in Hanoi. Making a decision as to where to drink and eat can initially be overwhelming – which is why it’s best to recruit a local expert or join a specialised tour during your first few days in Hanoi.
Lesson #8 – Hit the Ground Running with the Help of Local Experts
When we arrived in Hanoi in late 2012, Terence and I decided to hit the ground running as we often do by signing up for some private tours with local experts. On our first morning in Hanoi we were sitting on small plastic stools sipping nau da (coffee with ice) and feasting on street food: bun dau (tofu with fermented shrimp paste), banh tom (fried prawn fritters), pho tiu (pork noodle soup with peanuts), and trung ngai cuu (duck egg omelette with herbs).
We took things seriously and did not one street food tour but two, the first with food writer and culinary guide extraordinaire Van Cong Tu and then with cookbook writer and chef, Daniel Hoyer. Another day we learnt to cook street food with chef Duyen Phan and owner of Hanoi Cooking Centre, Tracey Lister, learning how to shop the local markets for produce and how to prepare the delights we had sampled on the street. Three months later we were still discovering new treats.
But there’s more to Hanoi than food, of course – although for people who love to eat, that can sometimes be enough – and we endeavoured to scratch the city’s surface through its music and art, its culture and traditions. We met young artists and curators, musicians and maestros, craftspeople and performers – and quite a few local characters in our neighbourhood bia hoi joint we made a habit of frequenting.
As wonderful as all of those encounters were, for me the best experience of all was simply being on Hanoi’s streets. On my recent trip, every time I stepped outside – and almost got ran over – I wondered why more travellers weren’t here, negotiating the intoxicating obstacle courses that are Hanoi’s footpaths and roads.
How to Cross the Road in Vietnam
For most foreigner travellers to Vietnam, crossing the road is terrifying due to the sheer volume of traffic as much as the apparent chaos of motorbikes, scooters, cars, cyclos, and bicycles darting here and there, ignoring traffic signs and lights, appearing out of nowhere, driving on the wrong side of the road, and even treating the footpaths as streets. While the traffic is particularly mad in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), it’s not much better in smaller cities and towns such as Hue and Hoi An, so don’t let your guard down. You need to take caution crossing streets everywhere in Vietnam.
Here’s How to Cross the Road in Vietnam:
When there’s a break in traffic in both directions, walk directly across the road while maintaining the same pace.
Do not slow down or speed up – unless it’s a matter of life and death. Pace is important as motorcyclists and drivers will make judgements as to when and where to deftly move around you based on how fast or slow you’re moving.
Avoid stopping if you can, as vehicles will manoeuvre around you and if you suddenly stop they might smash right into you.
Stay alert and look in both directions – it’s common for vehicles to drive on the wrong side of the road and for motorcyclists to ride on the footpaths if it’s a short cut or they can get around gridlock.
Don’t take comfort in pedestrian crossings and traffic lights and walk straight across the road, as you would back home. Most drivers simply ignore crossings and drive straight through lights, regardless of whether pedestrians are walking across the road or not.
Do as the locals do – watch where, when and how they cross the road and join them.
If you’re with a group of friends or family, walk together in a straight row rather than a huddle or line, so vehicles can more quickly get around you and don’t have to slow down or stop.
Whatever you do, don’t hesitate – and don’t stop to take a photo!