Vietnam was always in mind in a bit of an exotic manner, as an out-of-this-world experience. Luckily, I’ve since been able to visit this unique crossroads of influences from Southeast Asia, China and France twice in the last few years. Boasting a mix of the inherent colonial heritage, its Asian backdrop and a touch of Chinese taste, Hanoi is a perfect urban getaway (and adventure) and a photographer’s dream destination!
Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, currently hosts 7.8m locals and up to 3.5m bikes and scooters around.Busy streets filled with low-end motorbikes, densely populated urban-feel neighbourhoods and a greyish kind of weather make up for a unique combo. That were my first impressions when I first found myself there.
French and Old Quarters
Offering a rich food culture and a long history (the city celebrated its millennium in 2010), the most well known and important districts in Hanoi are Ba Dinh District (aka the French Quarter), where the government offices are located, and Hoan Kiem District (aka the Old Quarter), which is considered the city’s business hub and main tourist destination. At the city’s heart is the chaotic Old Quarter, where the narrow streets are roughly arranged by trade. There are many little temples, including Bach Ma, honoring a legendary horse, plus Đồng Xuân Market, selling household goods and street food.
One of Hanoi’s most common sights is that of streets packed with scooters, bicycles and cars swarming around pedestrians like a school of fish. Then there are the many sidewalk vendors and people simply out for a stroll around the popular Old Quarter. Visitors have no choice but to face the traffic in the local style (try raising your hand when you want to cross the street!) but the experience of exploring the historical area is a must-do and truly well worth it.
The southeastern area around the lake is quite vibrant filled with many quick eats, impromptu markets and busy little shops. If you want a truly local breakfast experience, head to Nghi Tam boulevard next to Yen Phu market. Ran-down dated establishments is no excuse for skipping this as their Pho will leave you more than satisfied!
West Lake is also home to the Ho Chi Minh’s tomb as well as the Temple of Literature, which is a nice area to wander around and get a feel of local life. When you get enough, head to the carefully manicured luscious gardens around the Presidential Palace for a quick break and some fresh fruit from the street food stalls.
Whatever you do, the area is a great choice for picking up some local food. No matter how ran-down and, well, filthy an eatery can look… the food does indeed taste amazingly delicious! Want proof? Just scroll one photo up and catch a glimpse again of the Banh Cuon, a classic dish of steamed rice cake-like dish filled with minced mushrooms and pork! Just make sure you stay away from the fried stuff which are most of the times very heavy on oil and fat! Well, that can be tasty too (sigh).
With 1,000 years under the Chinese, 80 years under the French and a whole lot of angst with the Japanese and the Americans, Vietnam has been a nation of war as Hanoi was only left in peace in 1989. A young population, hungry to live the life is what Hanoi is all about!