Traveling in Southeast Asia can get a bit same-same after a while.
It’s all temples, heat and tourist traps, right?
Until you get to Hà Nội.
The Vietnamese capital is like a breath of fresh air.
The city is a graceful pastiche of cultural influences from the French and Chinese, while the Vietnamese have stubbornly retained their local ways.
Here are the things that we love about it most and that makes Hà Nội stand out from all other cities in Asia:
1. Leap-of-faith traffic
Express faith in humankind; step confidently out on Hà Nội roads.
Crossing the road in Hà Nội is unlike anywhere else.
It’s a little bit like bungee jumping.
You just have to believe it when people tell you:
“It’s going to be alright, just keep walking!”
despite all your instincts telling you not to take the leap.
Once you do take that first step off the pavement, there’s no turning back.
You can only continue putting one foot in front of the other and hope that the mopeds will swerve around you instead of into you.
And it always works!
The road traffic is crazy in Hà Nội, but it is organized chaos and somehow pedestrians always make it to the other side.
On foot it’s a test of faith in fellow humankind as you step into moped madness, trusting scooters to avoid you as you cross the road.
On the back of a motorbike, it’s like jumping into a river and running the rapids.
Precarious and exhilarating.
2. Very fresh beer
Bia Hơi, Hà Nội’s “morning brew,”, enjoyed all day.
Hà Nội is famous for it’s dirt-cheap, unpasteurized beer made fresh daily – Bia Hơi.
The official Hà Nội Bia Hơi comes fresh daily from the Habeco factory.
It ferments throughout the day, consequently tasting different at each vendor.
The flavor depends on the rate at which the beer is being sold and how much the seller has decided to water it down that day.
By day’s end, unsold beer goes off and is thrown away.
But there’s rarely any left each evening.
The ridiculously cheap price and the fact that it is served out of plastic cups makes this the perfect anti-yuppie, anti-elitist brew, suited to the ideals of a socialist country.
Find it on every happening Hà Nội corner, sometimes paired with food, other times with a television and karaoke machine offering classic tunes by Abba and Boney M.
The most famous Bia Hơi for travelers are right in the heart of the old quarter on Bia Hơi Corner at the intersection of Lương Ngọc Quyến and Tạ Hiện streets.
3. The ultimate old quarter
Hàng Bạc in the Old Quarter.
Once the guild street of silversmiths, now home to travel agencies, tourist cafes and tombstone carvers.
The Old Quarter isn’t just a figurative phrase in Hà Nội.
A maze of at least 36 streets between Hà Nội’s famed Hoàn Kiếm Lake, the Red River and the few walls that remain of the Hà Nội Citadel, the Old Quarter is more than 1,000 years old and still going strong.
The oldest surviving neighborhood in Việt Nam, the Old Quarter became a market place where artisans organized themselves into 36 guilds (the guild of silk, silver, bamboo rafts, conical hats, and sweet potatoes to mention a few), each occupying a street.
The craftsmen have since been overwhelmed by tourism, motor bikes, bars and zippo lighter touts.
But small temples, pagodas and hidden communal guild houses still remain from the era of the guilds.
More iconic now are the tube houses, skinny and tall by force of a land tax on street frontage.
Check out tube houses at 87 Mã Mây Street or at 38 Hàng Đào.
To spot French colonial townhouses whose lower floors are often disguised by commercial facades, you just have to look at the roof of the house which is usually preserved in its original state.
The Vietnamese heart of colonial Hà Nội, the Old Quarter is where the anti-French movement originally headquartered itself.
4. Pop war
The Việt Nam War — most iconic war?
The Việt Nam War is remembered as much for the atrocities that occurred as it is for the anti-war demonstrations abroad.
A pilgrimage to Hà Nội is part of the catharsis sought by veterans of the Việt Nam War.
Others who grew up hearing cool protest songs by Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones, remain fascinated by a war that is associated with the rebellious 1960s and 1970s.
It is a war that influenced a decade of youth culture in the U.S. and continues to inform pop culture around the world.
For scars of U.S. bombings of Hà Nội check out the Long Biên Bridge which crosses the Red River and transported supplies from the port at Hải Phòng.
Or visit the Hỏa Lò prison, dubbed the “Hà Nội Hilton” by American GIs.
5. Shoulder-pole retail
Shoulder-pole vendors dance down the streets of Hà Nội.
As a tourism capital, Hà Nội is surprisingly devoid of mega shopping malls.
Instead, there’s the rather more interesting one-(wo)man shoulder pole shop.
Whatever you want comes to you in rattan baskets looped through a rope and balanced in pairs on bamboo poles resting on the shoulders.
These are both shop front and transport for foot vendors who can frequently be spotted underneath conical hats, triggering the photographic instinct in tourists.
Buy something — bowls of phở, mangosteens, bunches of flowers, hair clips, household utensils — and the photos will be accompanied by a broad Vietnamese grin.
6. Body of interest
Hồ Chí Minh getting Twitpic-ed.
Hà Nộiis the only city in Southeast Asia with an embalmed leader on display.
The real body of Hồ Chí Minh lies preserved in his mausoleum, much against his own wish to be cremated.
Such is the consequence of being the person in the middle of a personality cult.
Real emotion pours out of the thousands who come to view his body each day and view the man not as a dictator but as the hero of Hà Nội’s independence from foreign control.
7. So French, but not
Joie de vivre translates well in Hà Nội.
Whilst people from Hà Nội are considered aloof by southern Vietnamese, they have nothing on Parisians.
The Vietnamese have not forsaken their French colonial heritage and it isa great place to enjoy French aesthetics with Asian hospitality.
Many wonderful French buildings remain, mostly functional and not a few sporting a fashionable bohemian decay.
However, the success of French-Vietnamese fusion is best experienced through Hà Nội’s food.
French baguettes are stuffed with Vietnamese pâté and pickled vegetables to create the rich and Tangy Banh Mi sandwiches.
Coffee is an obsession passed on by the French. In Hanoi, your espresso drips through a small aluminum filter into sweet condensed milk.
Cafés are still arranged in the French style, as if the street is a theater and the café is the audience section.
But diners are usually perched on humble plastic or rattan chairs that are mere inches from the ground.
Source: Traveldudes 5-12-2012