Jetlagged by a full half a day, with that slight ache and dry eye sensation that the world is moving faster than I am, I needed encouragement every 30 seconds from Walker that I could indeed cross the narrow, crowded streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter.
We had landed in the capital of Vietnam a few hours earlier after a layover in Taipei and the most luxurious (First Class upgrade!) flight into Hanoi. I had been worried about visa chaos, but we were literally in our hotel’s van 20 minutes after landing into an airport that was clean and bright.
From the airport, we drove over a series of bridges and roads through the suburbs of Hanoi, red and yellow buildings standing tall against the brilliant green of the rice fields. We noticed the two story buildings everywhere in Vietnam, even where there was room for a larger single story building, and never figured out why.
Our first impressions were the welcome, the heat and the green, themes that continued each day of our next two weeks in the country, sometimes more intense, sometimes less. Our first trip in Asia was surprising in many ways, but perhaps the most pleasant was how welcoming and hospitable the people were. The hotel service forever spoiled us with dragonfruit welcome drinks and cinnamon-scented cool towelettes at each entrance.
We used Hanoi as the hub of many 1-3 day trips and returned to the same, marvelous La Siesta Diamond hotel four different times, each to joyous welcomes.
Our hotel sat just a few blocks from Hoen Kiem Lake, our first destination after lunch (upstairs in the hotel).
Speaking of blocks! Let’s get back to jet lagged Alie. Because to get to the lake, we had to cross a few streets.
Crossing a single block—and I’m in no way being dramatic—was a walk of faith. There are no crosswalks. Very few traffic lights. And the only way to cross is to step into the traffic, close your eyes so your instincts can't take over and halt you, and keep walking. But it's finding that first break that gives you the courage to step into the street that's the most difficult. My strategy was to follow a local across, but I often couldn't find anyone, so Walker went ahead and gestured at me enough from the other side that I finally just dashed for it.
The traffic wove right around me, the flow never stoping---hundreds of motorbikes, a few bikes, a few cars, a few motorbikes with 4 people, a few texting. I won't belabor this, but generally, I looked this pathetic because IT WAS SO SCARY.
But after making it through a couple streets while cringing/trying to keep my eyes open, we made it to Ngoc Son Temple, the first temple we’d visit in Vietnam. I was mesmerized by the smell of the incense, perhaps palo santo, that swarmed thick and hot out of the temple, over the bowls of Buddha’s hand fruits and offerings. The temples were so ornate and, starkly different from Western churches, incredibly colorful: mostly golds and reds.
The temple entrance was only about a dollar (it was about 30k Vietnamese Dong with 22K dong to the dollar) and it sat across a bridge in the lake. And standing there with the dense humidity, swampy green water, and temple drums, we knew we were in the East.
We walked a long route that our hotel had mapped out through the narrow Old Quarter streets and each step was a new sense experience: the smell of fish, donut hawkers, kids leaving school swarming us with “HELLO!”s, birds in cages hung above the street, everyone sitting on the stoop or floor with their wares: vats of tofu, lacquered boxes, luggage, pho soup. The sidewalks were barely walkable as most were completely full of motorbikes, leaving only the street for walking, except it too was only full of . . . motorbikes and bikes coming quietly from every direction. Honestly, in my exhausted state, the situation was so terrifying that my brain shut down into a sort of mellow trance and I just grazed by the piles of goods bubbling out of stores, the crowds, the sisterly buildings holding each other up in the heat, the men climbing walls of wires to fix them.
We took a cab (for about $2/15 minutes!) to the oldest temple in Hanoi, Trấn Quốc Pagoda, on the south of Hanoi’s large West Lake.
We walked along a short road out over the water to get a close look, but didn’t go in because it seemed like shorts weren’t allowed.
The sun was setting in pale fashion and the few colors the sky never really had faded into the water for the night.
Over the next few weeks, we spent 5 nights in Hanoi between other destinations, and each time, coming back to La Siesta Diamond felt comforting, seeing the koi fish in the lobby, the front desk staff welcoming us warmly and remembering where we'd been. We enjoyed some evenings in other neighborhoods, our favorite being the French Quarter which houses wider sidewalks, the Opera House,
and the famed Metropole Hotel, now a Sofitel property where we had drinks one evening.
Hanoi's patches of French ornate porches, Eastern red roofs, and zapping green trees made for the most mesmerizing experience where we watched and watched and never tired of the movement, the energy, the smells of fish sauce and ash.
As I write this three weeks after coming home, I can feel the heat coat my legs and feel my feet stepping over each sidewalk obstacle as I hear the dull motor of a bike on my heels. I have never felt so simultaneously stimulated and soothed as we did navigating the streets of the tropical Hanoi, the heat dimming each thought to an impression.
Here are a few restaurants we enjoyed in Hanoi if you ever find yourself there:
Ngon Villa was a beautiful spot set back from the busy street with strands of paper lanterns and an incredible ‘tasting menu’ of Hanoi specialities. Sadly for me with my MSG intolerance, I could only have the grilled prawns, but Walker enjoyed the squid and about 15 other samplings.
Red Bean Trendy was housed in a sister property, and the food was fresh and traditional, with elegant presentations. Again, we struggled with the MSG translation, but they got it in the end.
Gourmet Corner, our hotel restaurant, blew our minds from our first lunch, and despite our usual need to try new restaurants at every meal, we ended up eating here for many dinners, as well as breakfasts. All the staff understood my allergies and were beyond careful to let me know they were looking out for me. And! Each dish we tried was the perfect balance of local flavor and impeccable execution. I loved Cha Ca, which is fried fish that I wrapped in rice paper with herbs at the table and dipped in the thin, sweet fish sauce ubiquitous in Vietnam. Walker had spring rolls every chance he could and the sticky rice balls in syrup were especially original.
From Hanoi, we flew south to the country's third largest city, Da Nang. Up next!