HANOI teems with tooting scooters, jam-packed roadside eateries, and enough explorable nocks and crannies to feed your curiosity for a lifetime.
Simply saying Hanoi is “bustling” would be an understatement when describing the city and all that happens in it.
It oozes more of an organized chaos vibe, one which all its residents and visitors seem to know and thrive in.
Take the roads, for instance.
Sure, there are traffic lights and sometimes even traffic cops attempting to keep harmony between vehicles and pedestrians, but nobody takes notice. Instead, the roads constantly hum with moving cars and scooters while pedestrians scurry across the roads avoiding everything.
Tourists soon get the hang of this art form and in all honesty, it’s a scene you could sit and watch for hours from a café while sipping on egg coffee.
Which brings us to our first reason why Hanoi is a must-visit if you’re traveling through Vietnam.
Firstly, thrust any preconceived images of scrambled eggs mixed into a cup of coffee out of your head and think more dessert-in-a-cup.
Egg coffee is a delicious Hanoian delicacy created during the 1946 French War when milk shortages swept the nation.
Wealthier families were able to afford condensed milk which can still be tasted in traditional Vietnamese drip coffees to this day. But for one coffee shop owner, Nguyen Van Giang of Giang Café, condensed milk wasn’t an option.
So, he set about combining ingredients in his kitchen until he found the perfect formula: egg whites, sugar, and vanilla whipped in a bowl for 10 minutes and plonked on top of black coffee.
The consistency is far thicker than regular milk, with a creamy taste and texture. The egg coffee often has a sprinkling of cocoa powder on top, giving it a resemblance to tiramisu.
Giang Café is the best place to try egg coffee in Hanoi. The tiny hole-in-the-wall café can be found on the east side of the Old Quarter.
We suggest sitting upstairs on the tiny stools among dozens of plants and local chitchat.
One of the first things any visitor to Hanoi will notice are the tiny chairs and tables lining the pavements of roadside restaurants.
In scenes resembling teddy bear tea parties, diners can be found in a squat-like position on small plastic stools eating from low-rise tables. But nobody seems to bat an eyelid at the setup.
And why would they when they’re getting such delicious food for such a bargain price? The general rule when it comes to Vietnamese restaurants is that the smaller the tables and chairs, the less money you have to pay for your food.
According to locals, the restaurant owners know their customers don’t want to pay a premium for a special ambience or excellent service, they just want delicious food, and that’s all they’re charged for.
Other explanations for the small stool setup include fables of scampering from law enforcement because pavement restaurants are supposedly illegal, but you’ll often dine at these establishments next to police officers.
Almost every nation has its “roadside” professions. Malaysia has banana leaf-wrapped nasi lemak sellers, the US has hotdog vendors, the UK has ice cream vans, and Vietnam has roadside barbers.
The tradition of roadside barbers has existed since the 18th century when villagers sought to make extra money between farming and trading.
It was brought into the 21st century by those still looking to earn some extra cash such as ex-military personnel or youngsters helping to pay family bills. These US$1 to US$4 no frills barbers usually serve males customers looking for a quick, cheap haircut.
If you’re looking to witness or experience one of these trims, head to Dong Da district’s Kim Lien, “barber village.”
The Vietnamese are friendly and through centuries of occupations and wars, they have become accustomed to seeing foreigners.
In addition to warm smiles, you may find yourself on the giving end of an English lesson.
Many young Vietnamese are keen to improve their English and seek out foreigners around the central Turtle Lake in Hanoi to help them do so.
Sometimes, fourth graders will be accompanied by their parents who initiate a simple conversation and encourage their kids to join in. But mostly you’ll be approached by university students with sets of questions they want to try out.
These conversations are also a brilliant way for tourists to learn about Vietnam’s culture, history, and future through the eyes of younger generations.
Hanoi has a mix of ancient oriental architecture, traditional French buildings, and few ultra-modern karaoke venues.
However, it’s the traditional architecture in Hanoi’s Old Quarter which is most intriguing.
Between Imperial-era pagodas, temples, and shrines are 36 streets packed full of thin buildings with thatched or tiled roofs, often found selling souvenirs, food or spa treatments.
These buildings are referred to as “tube-shaped houses” given the often vertical piecemeal-style extensions on top of most main structures in the area.
The narrow add-ons were built when the children of the house married and started their own families.
Remember to look up when you’re exploring the Old Quarter.