Streets Alive in Hanoi

Hanoi buzzes as millions of motorbikes crowd the small streets of the Old Quarter

Dodging the incessant buzzing and honking of Hanoi’s 2 million motorbikes I dash across the road, pull up a small plastic child’s size stool and order a 5000 Dong (15p) fresh bai hoi beer and take in the chaos around me. 

Drinking Bai Hoi on the streets of Hanoi is an experience in it’s self

Getting lost in the amazing street life in the Old Quarter – the heart of atmospheric Hanoi, is what this city is all about. 

At the beginning of the 20th century the city consisted of just 36 streets and these streets of the Old Quarter still retain the original layout and architecture of old Hanoi. Each of the chaotic, tumble down streets used to specialise in a certain trade or product that is signified in the name of the street and today stores selling similar products are still found grouped together giving a sense of order to the chaos.

Motorbikes swarm through the old city’s gates

Millions of motorbikes swarm the streets through the old city gates where road rules are merely guidelines. They provide transportation for whole families and a wide range of goods you would have thought impossible to put on a motorbike. Together they provide Vietnam’s soundtrack of constant beeping, honking and the whir and putter of small engines.

Bustling streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Tree lined streets buzz with motorbikes and commerce, pavements serve as motorcycle parking while above the greying buildings tower up tall and thin, their French facades teetering over the tangle of electrical cables. 

Ancient archways and temples are dotted all over where you least expect them and no space with the opportunity for commerce or motorcycle parking is wasted.

A woman sells vegetables outside the archway to an old temple

The atmosphere retains an authentic, traditional and carnival like feel. Crossing the road can be a problem at first but once you learn to walk calmly and confidently into the oncoming swarm of traffic you realise that the motorbikes will swerve around you safely. An endless stream of sales offerings follow you down the chaotic streets as women in conical hats hawk their wares in baskets balanced from their shoulders.

All over Hanoi women wearing conical hats hawk their wares in these baskets

 Families gather on the pavements on kids plastic stools slurping steaming hot bowls of pho (beef noodle soup) delicious crispy spring bowls dipped in tasty fish sauce and bai hoi joints spread their plastic stooled patrons out into the street as they get ever busier.

The ubiquitous plastic stools of the bia hoi stalls that spill out onto the streets

After wandering through the maze of the Old Quarter the shady paths around the Hoan Kiem Lake are more relaxed. Hoan Kiem Lake is also known as the lake of the returned sword due to the legend of the emperor’s magic sword that was taken by a turtle. The emperor believed that it was the golden turtle god that had come to retrieve the sword he had given the emperor to win the battle against the Chinese Ming dynasty and so it is an important cultural and historical centre for Hanoians.

Thap Rua or The Turtle Tower sits in the middle of Hoan Kiem lake

The Turtle Tower is an old pagoda that sits in the middle of the lake that is linked to the legend and large, rare turtles have been sighted in the lake.

Near the northern shore of the lake lies Jade Island which houses the Temple of the Jade Mountain. Colourful flags flutter in the breeze above the wooden red painted bridge that crosses to where a temple perches on the small island.

Colourful flags on the bridge to the temple. The bridge is called The Huc which means morning sunlight

The way that life is played out on the streets is just one of the things I love about Asia. I can spend hours just people watching and taking in the circus around me from a plastic stool on the kerb. 

Although, when the chaos and noise of the motorbikes starts to become draining I escape to the serene and elegant Temple of Literature. Built in 1070 it is a Confucius complex of manicured gardens, ponds and courtyards that hold wooden temples, archways, pagodas and pavilions which held the Imperial Academy – the first university in Vietnam in 1076 till 1779.

Girls in traditional Ao Dai dress gather outside the atmospheric and historical Temple of Literature

The Thang Long traditional water puppet theatre is just near Hoan Kiem lake. The art form dates back to the 11th century, when the rice paddies flooded the villagers would entertain each other with water puppetry shows and you can still enjoy the beautiful display of wooden, lacquered characters that showcase traditional music and folk tales with colourful and cute puppets splashing in the water in a unique show. 

Cute and unique water puppets showcase traditional Vietnamese life and legends

In contrast with the hustle and bustle of the Old Quarter the beloved president Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and museum is an imposing, grey concrete building set in large open square and surrounded by wide manicured boulevards.

Ho Chi Minh is known as the nation’s uncle. He was a communist, revolutionary leader and prime minister who led the Viet Minh independence movement from 1941 onwards, establishing the communist republic of Vietnam, defeating the French colonialists in 1954 and, despite stepping down due to ill health in 1965 was influential and inspirational towards the defeat of the Americans and reunification of Vietnam.

The might mausoleum of the revered Ho Chi Minh

After reunification the city of Saigon was renamed Ho Chi Minh City after him, although old habits die hard and almost everybody still calls it Saigon.

The atmosphere is solemn and surreal as people queue silently and orderly for a glimpse of the corpse of the revolutionary hero still so highly revered who helped Vietnam achieve independence, so determinedly sought by this proud nation, that is speeding headlong into the future while retaining its traditions and uniqueness.

Hanoi mixes traditional Vietnamese ways with the buzz of motorbikes as they race to modernity


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