Sabbaticals are the new black! My sister, Sylvia, has been dreaming about her sabbatical for years and I was honoured to be invited to join her in South East Asia for a small part of it. My husband, David, completed his nine week sabbatical in August (and has about six more exotic Ironman races to compete in over the next couple of years) and so he put his hand up to look after the children while I flitted off to Hanoi (and Halong Bay) for a week. (Thanks, babe!)
Before leaving, I somehow got the impression that Hanoi’s Old Quarter was going to consist of cobbled streets and French bistros. Whilst I absolutely loved our time there, I wouldn’t say that Hanoi is a beautiful city. It’s a capital city with majestic state department buildings well maintained by the one-party state. The rest is a cacophany of messy micro enterprises, peeling paintwork, a sea of mopeds on every street and pavements stacked with illegally parked scooters. It’s noisy, it’s dilapidated and it’s intense. But it was like nothing I’d ever really experienced before and I had a great time.
Timmy the Tourist in Hanoi
After falling for an elaborate scam on honeymoon in communist Cuba in 2006, my appetite for “authentic” adventure travel waned a little. (Our second honeymoon was a package deal at a 5 star resort in Mauritius – the kind of honeymoon we’d scorned as reserved for the narrow-mind and the dull.) Since having children, I’m all about the kids club and couldn’t care less about never leaving the confines of the resort walls. In Hanoi, however, it was like my twenty-something self was back and I recalled arriving in Rome at age 23 and being bitterly disappointed that all my new international hostel buddies were desperate to find the nearest Irish Pub “where people at least speak English, right?” (With my dreams of meeting sophisticated Italians in the manner of Eat-Pray-Love shattered, I went along to O’Shagans or whatever. When in Rome…do as your fellow backpackers do).
For me, Hanoi was a fantastic mix of what looked and felt like an “authentic” view of Vietnamese life, yet the tourist market is well established so that it still felt like a holiday and not like, ahem, hard work. (I’m getting old). The day we arrived we headed south of the “tourist map”, in search of a particular bridal boutique (Sylvia is getting hitched in November). We walked the streets for a good couple of hours and only saw one other Westerner. This left me with the impression that there were hardly any tourists in the city, which is not the case. Certain streets in the Old Quarter felt almost claustrophobically tourist-centric (backpackers; tour booking outfits; hotels; scooters for rent) but most of Hanoi feels like it’s being enjoyed by the Vietnamese. Even some of the spots obviously aimed at Western tastes in the stylish French Quarter, seem to be largely frequented by locals.
Crossing The Street
On our bridal boutique adventure on Day 1, I stood trying to cross the street for what felt like ages. Sylvia had seen a gap earlier and bolted. I really was trying to be brave but I kept thinking, “I have small children” and honestly, it didn’t just seem unsafe, it seemed impossible. Eventually, a kind local lady came up to me, took me by the arm and calmly led me through this sea of scooters, before nodding and then disappearing, fairy godmother-style. A few days later, I came across this advice for foreigners from a local tour company:
“Beat the Street”
“Some first time visitors are shocked by the way traffic flows and worry about crossing the street. Take a few minutes to watch how Vietnamese people do it: look at the oncoming traffic, but avoid direct eye contact; step slowly but deliberately forward; maybe raise an arm in the air to be seen more clearly; stop if you are unsure if a rider has seen you; never step backwards – no rider will be expecting that.”
There you go, then. Simple.
Walking Food Tour (& Water Puppets Show)
The highlight of the trip for me was the food tour that Sylvia booked. First, our guide dropped us at a water puppets show which is apparently a famous must-see local thing. The concept of water puppets is like nothing I’ve ever seen before, it was stunningly executed and the puppets were beautiful. (It does get a little tedious after a few scenes and you are sitting with a hundred other iPhone touting tourists, but it’s only 50 mins so it’s worth it if you’ve never seen water puppets before.)
After the theatre, we were joined by the lovely Bridget from North London (recently relocated to Singapore) for our walking food tour. Our guide was an irrepressibly bubbly, intelligent, positive 24 year old university graduate named Trang (apparently pronounced more like “Chang”) from Vietnam Awesome Travel. She took us to about five or six eateries (yes, I did lose count) and I absolutely LOVED basically all the food (and I don’t have an incredibly adventurous palate).
I noticed that many of the eateries had some form of English in their signage, obviously hoping to capture the tourist market. Yet, we were almost always the only Westerners in the establishment, so at the risk of sounding corny, the experience did feel pretty authentic.
The One Dish Policy & Street Eateries
Something that took me a while to understand is the concept of restaurant in Hanoi. Firstly, most Vietamese places serve one dish only. It sounds odd but that’s why it was great to have a guide who took us to the best place for pork spring rolls, steamed pancakes or sticky rice yoghurt. The second is that it’s the exception for a restaurant to have adult-sized tables and chairs. Most local eateries have teeny tiny plastic chairs and tables (which, happily I’m quite used to from hanging out with teeny tiny people for the past four years). Apparently, this is partly because the “restaurants” set up on pavements are illegal so small, light, plastic pieces of furniture can be quickly stacked, run away with and hidden. For the legal restaurants in buildings, I get the impression it has to do with space, cost, coming out of communism into fledgling entrepreneurship and because it’s practical: Vietnamese people are mostly small and light. (I am sure that obesity is starting to become an issue as Western influences take hold and as affluence increases, but I did not see many even slightly overweight people in Hanoi – and they eat noodles for breakfast and aren’t shy of pork but there’s always lots of veg and broth, portions are small and the food doesn’t feel heavy).
Scams, Safety, Hawkers and Strangers in Range Rovers
The guide books warn of the classic taxi scam: driving unsuspecting tourist around in circles and charging accordingly, when their destination is actually around the corner. This has spurned a whole sub-market where tourists are encouraged to pay a reputable company up-front for a journey from say, the airport to their hotel, but, unbeknownst to the clueless tourist, get charged a 30% premium over and above a legitimate taxi’s market rate. But at least you weren’t ripped off by a scamster, right? From the constraints of Communism, Capitalist innovation has emerged…
In terms of safety, Sylvia and I walked the city by day and by night. Mostly, vendors tried to hard-sell us bananas from their bicycles or old editions of Lonely Planet from the backs of their mopeds. Otherwise, anyone who was close enough to a Range Rover to suggest that they may own it, tended to break out their best English to engage our attention. Apparently, luxury car purchases attract up to 100% in import taxes, so paying double its value for a Range Rover evidently imbues a man with double the confidence..
Sylvia and I looked at one another on numerous occasions and said “Mom would hate it here!” The traffic and the noise would have driven my mother absolutely crazy and I have to say that by the last day, I was tired of not being able to walk on pavements jam-packed with mopeds and weary of the incessant noise. The history of Vietnam is tragic and heart wrenching and the country’s “state capitalism” is far from democratic. But it was a fascinating experience and I would return to Vietnam in a heartbeat.