There is a lot of noise in Hanoi. I understand that it is probably nothing compared to the bigger cities of the world – Shanghai, New York, Tokyo, Mumbai (and in fact, by population, Hanoi is only the 72nd biggest city, next to Sydney in 73rd spot (according to this website http://www.worldatlas.com/citypops.htm)) – but picture this. Give 3+ million people scooters, then give some of them a taxi as well, and give everyone else a bicycle. Then give every single one of these vehicles in Hanoi a horn – anything from ‘beep beep’ to ‘la cu coracha!’ – with the instruction to use the horn as often as possible, at a minimum of once every ten seconds. Finally, put all these vehicles on the road at once, without any proper intersections, traffic lights, or right of way rulings. Traffic. Mayhem. This is without a doubt the noisiest city I’ve ever been in, where the normal noises of cars on the road is ignored and all you can hear are horns. Some horns are basic, others fade in and out. I even saw a bike with strobe lights and a corn configured to flash and make sound more or less frequently, depending on how fast he peddled. Horn sounds everywhere, all day, every day.
Without the basic engineering marvels of roads that run parallel to each other, and some simple signs to show who should stop and who should go, then you leave yourself open to problems, namely traffic accidents. Particularly if drivers are beeping at each other every 10 seconds. But from what I’ve seen, there are very few accidents on Hanoi’s roads, despite the lack of structure to their road system. And the horns seem to be just a way of letting everyone else (in the city, I think) know that you are driving there as well. I suppose that’s ideal, given the structure (or lack of) of the old quarter. Let me give you an idea of what I’m talking about.
This photo is courtesy of Google Maps, and show’s the area in which we’re staying in Hanoi, known as the old quarter. In the bottom right, you have Hoan Kiem Lake, which turns out to be a good spot to mention to taxi drivers, and also the home of the (Un)Lucky Turtle. At the top right of this lake, you can see the word ‘Hanh’ – that’s where our hotel is! Once we established our whereabouts on the map, we felt ready to set off in search of sights/food/stuff.
Mistake #1: Don’t ever assume that there is only one ‘Hang Gai’ in Hanoi. There will be a few.
Looking for a restaurant called Little Hanoi, we each pulled up Google Maps and were shown two different maps. Did we mean Hang Gai, or Hang Giay? I know they are spelled differently, but how am I to specify this difference in a city where language is so tonal? Long story short, we walked to both. We found Little Hanoi on the Hang Gai, even though it was listed on Google as being at Hang Giay, but it still wasn’t the small, local restaurant we were searching for. It was obviously one of the other 5 restaurants/hotels in the district by the exact same name.
Mistake #2: Don’t ever assume you know which way is north.
After trekking to the very top of this picture, we never came across the Little Hanoi we were searching for, so we gave up and looked for food closer to home. Along the way, Jamie remarked that he understood this place now, and had in his mind the correct map of where we should be heading. I was not so sure. Following him, and checking the map every intersection to work out where we were, I still let him lead, because he ‘understood’ Hanoi. Well, no, not really. Bless his enthusiasm but as the road we were walking along turned a sort-of 90 degree angle, he was out by miles. He believed we were now travelling south west, but in fact were were due east. And fortunately only minutes away from a good restaurant for dinner!
Mistake #3: Don’t ever stop for traffic. See the traffic, trust the traffic, and step forth into the traffic. Don’t run!
We learned this lesson on our very first night. On our way into Hanoi from the airport, we saw people walking across freeways, stopped in the middle of the road on bicycles, and leaning against very busy roundabouts to make out. Despite the manic traffic, the slowest of all – the pedestrians – were acting like the kings and queens of the city, and budging for no one. As we dropped our bags off at our hotel and went out for dinner, we quickly understood why. If, as a pedestrian, you didn’t just set out and cross the road when YOU were ready, you’d never get a chance. There are hardly any traffic lights, intersections and pedestrians crossings, and the traffic NEVER let’s up, night and day, so when you are ready to walk across the road, just do it. Do it with confidence, with purpose, and do it carefully but quickly, while never running. Actually, that was our way of doing it, but we saw some more skilled locals doing it without any awareness at all – chatting on phones, running across in speeding traffic, and strolling slowly with friends as if Hanoi was run on their time.
And finally, the main lesson: When in doubt, order Chicken with Cashew Nuts from New Day Restaurant. Best I’ve had across Thailand, Laos and Vietnam so far!
We’ll head out of Hanoi soon and into the tranquil waters of Halong Bay. At least, we hope they’re tranquil – fingers crossed that the boats haven’t all been equipped with horns, as well!