Hanoi was our final stop on our adventure through Vietnam, and we were looking forward to visiting the capital city, with its 19th century French architecture, modern skyscrapers and ancient narrow streets. Although by this point we realised the entire place would likely be filled with mopeds.
And it was. After our last few days spent in the relative tranquility of Hạ Long Bay and Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng, the frenetic pace and nine million mopeds of Hanoi took a bit of getting used to. We decided to make the traffic even worse by treating ourselves to a taxi for anything over a 30 minute walk, using the ‘Grab’ app, the southeast Asian version of Uber, but where a 20-minute taxi ride cost only 85p.
We were staying in the Conifer Boutique Hotel on the edge of the French Quarter mainly because it’s directly opposite a delightfully-dilapidated mansion, but it also offered a proper bath, a nice little balcony and a surprisingly extensive breakfast buffet, complete with cake, sushi and dumplings. Lovely.
From our hotel it was a short walk along the bank of Hoàn Kiếm Lake towards the Old Quarter, a maze of streets dating back hundreds of years. The inevitable mopeds weave through the narrow roads of peeling paintwork, and every corner is canopied with tangled nests of cables criss-crossing from house to house. The smoky smell of chicken over a fire blends with slightly sickly sweet smell from the fruit market, and hazy incense wafts out of hidden temples into the streets. Every so often we spotted branches of western shops that we were almost certain that no one in the head office is aware of.
When we had arrived on the sleeper train into Hanoi, we had woken early and watched in amazement as we trundled through a street where the houses and shops were right alongside the railway. The track is so close to the houses that residents have to shut up shop, remove their doormats and lean against the wall to let the train pass. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to be run over by a train, we later visited the same street, although a local chap soon told us that the train was delayed due to a collision further up the line. Probably for the best. As we left, after much debate, we decided that having a train pass right outside your front door once or twice a day was probably better than living on a street where the mopeds provide a constant hum of noise.
We had already sampled bia hơi back in Hội An, but ‘Bia Hơi Junction’ claims to be the best place to go in for the fresh local beer in Vietnam. We sat on our little blue plastic chairs among hundreds of locals, watching them drink beer after beer after beer, before hopping on a moped to go home.
Our plan was to head to a nearby restaurant after a few beers, but couldn’t find it, and decided it must have closed down. Unperturbed, we headed for the sister restaurant of Nha Hang Ngon, which we had previously visited in Ho Chi Minh. Lovely. Or so we thought. We opened the menu and saw that the day’s specials were ‘sparrow’ and ‘swan’. We quickly made our excuses (“don’t worry Nicola, we will literally never see them again”), and escaped in favour of Chim Sao, a restaurant nearby that was recommended in our Lonely Planet guide. After a rainy 20-minute walk along dimly-lit streets, we sat down in Chim Sao, relieved. We then opened the menu, and saw the dish of the day was tortoise.
Once again, we made our excuses (“they don’t know we’ve already run away from a different restaurant”) and left. By now it was nearing 10pm so, defeated by Vietnamese cuisine for the first time in our trip, we headed back to the hotel to order a takeaway. I downloaded the local Deliveroo equivalent (the brilliantly-named Vietnammm), and soon we had burgers and chips delivered directly to our room. All of the local cuisine up until that point had been delicious, but sometimes you just need some comfort food. Unwrapping the paper around my chicken burger with hungry anticipation, I opened wide and took a huge bite. It was completely raw.
Our ever-reliable(!) Lonely Planet guide had recommended a little café, Cafe Phố Cổ, hidden away through a silk shop, which sounded intriguing so we headed there one afternoon. To get to the café terrace, you walk through the silk shop, past the till, through an alleyway where a cockerel lives on a shelf, then up three flights of spiral stairs to a small terrace which looks over Hoàn Kiếm Lake. Before leaving for Vietnam, I had seen a documentary with Simon Reeve where he had tried Cà Phê Trứng, a coffee made with egg in place of milk. Legend has it that the drink was made when milk was in short supply, so they found a way around it by using egg instead. While it was perfectly drinkable, I found it a little too creamy and sweet. I think I’ll stick to standard Vietnamese coffee in future.
Later that day we took an 85p taxi out to Huu Tiep Lake, where an American B-52 bomber was shot down by the Vietnamese during an air raid in 1972. Seen as a victory by the Vietnamese, they left the aircraft in the lake as a reminder of the conflict. Today, a bit of algae-encrusted wing and some twisted remains of the undercarriage are visible. There were no other tourists around, and the only acknowledgement of the wreckage was a small plaque proclaiming the victory of the Vietnamese over the ‘US Imperialists’.
It was just as we were leaving the rather sombre wreckage in the lake that we realised we had left our trusty Lonely Planet book back in the café behind the silk shop. We jumped in a taxi (another 85p), and rushed back to the café, where Nicola found it hidden away behind a till. What a relief. It had been such a reliable companion on the trip that it would have shame to leave it behind. Even if it does recommend tortoise restaurants.
One of the largest coffee shops, and one of our final chances for an authentic Vietnamese coffee, was a chain called Cộng Cà Phê, which are Vietnam War themed, adorned with with lampshades made of military helmets, various states of camouflage and food in ration packs. We weren’t convinced by the décor, but the coffee was great, and our vantage point offered a great view of the roundabout, where we indulged in one of our new favourite hobbies, traffic watching.
We found, to our detriment, that the rain arrives suddenly in Hanoi. We had just left Cộng Cà Phê when the heavens opened, and we were completely drenched in the seconds it took to run across the street to find shelter. But the most amazing thing was the poncho sellers, who appeared out of nowhere within seconds, all offering raincoats and umbrellas in all shapes and sizes, and all at a considerable mark-up. We realised we had no choice but to get one each, so I paid a few hundred dong for the largest on offer, which barely covered my top half. The poncho was clearly designed for a Vietnamese man (average height: 5ft 4 inches), and as a result my shorts, socks and canvas shoes remained completely soaked for the rest of the day.
On our final night in Vietnam we went out for cocktails at the Sofitel Legend Metropole, a luxury, five-star hotel in the heart of the French Quarter. Anyone who is anyone has visited the Sofitel; Graham Greene stayed here while writing The Quiet American, Charlie Chaplin honeymooned here in the 1930s, and it has housed all manner of heads of states, from François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac to Bill Clinton and Vladimir Putin. Nicola and I fitted right in.
The hotel is exactly how you’d expect it to be, a grand colonial building dating back to 1901 with white stucco walls, French shutters, a terrace with a wrought iron canopy, and a couple of pristine vintage Citroëns parked outside. When you get inside, you’re met with gently rotating bamboo ceiling fans, polished wood, and staff in crisp white uniforms.
We headed to one of the bars and ordered cocktails, which came served in sparkling crystal glasses. We sat in the bar, surrounded by beautiful tropical plants and listening to the jazz trio in the corner, and looked back at the photos we had taken during our trip across Vietnam.
Our journey through Vietnam had been an absolutely brilliant adventure. The moped madness of Ho Chi Minh City, the ridiculous cave trek in Phong Nha-Kẻ Bàng, the crumbling paint of Hội An, the hundreds of temples of Huế, the magnificence of Hạ Long Bay; it had all been inspiring, exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure. If you’re thinking of booking a trip to Vietnam, go for it – it’s an amazing country to visit.
Also, a little Vietnamese hat tip to Nicola.
Throughout our trip, she was the best companion you could ever wish for. Unfazed by snakes and tigers, equally happy on a night train or in a cocktail bar, and fearless when faced with unusual foods or mountain roads. Nicola is always a pleasure to travel with, and is always cheerful, hilarious, fun, and eager for an adventure. Cracking girl, that one.