Life Travel Coffee, history and world-class motorcyclists: 10 things to love (or not) about Hanoi

Coffee, history and world-class motorcyclists: 10 things to love (or not) about Hanoi

life in hanoir
Hanoi's old quarter is an ancient tangle of streets – and railway lines. Photo: Getty
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Leaving one of Australia’s orderly main centres to live in a bustling Asian city can be quite the culture shock.

While travel brochures are filled with information about Vietnam’s spectacular scenery and sights, delicious food and great bargains, there are rapid discoveries to be made by staying a few days longer.

I left Australia earlier this year to work as an English teacher in Vietnam’s capital city, an ancient city of nearly 8 million people with a rich history stretching back thousands of years.

After going through all the hoops to live here – finding a place to live, setting up a bank account, getting visas and other essentials, all while speaking only a few words of Vietnamese – I’ve been delighted by how good-natured people are. This is a nation that doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

Here are 10 things I’ve learnt while living in Hanoi.

1. Footpaths

life in hanoi
These footpaths are made for anything but walking. Photo: Anne Hall

Unlike Australia, where footpaths are for pedestrians and the occasional cafe chair, in Hanoi they are multipurpose and can be less than a metre wide.

Footpaths are used to park the city’s five million motorbikes, as a place for barbers and other professionals to render their services or for cafe tables and mini plastic chairs.

Trees, dogs and free-range chickens can also be found. If there is no room on the footpath, just walk on the road.

2. What wakes you up

After living in central Melbourne, I would recommend sleeping in Hanoi, it is far quieter. Sirens won’t wake you up in the small hours.

In the dawn hours, the crowing of roosters is the only disturbance to sleep. While roosters have long been banished from Melbourne’s CBD, it’s nice to hear the sound of the country in a city.

3. So much history

There is so much to see and so much to know about what you see that it is worth taking tours, with a huge variety available.

Key sites in Hanoi include the Temple of Literature, the temple at Hoan Kiem Lake, Thang Long Citadel and Hoa La Prison. The stunning Hanoi Opera House is open only for performances, but there are scores more places worth visiting within Hanoi and outside it.

life in hanoi
Hanoi’s splendid opera house, beneath the city’s ever-present grey sky. Photo: Anne Hall

4. Pity the animals

It is common to see birds imprisoned in tiny cages, turtles trapped in minute amounts of water or fish thrashing in small buckets. These sights can be seen just walking around, and there’s worse in markets.

Out of sight, it is even grimmer. Vietnam is a world centre for criminal wildlife trafficking.

5. Arts are flourishing

life in Hanoi
Crafts for sale in Hanoi’s old quarter. Photo: Anne Hall

The old quarter has a warren of small, narrow streets to get lost in.

Here can be a found a wonderful array of arts and crafts, ranging from the latest fashions to cute homewares, beautiful hand-drawn cards and pictures, patchwork, embroidery, silks, original jewellery, posters and artworks, textiles in all shapes and forms, a fusion of modern and traditional skills.

6. World-class motorbike riders

I wonder what test Vietnam’s motorcyclists have to pass because every day I see world-class stuntmen and women who weave, dodge and miss other traffic by mere centimetres.

I’ve seen plant nurseries carried on motorbikes, the entire stock of small stalls, portable restaurants, families with dad driving and mum, three kids and grandma on the back of a scooter, three-metre long metal poles cheerfully carried by a pillion passenger.

It seems imagination is the only limit on the carrying capacity of a motorbike.

7. C is for coffee

Vietnam has excellent coffee, both in cafes and supermarkets. It’s the world’s second biggest exporter of coffee after Brazil, and wonderful coffee can be found in the smallest cafes.

The usual range is available, plus two local classics: Cold coffee with ice cubes and condensed milk and egg coffee, a delicious confection that is midway between a coffee and a dessert.

8. The roads

life in hanoi
The traffic is manic, and road rules optional. Photo: Getty

Obeying traffic lights is optional for many road users and crossing roads is an extreme sport for pedestrians. Don’t expect traffic to stop when crossing the road on a green, you will still have to dodge vehicles.

According to the federal government’s Smartraveller website, Australians are four times more likely to be killed in a motor vehicle accident in Vietnam than in Australia.

9. Green thumbs

All over Hanoi, intrepid flower sellers battle the traffic with bikes and scooters overflowing with fresh blooms.

Florist shops sprout up everywhere, some entirely with artificial blooms, others filled with fresh stock brought in from the countryside. Public spaces are adorned with hanging baskets filled with flowers and teams of workers in mollusc hats tend to public gardens and roadside verges.

10. Grey skies

The monochrome sky is not a meteorological phenomenon, somewhere there is sunshine but don’t expect to see it in Hanoi.

The sky never changes; it is always grey during the day and dark at night without stars. In April, Hanoi was rated the second most polluted city in South-East Asia.

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