Vietnam – Ha Noi
After Kati left us to go back to England (sad times) Abs and I flew straight from Ho Chi Minh (which is in the southern end of Vietnam) to Ha Noi, right up North. From here, we’re going to explore the Northern highlands and then work our way back down to HCM (so simple – ha ha) 😉
We arrived in Ha Noi on a Saturday night and climbed out of our taxi in the Old Quarter to discover that the streets were packed with people and bikes, the sounds of conversations, incessant moped horns and the shouts of street vendors mingling in the humid air with the smell of frying meat and pho. The crowd was mostly locals, sitting on low stools around tables that had spilled out of the cafes on either side of the street and onto the pavement so far that they almost met in the middle, making walking between the tightly packed diners a bit of a squeeze. The streets were so full of people it felt more like a festival than a Saturday night and part of me wanted to go and dance and drink Bia Hoi in one of the tiny little bars playing (of all things) 90s garage music, but I was sweaty enough already in the dense, close humidity and dying to crawl into an air conditioned hotel room (weak) while the youth of Ha Noi ate, drank and danced the night away in the maze of crowded streets and neon bars. (Sorry for the blurry photo above – it kind of shows what it was like!)
The Old Quarter, as the name suggests, has a certain aged charm to it, and the labyrinthine streets are filled with dozens of little shops, each seemingly full to bursting with a million different colourful things, while bikes laden with fruit, carts of street food and crazy skilful moped riders dart around amongst all the chaos. Abs and I stepped out into the fierce heat of a Ha Noi morning, and loved the city instantly.
Our wandering took us along wide shady streets lined with hardware stores, down narrow alleyways full of food stalls, to the impressive East Gate, past shrines of all kinds, through gaggles of fruit sellers, across terrifying crossings (nobody even stops for red lights here, they just have an unnerving ability to avoid pedestrians which I have every faith in) and finally to the central market.
The market is housed in a large three storey building, like a shopping mall filled with stalls selling clothes, bags, shoes and all kinds of other things, from underwear to chopsticks, t shirts and keyrings and bowls made from coconut shells. The second and third floors are filled with piles and piles of clothes of all kinds compartmentalised into tiny stalls. I was so tempted by the selection of matching outfits (the Vietnamese appreciate the power of a matching shorts and t shirt combo and I love that about them) but the piles of clothes were mainly being used as makeshift beds for the stall holders’ afternoon naps – a neat solution which never the less makes browsing rather tricky.
We wandered on through the shady streets, bought a bag of the most amazing sweet pineapple from a street vendor, passed an adorable stationery shop absolutely stuffed with beautiful notepads and tiny pretty ‘things’ which Abi near enough had to drag me out of, and finally found the huge central lake. It’s strange to see such a large lake at the centre of this insanely busy city, but we were able to find a spot in the shade and look out at the ‘floating’ Turtle Temple, which is so pretty, although it is now dwarfed by the banks and office buildings on the opposite shore.
That evening we ate Bun Cha crouched on stools in the stifling heat that seems to rise in waves from the hot pavement long after the sun has set, and then wandered through the crowded streets to a huge night market which ran the length of one of the main streets. It was a bit less tourist-oriented than others we’ve seen, and we picked out some clothes that I can’t wait to wear back in the UK. Abi also bought some flip flops because hers had broken, but I think the fact that she was wearing a piece of foam strapped to her foot with a hairband may have somewhat reduced her bartering power.
Now I have to go pack up my bag which has inexplicably become full of bowls made from coconut shells…