When you travel to Hanoi Vietnam, there’s no doubt about it, the sensory overload is acute.
It’s a rapid-fire, living collage of sounds, scents, and mind-blowing snapshots of life.
The question is, how can you survive it and avoid curling into a ball in your hotel room, weeping, watching television programs dubbed in a language you don’t understand.
From the smells wafting from the street food to the overwhelming scent of fish sauce, from the buzz of a thousand motor scooters speeding around you and roaches climbing up from the sewer to the rats that scurry across your path at night, from the language to the winding alleyways to the mass of people, it should be no surprise that Hanoi can overwhelm. This is particularly true if it’s your first visit to a country in Southeast Asia. And if you go in August, as we did, you’ll be alternately soaked and steamed inside your clothing from the relentless rain and heat.
Hanoi is not for the faint of heart.
But being overwhelmed by Hanoi is a beautiful thing. Because it is only in the face of the unfamiliar, the fantastic, the unfathomable, that we get overwhelmed. And why travel, if not to find heaping servings of each of these?
If sameness is what you want, if underwhelm is what you seek, certainly a staycation or four-star all-inclusive would be more your speed. Or, the heck with it, cash out your PTO and spend the money on more of the same sameness you’ve grown accustomed to.
Travel, real travel, calls us to step outside of our comfort zones.
And Hanoi delivers.
The trick is to take the city in measured doses. Space out your overwhelming moments, and intersperse them with moments of calm.
Exploring Hanoi by Morning
For a soft landing, do your initial exploration early in the morning. That’s when the food vendors take to the sidewalks, setting up shop, bringing a kettle to boil for the day’s offering. The steam rises in gentle clouds. The scooters are sporadic, almost tentative. Maybe there’s a gentle rain. People pull up a stool, and crouch over a bowl of soup with unmatched reverence.
Or find a coffee shop, grab a chair and some of that strong, bitter joe Vietnam is famous for, and watch the craziness accelerate by you as the city awakens.
You can even walk by Hoan Kiem Lake to see locals in their morning exercise routine. It is quiet, and relatively calm in the mornings.
This is the underbelly of Hanoi. The gentlest part of the day. Savor it.
From here, it’s a rollercoaster. But a delightful one at that. Let go of the handlebars, put your arms in the air, and brace for the rush.
Crossing the Street in Hanoi
Try crossing a street in Hanoi at 8 a.m. and you’ll see what I mean. The scooters–and there are many–don’t stop. Not for you, not for anyone.
This is what it’s like to cross the street in Hanoi.
Many a terrified tourist has done the falter-backstep-sprint-across move. It doesn’t end well. You see, the motorbike drivers have quick reflexes, but you’ll significantly improve your odds of surviving crossing the street if you just walk, and keep a steady pace. Bonus points if you don’t look at the traffic, but keep your eyes straight ahead. Sure it’s unnerving, but trust me, it helps.
When you cross the street, what will you find on the other side? Chances are, some hella good food.
The Food of Hanoi
When it comes to culinary delights, Hanoi keeps up with the best of them. Your best strategy for dealing with the overwhelming number of options is to succumb. After all, Hanoi food is cheap and wonderful. See something delicious? Can’t tell what it is? Does it smell great? Is it strange and you feel compelled to try it? You might never see it again. So you owe it to yourself to simply dive in. Just point, smile, and grab a miniature stool.
Whether it’s for some amazing bun cha….rice noodles, herbs, meat wrapped in betel leaf then grilled street-side….
Or perhaps the incomparable banh cuon. Oh, banh cuon, where have you been all my life? Fresh made rice noodle wrapped around savory wood ear mushrooms and ground pork, rolled up, topped with fried shallots and dipped in a vinegary sauce. I can’t even begin to tell you how delicious this is. Nothing I’ve ever had before tastes like banh cuon.
The Creepy Crawlies
Hanoi has its share of creepy crawlies. A black centipede that no doubt crawled up from the drain found its way into our hotel room. Centipedes are my kryptonite, reducing me to a shaking mess. My nephew was the fearless one; he corralled it in a cup saucer and hotel staff apologetically whisked it away. Ewww.
Besides the occasional centipede, you’ll see a good number of roaches climbing up from the sewers in Hanoi. It can be unnerving for those who are not used to dining with such scavenging companions, but you’ll have to make peace with it if you’re dining street side.
There are also a lot of rats in Vietnam. On our first night in Hanoi, my nephew and I went in search of food near beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake. As we dined on bahn mi and corn with dried shrimp, rats scurried around us. Hundreds of them. A night walk at Hoan Kiem Lake is not for the rat-averse. You’ve been warned.
You can also eat your creepy crawlies…or drink them, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Scorpion snake wine, anyone?
Hanoi has a vibrant nightlife. Food stalls stay open late. People drink bia hoi, the local fresh tap beer that sells for about a quarter to fifty cents, while sitting on little stools on the sidewalks. And there are bia hoi places filled with locals, who are no doubt enjoying a cold one while solving the world’s problems, as we’re all apt to do.
You may also want to tuck in to a cozy, quiet bar in one of the city’s narrow alleys. Take a seat, chat with locals and other travelers. We found a cute place just across the street from our hotel, a watering hole that was little more than a cooler, a laptop and a few stools. We couldn’t have been happier.
We became repeat customers at the place, which was a tourist office by day, and a little bar by night. The lone employee would let us take turns playing music off of youtube. We got to know a few of the regulars, and made some friends.
I’d heard that bars close early in Hanoi–so that said, night life ends by midnight. But our little bar seemed to stay open after this curfew.
One night, the police showed up. The worker tried to close the garage-like door, to hide us. But the jig was up. The police patiently waited while we settled our tabs and crossed the street to our 4th floor walk-up.
We’re not sure what happened, but we never saw that bar open for the rest of our time in Hanoi.
Other Sensory Delights of Hanoi
I could write forever on the sensory delights of Hanoi, Vietnam.
I always tell people Southeast Asia is like a fever dream. Hanoi ranks right up there.
But if you want your mind blown, if you want to change your perspective, if you want to shift the camera on your life and the lives of others, there’s nothing like the sensory overload of Hanoi to get you there.
In spite of the onslaught from all ends of the sensory spectrum, it’s likely to be the only fever dream you miss when it’s over.
Charish Badzinski is an explorer and award-winning features, food and travel writer. When she isn’t working to build her blog: Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World, she applies her worldview to her small business, Rollerbag Goddess Global Communications, providing powerful storytelling to her clients.
Posts on the Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World travel blog are never sponsored and have no affiliate links, so you know you will get an honest review, every time.
Rollerbag Goddess Rolls the World by Charish Badzinski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.