First, the streets.
They wind across the entire area in a beautifully haphazard manner, with no real sidewalks nor pedestrian- friendly paths. On certain sections, you share broken pathways with coffee drinkers seated in rows and motorcycles randomly parked. When it rains, grayish water pools in the many potholes along the streets, cleaning out days of accumulated dirt. Even so, Hanoians sun odd herbs and rice at the edge of pavements where the grey puddles once stood, oblivious to the dust and soot settling on their edibles. Honking is part of the charm of Hanoi where lane discipline and traffic lights are blatantly disregarded by the motorcyclists notorious for doing so. Thread around with care, keep your pace steady and don’t make sudden movements they said. I followed suit and crossed the roads just fine.
Then, the lush setting.
The greenery around the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake provided respite from the sun and exuded a certain calmness and tranquility that is juxtaposed against the cacophony of sounds just one lane away. Encapsulated within the lake is a pretty red bridge leading to a temple which lent to the peace of the surroundings. Early morning taichi practitioners, joggers, strollers dot the perimeter of the lake engrossed in their own craft. The vibe is good and much like home.
Last, the fun haggling.
Some love getting lost along intertwining streets. But I like to know where I am going, straying often. Armed with sufficient info, I wandered into the streets. The walk was wonderful, people friendly and bargains fabulous. I did not feel unsafe on my own and did not have to be overly watchful of my surroundings. Coffee was great and cafes most interesting. I spent 6 hours walking the area without feeling the time pass. Once I had the map of the area drawn up in my head, it was easy.
Useful nuggets of info:
A list of street names and what you will find there:
Cau Go (women’s accessories)
Dong Xuan St (market)
Hang Bac St (silver)
Hang Bo (sewing bits)
Hang Buom (candies,wine,weasel coffee)
Hang Can (stationery)
Hang Dau (shoes/night market)
Hang Gai (silk)
Hang Hom (lacquerware and bamboo)
Hang Ruoi (artificial flowers)
Nguyen Huu Huan (coffee street)
Thuoc Bac (tools)
If you’re looking for cute souvenirs, this place (Phuc Loi along Hang Gai) sells wooden stamps that are customizable. Pick a stamp with a picture you like and he can carve out a name in minutes at USD3 or 67 Dongs each. Very popular with Japanese tourists:
Oriberry Cafe (several branches in Hanoi) sources coffee beans from the tribal villages of Vietnam. It functions as a social enterprise that also takes care of the farmers who produce beans for them. I had the egg coffee with cinnamon – smells like pudding with coffee, but is fragrant. It comes with lotus green tea to help wash down the lingering eggy taste.