Stepping into the madness that is Hanoi, Vietnam

getting off the airport in Hanoi, after spending more than 24 hours flying and waiting and more flying, is a confusing and overwhelming experience. Within 5 minutes you’ll be dealing with all the common challenges that travel in Asia brings. You step outside the airport doors and you’re hit by the overwhelming heat and humidity, I guarantee you’ll break a sweat after ten steps. Afterwards you’ll face the common Asian challenge of dealing with the taxi driver. And when you finally found a ride into the city you’ll be faced with perhaps the most shocking thing in Hanoi: The traffic.

Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, is home to about 7 million people and more than 4 million motor bikes. And it seems that all of them are driving around at the same time. If you’re lucky your taxi or shuttle will drop you off in front of your accommodation. I was not lucky, I had to walk several blocks to find my way from the shuttle drop off to my hostel. And of course that includes crossing the street several times.


It took me about 15 minutes and 6 street crossings to get to my hostel. And crossing the street in this city is an art form. no matter which street you’re trying to cross there is a constant onslaught of traffic headed your way, hundreds of motorbikes and perhaps some cars and buses to. Waiting for a gap is pointless since they rarely happen. You literally have to just step on the road and start walking very slowly, just have faith that the motorbikes will do their best to avoid hitting you.

The first couple of crossings I was terrified. Like most first timers I just kept waiting for a gap but that didn’t happen. So with much hesitation I started walking as dozens of bikes passed me by. Once I finally made it across I was pretty proud of myself, especially once I saw some other tourists still waiting for a gap. I continue to walk for a few minutes and then this game of frogger starts again. Thankfully this meant I could get used to it pretty quickly. And now after a few days it’s already become second nature.


Hanoi is one of the oldest cities in all of Vietnam. It celebrated it’s 1000th anniversary in 2010. It was the capital of French Indochina until 1954 and after unification of north and south Vietnam in 1976 it became the capital of the country. Hanoi’s heart is the Hoan Kiem Lake, where each morning people gather to practice t’ai chi and old men play chess.


I started my first day in Hanoi walking around the lake and visiting Ngoc Son temple. This Buddhist temple on a little island in the lake can be reached by crossing the iconic and beautiful hoc (rising son) bridge. From here I made my way into the old quarter. Here you can experience Asia on it’s best. Anything you can image that could be sold is being sold in one of the many streets of the maze-like old city. There are more food stalls and restaurants than you could possibly try in a lifetime. It is a joy to just wander around here aimlessly and just get lost. Each street has a specialty for what they sell, so there is a street where they sell only shoes, one where they sell silk or one with only Buddha shrines and statues. But there are also more unusual streets like the one where they sell only stuffed animals, or a street with only rope and tape. And of course there are also plenty of streets that could simply be described as tourism streets.


Having had my fill of old town charm I spend the rest of my time exploring other interesting sites. The temple of literature is a lovely and quiet spot, one of the few places to get away from the noise. I learned about 2000 years of Vietnamese history at the history museum and I think I can conclude that Vietnam’s history of kings and lords is even more complicated than that of Game of Thrones. I also visited the remains of the Hỏa Lò Prison, an old prison build by the french to detain members of the communist party and revolutionairies. Prisoners were kept here under terrible conditions in tiny cramped cells. Many detainees were beheaded by a guillotine still on display in one of the more gruesome chambers of the old prison: the death row.

Another Bizarre sight in Hanoi is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Here the body of the great revolutionary and liberator of the Vietnamese people is displayed in a glass coffin where it looks like he died only yesterday. It’s a fascinating look into how the Vietnamese people see their greatest hero and how a man who wanted a simple funeral instead is being displayed like it’s a ride in Disneyland.


Beyond that there is not that much to do in the city, there isn’t much of a nightlife (although the party atmosphere in the hostel certainly makes up for that), there are few interesting buildings or places to visit. Mostly it’s just hot, lou,d chaotic and mad. But it’s still a fascinating introduction to this country, it’s friendly people, it’s delicious food and yes, also it’s complete madn