When you make the jump from sleepy Vientiane to Hanoi, life becomes more exciting-whether it’s adjusting to the food, or something as simple as pulling up one of the tiny plastic chairs that dot the city’s sidewalks.
For some people, mountain climbing gives an adrenaline rush, while for others, it’s all about bungee jumping; however, my main thrill now comes from risking my life every time I cross a road in Hanoi.
Drivers here won’t stop at a pedestrian crossing, no matter how long you wait. When I arrived I was told that you’ll never make it across if you don’t have the courage to step forward and not look back.
And that has proven true. The cars and motorbikes will all swerve around a crossing pedestrian, so long as they move at a steady pace.
I have also been surprised to see many older people crossing the street without drivers stopping to let them pass. There isn’t the same respect for the elderly in Hanoi as in Laos.
I often question how anyone with a weak heart can handle the constant and stressful presence of motorbike horns.
In Laos using a horn is impolite. Thai people honk to indicate their approach or out of frustration, while in the Philippines drivers may use the horn when they’re in a hurry, but here it seems to be used at random. And constantly.
If you’re not born and bred in the country, driving can be a serious risk as most motorists never signal when they turn. Drivers regularly pull out in front of you without warning and just a momentary lapse of concentration can lead to a serious accident.
A Vietnamese friend told me riding a bicycle might be safer as it would give me more control, but I suspect the risk would be the same-most drivers just ignore the road rules and no amount of control makes that safer.
My Filipino friend drove for years in his hometown without an accident, but a lack of understanding about driving in Hanoi caused him to crash while riding his bicycle to work.
The papers often carry reports of foreigners being involved in accidents, but comprehensive crash statistics are not available.
I often consider giving up on my motorbike and travelling by bus or taxi instead-services which are considerably cheaper than in Vientiane. Buses cost VND5,000 per ride, while metered taxis start from VND8,000.
Thanh Nga and Sao Hanoi are my preferred taxi services as the drivers are fair and the prices reasonable, unlike others that can cheat you on the meter.
Peak hour traffic can jam the streets in Hanoi, but getting around is still easier than bigger cities like Bangkok or Jakarta.
Mild food, simple eating
Vietnamese food bears some similarities to that in Laos, in that both focus on herbs and vegetables, but the lack of spice and saltiness has made me homesick for papaya salad.
The need for spicy food was a cause for concern, but I have discovered most restaurants will cater to my tastes by adjusting some of Vietnam’s staple meals-pho (noodle soup) and bun cha (rice noodles with grilled pork)-by adding chili.
Pho is a popular breakfast and dinner food in Hanoi and has been an integral part of Vietnamese culture since the early 20th century.
One friend told me you haven’t really arrived in Vietnam until you’ve had a bowl of pho-the same as we would say about laab and sticky rice in Laos. With pho eateries plentiful across the city, it’s pretty hard to miss out on the dish.
People are easy-going with their eating in Hanoi, often just sitting around the sidewalk on plastic chairs while vendors offer food from pots on small tables.
The relaxed style of eating is in contrast to the lifestyle of the Vietnamese. Many people are so focused on their work and study they forget to smile and chat. Some Vietnamese people are very friendly, but sometimes an extra smile would go a long way to easing a strained situation.
By contrast, life in Laos is slow and smiles come readily, however, I worry that will die out once the Asean Economic Community begins and competition increases.
When the pho gets too much or you want a change from the sidewalk eating, Hanoi is also home to world-class restaurants and an abundance of international fast food chains.
A healthy nightlife
Hanoi’s nightlife makes forming friendships a breeze. Bars line the streets, people sit on plastic chairs having a drink and it’s easy to open up to a stranger and get chatting.
There’s plenty of variety in the social scene-quiet roadside bars for a casual drink, more classy establishments for a glass of wine, a hotel bar for the real top-end drinkers, or live music cafes for those looking for a bit of atmosphere.
Drinking here is at a social level. Younger locals have a single beer or a fruit shake when they meet up. It’s different from the Lao way-one bottle to warm up, 10 to get the night going.
It offers me some encouragement to drink less, but then again, Vietnam reportedly has one of the highest beer consumption rates in the world. With a population of 90 million that drinks daily, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Most of Hanoi’s nightlife is centred around Hoan Kiem Lake and the Old Quarter. Bars, cafes and nightclubs in close proximity to each other ensure a good night out.
It is relatively safe to travel at night and the beer is reasonably priced. Plus, there’s the excitement of hurriedly moving from the sidewalk into the bar when police arrive.
Local authorities don’t allow chairs on the pavement, as it hinders the city’s clean-up plans. That said, it’s always amusing when, the moment the police have disappeared, the sidewalk scene resumes as normal and Hanoi becomes itself again.