We arrived in Hanoi in the morning. As always when we arrive in a country, our first task was to find an ATM, but both the train station’s ATM’s were out of order. The nearest one was about a half hour walk with our packs. Fortunately, communication was easy – most people seemed to speak some basic level of English.
We grabbed a cab to our hotel Thu Giang Guesthouse in the Old City. Finally, we were definitely back in backpacker land. Laundry, Internet, Tours, everything arranged for you for a reasonable price. We dropped our bags and headed out to see the sites. It didn’t take long. We quickly checked out Hoan Kiem Lake and Ngoc Son temple, and then started doing the Lonely Planet’s walking tour. The shopping in the Old City was great – and by far the best quality and cheapest prices we saw in Vietnam (much better than Saigon). Unfortunately we didn’t know this, and decided to press on with the walking tour instead of relaxing and shopping.
Traffic in Hanoi was extremely, extremely challenging. As a pedestrian, it was the most stressful city we’d ever been in (only to be topped in a week’s time by Saigon). All the bicycles that you see in postcards of Vietnam’s cities have been replaced by scooters and motorbikes. Unfortunately, the government hasn’t really kept up with that rate of change. There are no pedestrian crosswalks, no traffic lights, and no traffic police. There is a real sense of anarchy as soon as one steps onto the street. Basically, as our guidebook explained, the only way to cross the street is to just walk into the oncoming stream of traffic, and walk at a slow, steady pace across the road, trusting that they will weave around you. If you slow down mid-way, you will confuse them and are more at risk. If you wait for a break, you’ll never get anywhere as the crowds of teens loop their way around the city, cruising. As in many cities, sidewalks are mostly non-existent, having been taken over by parked vehicles, shops, or restaurants.
So, we didn’t really enjoy the walking tour that much. In the evening we headed out to the Thang Long Water Puppet Theater, which was very entertaining – definitely a must-do if you’re in Hanoi. It’s worth paying the extra money to get closer seats. We bought the tickets a couple of hours in advance.