The lights of Hanoi city greeted us as we landed at about 9pm and after exiting immigration and customs, we took a private taxi to our hotel. If it's your first trip to Hanoi, be sure to check out your taxi fares beforehand and the best source would be to refer to your hotel. Most taxis are not metered and you could be easily charged a much higher fare. I must say it was a pretty scarry experience sitting in a Hanoi taxi. The roads are badly lit and motor bikes are everywhere, zig-zagging between other road users. Cars and heavy vehicles as well will use the same roads as the motor bikes. Drivers will flash their car lights and will horn impatiently at each other. In fact I realized throughout our trip there, they tend to horn all the time (so you can imagine how noisy it gets in the city).
I had booked our hotel, Viet Anh II, through the internet after checking out several recommendations posted online by tourists (Viet Anh is also recommended as a budget accommodation by Lonely Planet). The hotel is located along a narrow alley which made it impossible for vehicles other than motor bikes to enter. The taxi had to alight us on the main road and we then took a short walk to the hotel.
Most buildings (including budget hotels) in Hanoi do not have elevators even though they could be six storeys high. Buildings here have a narrow frontage but are extremely long in depth. The reason is because the government tax building owners on the amount of frontage space they occupy only (not bothering about the depth of the building). Because of this it would be practically impossible to include an elevator shaft within the building. As you can guess it, our hotel didn't have one either but luckily for us our room was on the 2nd floor (I really don't think I could cope with 6 flights of stairs with luggage and all).
This hotel is strategically located. Quite a few tourist sights are all within walking distance, as well as local street food and shops. Over the next couple of days we explored the city by foot. The weather was a bit erratic at times. Some days were gloomy and rained, and other days it was extremely hot and humid. Coming from a developed country like Singapore, Hanoi was a real change. I told my husband that I felt as if I had moved back into time.
Majority of the locals commuted by motor bikes. You can even see ladies in office attire with 3" heels riding motor bikes to work. The streets are jammed with them! Most of the streets do not have traffic lights and the motor bikes would somehow manage to move through street junctions without encountering any accidents. There seems to be an "unspoken" rule here and amongst all this chaos, there is a form of order! Amazing! Crossing the roads is also another feat for foreigners but to the locals it's nothing at all. We learnt that you just need to walk steadily, make no sudden moves, and the motorbikes will weave around you as you walk. As a first timer, it was really unnerving but after a day or 2, you sort of get the hang of it.
It is also quite unique that any building or alley way or blank wall could be converted to either an advertisement board or cafe for the locals to chat and have a cuppa.
You will also encounter a lot of street vendors selling all sort of goods such as freshly cut flowers, fruit, fresh fish and meat, noodles and baguette.
The oldest church in Hanoi, St Joseph's Cathedral, is just located within a stone's throw to our hotel. St Joseph's Cathedral was known simply as the "Big Church" among the Vietnamese of Hanoi. The church was consecrated on the night of Christmas in 1886 by the French. The style of the cathedral was intended to resemble the Notre Dame of Paris. When the communists took over Hanoi, freedom of religion was suppressed for three decades. Only in 1990 was restrictions relaxed and the church started resuming services and the Vietnamese people once again enjoy freedom of worship.
The hotel is also near to Hoan Kiem Lake which means "Lake of the Returned Sword" or "Lake of the Restored Sword". This lake is one of the major scenic spots in the city and serves as a focal point for its public life. You will see locals just sitting by the lake side and chatting with their friends. Groups of young and old would be doing their daily exercise around the lake (either jogging, walking or doing tai-chi). We even caught sight of this elderly lady using a roadside metal chain to exercise her legs - it was quite funny seeing this especially when she was so near to a policeman trying to direct morning traffic.
Near the northern shore of Hoan Kiem Lake lies Jade Island on which the Ngoc Son Temple (Jade Mountain Temple) stands. The temple was erected in the 18th century. It honors the 13-century military leader Tran Hung Dao who distinguished himself in the fight against the Yuan Dynasty, Van Xuong, a scholar, and Nguyen Van Sieu, a Confucian master and famous writer in charge of repairs made to the temple in 1864. Jade Island is connected to the shore by the wooden red-painted Huc Bridge (The Huc, meaning Morning Sunlight Bridge). This bridge can be found in most postcards of Hanoi. The morning we were there, it was a very gloomy day, dull skies and slight rain. We caught sight of a wedding couple on the bridge having their photographs taken.
About a 25 minute walk from where we're at, is the Dong Xuan market. Located in the Old French Quarter area, Dong Xuan Market, or Cho Dong Xuan, is the oldest and largest market in Hanoi. It is located at Dong Xuan Street, at the end of Hang Dao Street, on the northern part of the Old Quarters. The original building was constructed in 1889, on the site of one of Hanoi's lakes. It is a street market spreading over a surface of 600 square meters, occupying half of the street. Approximately fifty businesses are operating the forty stands selling food, artifacts, souvenirs and tour packages among others.
The streets outside Dong Xuan market was really congested with traffic. In addition each street seemed to be selling similar items example one entire street could be displaying weaved baskets, another street was selling metal wares, the next was children's toys, or cushions and blankets.
Hope you had fun reading this but do stay tuned for Part 2 of my trip!