At Home in Hanoi

20 Jul

Hanoi is an exciting place. It has a lovely old age charm to it and feels like a quintessentially Asian city, full of Pagodas and street-side vendors. This traditional setting combined with the modern buzz of an emerging youth culture who are increasingly influenced by Western societies, creates a marvelous juxtaposition of old meets new. It is currently a city undergoing change and caught between two opposing generations.

flower lady 2

The older cohort are traditionalists, clinging on to their Soviet values and supporting the 11.30pm curfew (which is enforced reasonably rigorously by the local police – don’t worry, there are ways around it). Then there are the young Vietnamese, with their iPhones, skinny jeans and K-POP inspired haircuts. With a love of anything Western, they insist on eating KFC and any other kind of fried food in favour of traditional dishes such as ‘pho ga’ and ‘bun cha’.

young vietnam

It is an interesting time to be here, for sure. Over the last five years, most bicycles have been replaced by motorized Honda Waves and shiny new Vespas. There is increasing artistic freedom, with an emerging music and arts scene that is beginning to take off and become recognized out with the confines of Hanoi. There is more foreign investment in the country and new businesses pop up frequently. This has, in turn, led to a gradually wealthier population, an increased cost of living and subsequent changing values. The city now has an ALDO and a Louis Vuitton, something that would have been completely out of place a few years ago. Slowly catching up with neighbouring countries, the demand to learn English in Vietnam is currently massive and it is a fantastic time to be a teacher here.

Crossroads in Hanoi

Crossroads in Hanoi

Having identified Vietnam as our chosen destination to teach English before actually visiting the country, I was anxious as to how we would find it. Having heard mixed reports from fellow travellers and claims that the country can be very racist and unfriendly, I was on edge as we took our taxi from Noi Ba airport into Hanoi. I needn’t have worried and after our first few hours in the Northern capital, I began to breathe a sigh of relief. Despite the craziness (or perhaps because of it?), we loved it here as soon as we arrived. The people of the North are reputed to be less welcoming than those of the South. In my experience, this is true to a certain extent. Saigon has flung open its arms to tourism and Western development while Hanoi is keen to maintain its identity. This can make the residents tougher nuts to crack and less accepting of foreigners.

Local vendors - as a foreigner, you WILL be charged a 'tourist' tax on anything you buy off of the street stalls

Local vendors – as a foreigner, you WILL be charged a ‘tourist’ tax on anything you buy off of the street stalls

Hanoi is a continual flurry of fruit vendors, bicycles, flower sellers, pyjama wearing women in conical hats, dirt cheap beer (bia hoi), street food, rickshaws, motos, street hawkers, helium balloons, windmills, bird cages and motorbike fumes.

Bia Hoi in the O

Bia Hoi in the Old Quarter

The legendary Old Quarter is a winding maze of 36 streets, intrinsically linked together and impossible to get your head around in less than a few weeks. Each street has a specialty. My particular favourites are aptly named ‘shoe street’ and ‘jewelry street’. These streets do what they say on the tin and you will find shop-front after shop-front all displaying identical wares. This theme continues throughout the city and venturing out of the Old Quarter, you can find ‘chicken street’. Yes, you guessed it – a whole street dedicated to selling barbequed chicken. All glazed with the exact same sauce and served with the exact same side of potatoes and ‘ban my’ (delicious honey glazed bread). Welcome to Asia. Whole streets of shops and stalls, steadfastly selling the exact same product. Other streets in Hanoi include guitar street, bathroom street, phone street, book street… I could go on…

Quiet Hanoi Street!

Quiet Hanoi Street!

After a couple of weeks living in a hostel in the Old Quarter, we realized that this is essentially the tourist part of town. There is so much more to Hanoi! If you come here for a limited period of a couple of days, I guess this is the place to be. But on exploration, the city just has so much more to offer. There are an abundance of lakes, parks, museums and art galleries. Each district offers something a little different to the residents.

sleepy flower

We are currently living off a main street called Au Co, in Tay Ho district. A five minute walk takes us to an array of lovely shops, delis, street food places, bia hoi stalls (organically brewed beer selling for 10p a glass) and the biggest lake in Hanoi, West Lake. When it’s not too hot, you can cycle round the lake, stopping off for lots of tra da (iced tea) on the way round. It’s about 16km in circumference and showcases a lovely side to the city.

West lake

West lake

It is difficult to find peace and quiet in Hanoi – impossible some will tell you. West Lake offers a fairly relaxed setting, in a city where it can be difficult to hear yourself think. Although, even beside the more relaxed setting of the lake, there’s no getting away from the incessant beeping of motorbike horns. It is deafening at times and I still find myself losing my temper at the occasional innocent passers-by.

Sometimes it is necessary to escape the constant craziness, the threat of death from oncoming vehicles and simply breathe air that isn’t thick with motorbike fumes. The beauty of Hanoi is that it is possible to do this quite easily. There are lots of national parks and areas of outstanding beauty within a couple of hours drive out of the city. Recommended trips include Mai Chau and Ba Vi National Park, both of which can be reached in a few hours.

Road trip to Ba Vi

Road trip to Ba Vi

There are lots of things about Hanoi and its people that I don’t understand and probably never will. But, I am OK with that and have learned to accept the city for what it is. I have even managed to master crossing the road which basically requires you to walk in front of oncoming traffic at an even pace and watch them miraculously shape shift around you. I still can’t help but shudder when I pass ‘Thit Cho stalls’ (barbequed dog meat) and I shake my head in disbelief every time I see a family of five whizz past me on a motorbike at break neck speed, with only the children wearing no helmets. But this is Hanoi, and the longer I spend here, the more I grow to love it… the more it feels like home.

Hanoi Photographs

Our street

Our street

Hanoi roadside hairdresser!

Hanoi roadside hairdresser!

Hoan Kiem Lake (or 'sword lake') by night

Hoan Kiem Lake (or ‘sword lake’) by night

John having a bia hoi in the Old Quarter

John having a bia hoi in the Old Quarter

Me by Hoan Kiem Lake

Me by Hoan Kiem Lake

Trip to Mai Chau

Trip to Mai Chau

Old Quarter

Old Quarter


New friends!


11 Responses to “At Home in Hanoi”

  1. Kevin smith June 9, 2013 at 8:26 am #

    great blog Siobhan really interesting keep it going you could turn it into a book! How are your students and what is the nightlife like for the young ones?

    • siobhanambersmith June 10, 2013 at 9:04 am #

      Hi Kev! Nice to hear from you and thanks for the comment!

      The students are good – I am teaching from age 3-12 so quite a big difference! It is fun though – was really scary to start with but enjoying it now. They are generally quite well behaved…

      The night life here isn’t the most lively – there is a Government imposed curfew of 11.30pm so all the bars begin to close around them but now we have been here for a while we have learned which places to go to for a lock in! There is one club that stays open til about 4am, just a little bit out of the centre and a few karaoke bars that you can get into late night. But yes, there are always lock ins going on – it can be quite good fun having to sneak around to find a party! It can also be quite annoying at times but you get used to it!

      Hope all is well with you x

  2. Carly Knitter June 9, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    Loved reading this Siobhan, very real and honest, can totally feel your journey! Reminds me of all the feelings I had which I didnt write down but wish I had…this has got me thinking of them all…;) Sounds like this life is very suited to you and in some of the photos you really look like you belong there! Keep emerging yourself in this amazing journey…xx

    • siobhanambersmith June 10, 2013 at 9:07 am #

      Hi Carly! So nice to hear from you and thanks for commenting. I had been saying for ages I wanted to make a record of how I was feeling and things we had done, and finally got round to doing it!

      There are a lot of positives and negatives to the whole experience but the good outweighs the bad a million to one! We both love Vietnam, it’s brilliant. The teaching is fun too!

      Hope all is well with you my dear xxx

  3. willc88 June 11, 2013 at 2:43 pm #

    Really cool to see what other peoples perspectives of vietnam. I spent a few weeks travelling around vietnam back in 2010 and loved it! Careful on the bikes or mopeds though, they are crazy!!

    • siobhanambersmith June 11, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

      Hey, thanks for commenting!
      Yeah I have heard a lot of different opinions on the place but personally, I think it’s a brilliant country to spend time in.
      The traffic is crazy – we have a motorbike here now and have kind of got used to it but it can get scary at times!
      Siobhan x

  4. willc88 June 12, 2013 at 10:02 pm #

    I nominated you for a Liebster Award! Here’s how it works…

  5. hcyip August 6, 2013 at 9:20 am #

    Fine post, and excellent pics.
    It’s interesting about the North-South/Hanoi-Saigon comparison since I’ve also read about how open Saigon is and how conservative Hanoi is etc. For me, I actually enjoyed Hanoi a bit more. One reason being I hardly got hassled by drivers or vendors in Hanoi, much less get blocked by a vendor in a t-shirt stall, as happened in Saigon’s Ben Thanh night market. It wasn’t malicious and kind of humorous, as she was looking at me with sad eyes and pleading, “what price? what price you want [to buy my shirt]? I won’t let you go unless you give me a price”. Even still, I felt a little guilty when I left without buying anything and it’s tough when that happens frequently.

    • siobhanambersmith August 7, 2013 at 4:41 am #

      Thanks for the comment!

      Yes, I visited Saigon for the second time a couple of weeks ago and it really hit me hard how much more pressure there is to buy and do everything there. People do literally grab you in the street! Hanoi is sort of the opposite – people mainly can’t be bothered to sell you anything! Especially if it’s siesta time!

      It is tough to constantly say no on street vendors, I agree.


  6. Christina February 16, 2014 at 6:37 am #

    Hi! Love your blog and I’ve been contemplating Vietnam as a teaching destination for a while. Would you recommend for a single female traveling alone?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: