BEEEEEEP, Toot, Toot, swoosh, Brum, Brum, whoosh, whoosh, toot, TOOOOT, orange, blue, red, whoosh, toot, green, pink, beeeeeeep. The first step out of our hotel in Hanoi was utterly overwhelming - instantly terrifying and exciting. We were greeted by a cacophony of noise and colour as thousands of motorbikes weaved their way through market stalls, street sellers, signposts and dumbstruck tourists.
Crossing the road was like a crystal maze test of confidence, team work and timing, as you realise the traffic definitely isn’t going to stop for the zebra crossing. Or for the red light. Or for you as you step onto the tarmac. We soon realised that edging forward – determinedly and consistently – was the only way to make any progress, trusting the traffic to swerve around our path. Fingers crossed… There was an audible sigh of relief each time we made it to the other side.
Looking around the town, it soon became easy to spot the tourists who had just arrived, looking completely ambushed by the chaos, versus those hardened travellers who had already mastered the traffic system. By day two we were feeling pretty smug about our skills, as newbie tourists crossed the roads in the safety of our shadow.
The traffic wasn’t the only hazard to overcome in Hanoi. It didn’t take long to encounter our share of would-be-scams:
- A Vietnamese-American man offering to share, and pay for, our taxi from the airport – it may have been a friendly gesture, but the cynical side of me thinks it was more likely a con.
- A taxi attempting to drop us off at a fake hotel, as a man with a clip board and a decidedly home-made hotel sign suggested we’d reached our destination. We hadn’t – Thank you GPS.
- A cafe owner returning the wrong change by a factor of 10 as we broke a large note to pay for our coffees.
You certainly have to keep your wits about you round here! Fortunately, we were armed with the wisdom of Google and the Lonely Planet plus a natural tendency to be distrusting.
The final assault to the senses was the heat – hitting 40 degrees and about 95% humidity. It isn’t the same burning heat as Arabian summers, but my word is it sweaty. We were a sticky, drippy, frizzy mess within seconds of stepping outside, consuming large bottles of water like a life-supporting IV drip. With regular stops for ice-cream, obviously.
Once you get past the craziness, Hanoi is an undeniably unique and throbbing city. I loved the colourful streets and unending bustle – it’s intoxicating, addictive even.
We had anticipated Vietnam would be similar to Cambodia, and whilst that was certainly the case, there was a striking difference in the relative prosperity. Crossing the road in Siem Reap was tricky because a hundred tuk-tuks zipped around, with no obvious signs of lane discipline. Here, it was motorbikes and 4x4 cars. Cambodia’s infrastructure was dirt roads. Here, it was proper motorways and bitumen, not to mention the odd tree-lined French-influenced boulevard. Vietnam is clearly a few years ahead of Cambodia in its tourism economy, and noticeably more developed, but still retains the charm (and fairy lights) that we loved there.
Nonetheless, after two hectic days in Hanoi, we were looking forward to the promise of calmer roads in Hoi An. Or at least we hoped that was where we were going, as our ‘tour guide’ Kate kept using the two town names interchangeably…