Last night I double-checked the internet to make sure that my hotel had 24 hour reception. It also had 24 hour security, which was comforting to note.
So when I crept downstairs at 4am (yes 4AM) for my Good Morning Hanoi tour, I was surprised to see the reception area blanketed in darkness. The sound of the darkness was quickly broken by the sound of snoring and as my eyes adjusted to the dark, I could see the outline of the receptionist asleep across four chairs behind the reception desk and the security guard asleep on the front couch. The door of course was locked, an umbrella shoved through the handles. I guess you can’t argue that 24 hour security and reception aren’t available – you just have to wake them up first! Welcome to Hanoi.
I wasn’t sure what to do, so I sat down on the bottom step of the stairwell and decided to wait it out. It wasn’t long before my guide in his taxi rocked up out the front of the hotel, and with a loud rap on the door – security was in place. The poor guy must have been frightened out of his sleep and I felt terrible, but in the world of tourism where guests would be arriving at all times of the day and night, I would hope he may be used to it.
My guide is a super friendly chap, especially given the hour of the morning and he is incredibly eager to show me his city early in the morning. It rubs off and I can’t help but feel excited to see it.
Our first stop is a wholesale flower market on the outskirts of the old quarter. Row after row of all sorts of beautiful flowers are for sale here, colours and scents galore. There are people weaving in and out all over the place, but my guide says this is very quiet – a result of the present economy.
We take a seat at a stall on the side of the market and the guide is sad to hear we just missed the sticky rice lady. Luck, however, is on our side, because she does another swing around and very soon we are blessed with two portions of sticky rice on huge banana leaves – one sticky rice with beans and the other with peanuts. I say blessed, because this food is amazing! Picking at the rice with our fingers, the rice goes down an absolute treat, and although I’m not a fan of beans, I can’t even taste them. This is the way to start the day.
Next up is the fruit and vegetable market and this place is really humming. There are all sorts of fruits and vegetables here – massive apples, abundances of limes and dragon-fruit, people unloading and reloading goods left right and centre, and things I’ve never seen before. And I can smell mangoes (did I mention already that the mangoes in Hanoi are THE best? Well, they are). I feel a little in the way, as woman struggle with heavy loads in and out of the market alleyways. It’s a real mind buzz for this time of the morning.
Separated from the fruits, are the herbs and vegetables. The smell when you enter the section where the herbs are being sold is incredible – just like the food it will adorn, coriander and mint, beautiful fresh smells, line the inside of my nostrils. I can only image buying bunches and bunches of these wonderful ingredients and making something great out of them, but we aren’t here to buy.
Outside the stalls, my guide buys some fresh bread and we stand on the bridge overlooking the markets, while I munch on my beautiful fresh roll, chatting about the market and stuff.
The view from up here gives a great overview of where I’ve just been and is a refuge from all the trolleys and soggy floors, and it’s buzz is just as electric, but the smells of wandering through the markets cannot be forgotten. I am so glad I booked this tour, it’s things like this – seeing the heart of where the locals are and what they do – that makes travelling so much more valuable.
The sky starts to lighten and the humidity jumps into action as we approach the square near Hoan Kiem. People are jogging, walking and exercising all over the place. Little dance and aerobic classes are starting and apparently I am going to try some laughter yoga. This is a surprise. It’s even more of a surprise that I’m staying for the whole class. I have no idea what is being said, but the group leader welcomes me and motions to me to join in, so I just copy whatever everyone else is doing. It’s a strange class and I’m not sure how this would compare to a laughter yoga class in Australia, but being with the locals in their circle and sharing a part of their daily ritual feels damn good. A few other foreigners join in towards the end of the class so I’m not alone. This feels nice.
Our last stop for this morning’s tour is coming up, but my guide quickly shows me the best spot to photograph the red bridge over Hoan Kiem Lake…
The last stop is what every visitor to Hanoi should not leave without trying. Pho Bo (beef pho). It’s practically the national dish. And although there are different types of pho, the beef one is the best. You’ll find pho all over the city and people will argue over which they feel is the best, but this one that we tried from Pho Ga Bun Thang (I think) it was simply amazing. The broth was nice and salty (not too salty), the beef was really nice and tender and it was just, well, incredible. And an incredible way to end what has been an amazing morning in Hanoi. If you are going to Hanoi, do the tour. Yes it’s a 4am start, but you’re on holidays, you can sleep later. Have a real experience.
The tour is over and my guide calls a taxi to take me back to my hotel. I’m going to rest now. Because it is only 8am and I have the rest of the day to see what I want before I leave tomorrow.
After a cold shower and a rest, it was time to see the last of what I could fit into my last day. I headed for the famous Metropole Hotel, but the area was cordoned off due to a fire drill. So I just wandered the streets, silently sweating to death.
By chance, and attracted by the bright colours, I stumbled across the Hanoi Police Museum. Newly opened, the museum is free, but a guide is called to show you through once you arrive. They give you an overview of each room, but happily leave you enough time to read the exhibits on your own. It’s cool having a personal guide in the room once you have read the notes because you can instantly turn around and ask questions!
The displays were really well set out and easy on the eye and the exhibits were very interesting spelling out the role of the police force in Hanoi since it’s inception.
It’s another one of those museums you wouldn’t necessarily see elsewhere and I’d recommend a stop by. I continued walking the streets half heartedly wondering whether I should have stayed at the hotel a little later and avoided the sweltering humidity. I wasn’t feeling very inspired to keep going and I had used up all my laughter this morning but then I saw a beacon in the distance.
It’s safe to say that I popped back by Fanny’s only because my pants were melting into my legs and I needed some air-conditioning urgently…and Fanny’s just appeared like a mirage in a dessert (ha, I mean desert).
An icecream sundae and a good half an hour in the air-conditioning sorted me right out and a plan of attack developed for the rest of the afternoon.
Starting with a visit to KOTO, a little walk away, for lunch. KOTO (know one, teach one) is a social enterprise which trains underprivileged and disadvantaged kids to work in the hospitality industry. It was founded by Vietnamese born Australian Jimmy Pham over ten years ago. Every six months, KOTO recruits up to 30 young people from the streets, aged between 16-22 following recommendations from a large number of sources (ie. those dealing with poverty and trafficking). They undergo a two year training program and at the end of it offers them the opportunity to work in some of the best restaurants and hotels. But you can come to KOTO’s restaurant and see for yourself the result of the foundation’s efforts.
Everything else I planned to do this afternoon seemed to fall apart – graduations at the Temple of Literaure, the Citadel was closed (for the same reason I think) and the War Museum was closed too. But it didn’t really matter because at the end of the day, the excitement and vibrancy and the feel, sights and smells of Hanoi are what you come for and that’s exactly what you get by just being here.
And, yes, this is a train track through the middle of a residential area. Remember, you’re in Hanoi now.