Hanoi is such as marvelous place. I spent five days there, and most of the time I roamed around the busy streets and hidden alleyways of the Old Quarter. I didn't plan out an itinerary full of museums to visit or shows to see; instead, I sat in cafes looking out at the traffic, ate sitting on plastic stools by the roadside, and walked rather aimlessly around, poking about and stopping at whatever interested me.
And there was so much that was interesting to see, just in the daily rhythms of the city and routines of the people. The streets in the Old Quarter are named after the trade that the street used to be known for, so you'll find rows of shops all selling toys, or hardware, or wooden frames, or even coffins. One particular street was all decked out for Tet, the Lunar New Year, and the shops were festooned with glowing red lanterns and shiny gold envelopes.
The streets of Hanoi are quite chaotic, full of honking motorists carrying everything from cartons of eggs to tourists, lumbering cars and trucks, bikes, and pedestrians who stroll confidently through the melee. It's quite hard to get used to walking around without feeling like you will get run over at any second, but I've learned it's all about being aware of the flow of traffic, and stepping in with composure and assurance. Motorists will avoid you, as long as you keep moving forward at a steady pace.
At nights the streets grow even livelier. People gather in large groups to dine communally at large eateries, where the stools spill out onto the sidewalks. Offering no frills at all, each eating hub serves a few special dishes. Rarely is one presented with some sort of menu; for outsiders such as myself, the best strategy is to watch what the locals are eating and point.
At other street corners, groups of people hunch over hot lemon tea, cheap beer, and munch sunflower seeds, holding lively conversations and watching interesting happenings on the streets.
It's amazing how much life is contained in the city and its streets. The Old Quarter, especially, is dense; perhaps that is why it is so popular with tourists. You can't go two blocks without seeing a pho place, or a massage parlor, or a hostel. However, I also enjoyed seeing many Vietnamese locals sharing the space, sometimes frequenting the same restaurants and businesses.
Through my five days of wandering, I saw many interesting and quirky aspects of life in the Old Quarter. For example, a bike saddled with wooden lanterns and handwoven baskets for sale (who knows how the owner maneuvers it!)...
... a shop stuffed deeply with all manner of stuffed toys...
...balloon vendors near Hoan Kiem Lake...
Pico Iyer, the famous travel writer, said that "nothing is uninteresting to the interested eye." I readily agree with his statement, but must add that it is not difficult at all to find things to perk your interest in Hanoi, where the whole world can pass by you on the street.