Ancient alley mazes & modern life in Hanoi

Hanoi, Vietnam, was unlike any other city we’ve visited so far. I liked it more than Ho Chi Minh City – just my personal preference. Lakes, parks, and mazes of alleys are some reasons. Somewhat manageable traffic another. And — bagels. Yes, bagels.

No, I haven’t gotten shallow-minded as our travels progress. But I have developed some real intense cravings for things I can get easily at home, but not in southeast Asian – things like bagels. Hanoi is a cosmopolitan, international city — a city where you could find such things as bagels. (And I’ll get to those in a minute.) Yet, Hanoi has not lost its ancient charm as new consumerism swells into in this communist country.

Hanoi is the center of the communist world in Vietnam, but it’s also a city that’s seemingly open-minded enough allow Western brands and businesses in, even though most of the Vietnamese people cannot afford high-end shops we saw, such as Versace, Armani, or Prada.

In fact, we never saw a single shopper in any of the designer stores, and there were relatively few shoppers in more moderately-priced stores. As Vietnam develops its economy and tourism money continues to pour into the country, and as people acquire more disposable income, I bet this will change in the near future.

So what’s the real city like? Outside of malls?

Many foreign embassies are in the old quarter. We stayed across the street from the Uruguay embassy and down the road from others. Our unit was in a great central location down one of Hanoi’s gazillion alleys. Our place also was right around the corner to the entrance of the old, infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison.

We had a date night at the movies and saw “Godzilla” the night before it opened in theaters worldwide. It cost $16 for two tickets, a large popcorn and large soda. A splurge for us – a steal by Western standards. Hanoi is definitely affordable for budget travelers like us.

There were a few Starbucks around town, and KFC’s, like there are in virtually every big city on the planet. But, I can happily report, there are way more locally-owned restaurants and shops than there are big chains, for now. And we enjoyed eating at those local restaurants and stands.

Hanoi bustles at its markets and narrow streets with themes. For example, balloon paper, and jewelry streets, bamboo alley, beer row. You name it – and there likely is an alley or narrow street for it. These are 36 of these themed roadways and ancient pathways. These alleys and roads are more than 1,000 years old.

Over the years, shops have changed. Silk garments at one storefront 50 years ago could be a bar or a cafe or restaurant today. But there are enough stores that you still can see the theme of each street.

Train street was fun. The tracks go right through an alley that serves as entryways to homes. Some entrepreneurs have opened cafes along the tracks to make money from the tourist throngs. People pose for pictures and walk the tracks, despite official warning signs not to do just that.

We took a free walking tour (tips always recommended for the guide) and had a blast doing that. We went to the cafe where the first owner created the famous “egg coffee.” I recommend Giang Cafe in Hanoi — it’s fascinating inside. Locals pack into small tables and the place is ancient. Interesting art, too, such as copies from one of my favorites – Salvador Dali.

Egg coffee is strong Vietnamese coffee, with whipped egg white, milk, and some sugar, served hot or cold with ice. We like it well enough… but I actually liked salt coffee more. Salt coffee is popular in the region around Hue.

Oh, and what about those bagels?!?!

Go to Joma Bakery. There are three locations in Hanoi. It’ll cost ya a bit more than a bowl of pho. But sometimes a native New Yorker like me cannot bear the thought of another hot, steaming, spicy Asian soup in June when it’s 100 degrees with 100% humidity. 😉 Joma also has two locations in Laos, and one location in Cambodia. The website is here.

Budget travel tip: to the Hanoi airport from the old quarter

A company named Airport Minibus leaves on the hour every hour (during business hours) from their office to the airport for just 40,000 dong. That’s $1.70 as I write this. The ride is 45 minutes, and the driver lets you off at the passenger drop-off area. We walked by this place by chance, because it was close to our Airbnb rental, and so we popped in one day to ask for details. There is no website that I could find. So I can only give you a link to Google maps. I feel like some reviewers were way to harsh for the service provided for this price. Everyone was friendly to us. Anyway, the maps link is here.

Since we have decided we will go back to Vietnam to explore more of the north, it’s likely we will fly into Hanoi again. Our three-month visas just weren’t long enough to see this varied, historic country.

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