Walking the Streets of the Old Quarter (Hanoi, Vietnam)


Rain ushered us to the land of the mighty Vietcongs. The country of Duong Manh Hung, Pham Van Dung and Nguyen Dinh Kien, three of the very few good guys I used to work with back in Dubai.

Like in Phuket, immigration procedure was fast. Being Filipino or Asian who loves to travel, opportunities like this make me jump for joy.  Obtaining a visa is usually a big obstacle for us to travel the world.

In a very recent survey on freedom to travel, the Philippines was ranked 69th. Out of 218 countries, the Philippines have visa-free access to only 58. Thank you to the ASEAN agreement! It makes traveling across Southeast Asia a bit of an ease.

Just at the airport, our limited cash turned us into instant millionaires…in Vietnam Dong!  Awesomely cool having a million in your pocket huh! So that’s how it feels to be one! Until when, is what we’re going to find out as soon as we hopped on the taxi to the city.

The airport is an hour drive to the city. Public buses are available at $2 each but travel time of course is longer. Taxi costs $20 as per the lady at the Information Center. And, having instantly rose to “millionaire” status, we took the cab. Nah! I’m just kidding! We just wanted to get to the city faster as it was raining, we’re starved, tired and unsure whether Hanoi Backpacker Hostel have available rooms for us.

The road to the city is expressway so traffic was not a problem. About 30 minutes later, the taxi turned right onto a service road that led us from one narrow street to another, with old French-inspired houses lining up the streets. We must be in the Old Quarter already we thought.

The rain kept pouring and the fog reduced visibility, yet the narrow streets of the Old Quarter were busy. Throngs of Honda oms (Honda motorbikes) whizzing on the road, rickshaws carrying tourists, vendors pushing their bikes by the road side, others carrying on their shoulders baskets of goods hanging on both ends of a pole, tourists walking in the rain, locals sitting comfortably on low stools drinking bia’ hoi (local beer) on the side streets.  It’s like a normal day for everyone.

The taxi stopped at Hanoi Backpacker Hostel and the meter read VD 281,000. That’s about $6.5 short of $20. At least we know how to do the math next time.

The hostel lobby was swarmed with guests. And yes, they still have available rooms but the rates were not like those of Phuket Backpacker so we braved the rain to look for other guest houses. There were plenty to choose from but the prices were not within MY budget. Well, you know I was the unemployed backpacker here trying to follow her dreams despite a limited budget. (“,)

Suddenly, a woman with a kid on a Honda om saw us walking in the rain asked if we were looking for a place to stay. We said yes. She parked her motorbike, brought down her kid and led us to a small alley to an open door. The room is on the third floor. It was spacious with a window and costs $15, but, I didn’t feel I could get myself to sleep here. Good thing the husband was at the reception when we got down and he offered another guest house that they were managing. Along with one of his staff, we were led to Hanoi Stars Hotel.

The lobby alone gave out a good vibe. Probably because it was well-lit, the receptionist was very friendly and was patient enough to show me other available rooms when requested. This girl and the other staff became our first friends in Vietnam despite some drawbacks later that day. While we are wary of our budget, we valued good relationships more over money. Proudly, Pinoy quality! (“,)

Hanoi Stars is at No. 25 Hang Mam Street, Old Quarter, Hanoi, Vietnam. Check them on www.hanoistarhotel.com.vn or contact them at booking@hanoistarhotel.com.vn or (0084) 4 3825 0273.

Note: Except for Ha Nguyen, the dayshift lady receptionist, the other staff, all in their early 20s, are still learning how to speak English. As always, patience is the key. (Phuket Backpacker adds—“yelling will not help!”)

Once our hotel was settled, it was time to hush our growling tummies. It was almost lunch and we haven’t had breakfast yet. We walked the streets of the Old Quarter trying to locate the restaurant that the hotel receptionist suggested. Ten minutes passed but we seemed to be going in circles so we just entered the first eatery we found.

The place was not inviting but we’re starved. We were still checking the food on the glass stand when the lady at the food counter handed us rice on a plate and gesturing something probably trying to ask which dish we would like to have with the rice. She’s fast!

I just pointed on the first dish I could find…sautéed or steamed leafy greens and pork stewed in soy sauce and vinegar—something like pork adobo (but Pinoy’s version is still the best). I asked for soup and they brought me a bowl of cold, colorless, tasteless soup. A sip almost spoiled my appetite. My mind was thinking something else. The pork was okay, the greens was bland, just enough to satisfy my hunger pangs. Having enjoyed Vietnamese dishes prepared by my former boss’s wife who is Vietnamese, my expectations were high. So for my first Viet food experience, I give a star for hushing my rumbling stomach.

While we were eating, they removed all the food from the glass stand and placed them on one table. Suddenly there were women coming in, one after the other, took a bowl of rice, some vegetables and settled on the table near us, and were served a hot bowl of bean curd soup. I was asking my friend, “How come they get something warm and delicious and we can’t?” The older Vietnamese woman must have noticed me that she gestured for me to try the soup. I later realized they were restaurant crew. The soup was good!

We ended up taking pictures, bonding in a way where language was not a hindrance. They were genuine. Another hole in the wall not many tourists bump into. A story worth-sharing in this blog, and a soup worth-bringing the food meter two stars and a half up.

Unmindful of the weather, we walked around the streets of Old quarter.  The buildings here are generally business establishments–guest houses, shops, art galleries, travel agencies, restaurants, cafeterias, coffee shops, snack bars and more. Motorbikes and bicycles line both sides of the streets. Vendors of all kinds ply the streets (even late at night).My hat’s off to that woman carrying on her shoulder a bamboo pole with a basket with a big pot nestled in a portable stove on one end and a basket of probably condiments and vegetables on the other. Here, everyone seemed to be working. Not a single beggar is at sight.

They said it was the low season for tourism (August-September). Rounding the area, however, didn’t seem it at all. How I wish we could have at least a quarter of the numbers back home. I might reconsider not leaving the management of my family’s small guest house if that happens. Even when we took a rickshaw for a tour in the evening, tourists were everywhere. Seemingly, the roads never go empty in the Old Quarter.

Walking to Hoan Kiem Lake in the evening, we were invited by a group of locals (in their 40s and early 50s) having drinks outside a cafeteria. Since we did not want to be rude, my friend agreed to take the shot they were offering. Two of them are having their birthday that day so they are celebrating.  They offered us seats so we stayed for a while, putting up our glasses in the air, forging yet another Philippines-Vietnam friendship day!

The night even drew more crowd to these small shops where low stools and tables are positioned on the side streets and kegs of local beer kept flowing until the last drop. Here locals and foreigners commune. You hear people talking (even laughing) in different languages. Sort of celebration of United Nations Day or World Peace on the streets of Old Quarter!

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