36 Streets, Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Something that I have learned throughout my travels is to always do your homework about the best way to get from the airport to your accommodation. This is especially true in a hectic Asian city like Hanoi, Vietnam’s largest northern city. Cabby’s are known for taking you for a ride, literally, if you aren’t solid on your destination, know about how much it should cost to get there and insist they turn on the damn meter!…please.

Another money saving tip is to scope out other travelers who are also looking to take a cab. Usually everyone is going to the same place as budget accommodation tends to be concentrated in one area. I found a bewildered looking Japanese mother and daughter who looked like they were trying to figure out what the heck was going on outside the arrival’s terminal. I had found my taxi buddies.

As I guessed, they were going to Hanoi’s Old Quarter or otherwise known as “the 36 Streets”. In the past each of the streets’ shops specialized in a particular craft or trade such as bamboo, chickens, wooden altars, paper, etc. The Japanese family and I found a place that was central and affordable on Hang Thiec or “tin” street. The place was fine, the staff was basically a large family who lived there, so it had more of a feeling like you were renting a room in a Vietnamese family’s home, AirB&B style. However, if you are looking for peace and quiet, don’t stay on a street that’s named for metal as men are loudly pounding tin into all kinds of useful objects. Next time I’ll look to stay on a street with quieter materials like “silk” street or “hemp goods” street.

The first thing most people notice about Hanoi is the crazy traffic. The Vietnamese love their motorbikes and the country must have tens of millions of them. It’s fascinating how comfortable they all seem to be in the chaos, while the foreigners frantically try to navigate the roads like a dangerous game of Frogger. The locals pile on heaps of cargo, sometimes only steering with one hand. It’s not unusual to find a family of four on one small scooter. The kids agreeably hanging on, not knowing any different. My first night in Hanoi I met up with my friend Aaron, who I had met eight years earlier while living in Bangkok. We decided to hop around the Old Quarter going to a few of his favorite spots. How would we get there? He had wheels… Later that evening, I found myself on the back of one of the very scooters I had spent the morning trying not to get run over by. If you can’t beat ’em join ’em, right? I was impressed by his driving, as a white guy. The Vietnamese seem to see the traffic pattern clearly as if it were a part of their DNA, I have yet to figure it out.

The best way to see Hanoi is to just get lost. Wondering around is perhaps my favorite thing to do while traveling and usually what I do on the first day when I get anywhere. You learn so much by just putting yourself out there and being open to whatever happens. There is a lot to see and do in Hanoi and once I got comfortable being there, in a new country, I could get my bearings and start enjoying the place.