On my daily walks, I look for a place or places I can go to which I have not seen or perhaps don’t remember seeing. Either is good. I don’t keep records on the places or street names. What I’m after is the going of it. The getting lost and wandering of it. the photographs down streets that are big blocks and sleepy little streets. Both capture the interest in completely different ways. Hanoi is full of both so you can head out for a walk in the morning and get to see French Colonial architecture, embassies, schools, and then little side streets with small markets and food stalls. Coffee shops dot the Hanoi street scene. You can escape the momentary downfall of the wet stuff by ducking in and getting a coffee. I’ve done this a few times and the local places have a certain feeling to them. The coffee beans are roasting and the fresh smells excite. The Army or police folks sometimes come in. There are nods and smiles and hello’s. There is no high pressure sales going here. They are genuinely glad to see you. Don’t worry about not speaking the language. Do you know what coffee looks like? Just point. Same for food stalls when you are pioneering your way through a city.
In the interests of Mike’s tried and true tips to city walking voyages, here are my ideas to make it worthwhile.
- Spend a bit of time with google maps and select an area that looks interesting. At the start all areas are probably interesting. In Hanoi its pretty easy to either get lost or get found depending on what you want. I do both but the morning Google Maps session helps me decide on a general direction. Perhaps there is a thing I want to see there.
- Set out after coffee and breakfast! Do you have a camera of some kind? Good. It can be whatever. I use a Fuji X series camera because its small and portable and easy to shoot street scenes with. If its a smartphone, consider if you can to get a SIM card. I use Viettel because the government owns and operates it and the 4G/LTE signal has been very good for me from Hanoi to Halong Bay. Give it some thought. If you have a phone that is locked, a basic map can help. The most of this point is to leave the beaten track on your voyage.
- Now the most important part. Get lost in the city. Find quiet streets where you don’t see another backpacker or tourist. Little stores, school children rushing to school, older people nodding and smiling. Its all there. You don’t need to do anything special for this because Hanoi is a real city and it has the locations where all the tourists go and down the street and around the corner you will find gems.
- At this point, you maybe want to start looking for known landmarks. A map can help but Google Maps is the best! One of my landmarks is the Historic Hanoi Water Tower. Once I find that from whatever direction I’m going or coming from, I know where I am. Lesser things are you may get thirsty. Drink bottled water only. Do not drink tap water! Consider that a health warning. Go to a store or Circle K and buy the big bottle of water for 10k Dong. Done deal.
- Perhaps you are getting tired and want a rest. Hanoi is full of parks with these friendly benches in them. I’ve sat in a park for hours reading and outside and away from the touristy areas like Hoan Kiem Lake have never been bothered. No sales, no books, no shoe shines, nothing. Just you and the bench and perhaps your bottle of water.
- Now it time to perhaps head back in some route. I often go in a circuitous route because I can. Having the phone with Google Maps meaning never really worrying about the step of getting back. Now you are getting closer to known places. Perhaps time for a beer or ice cream. Go ahead! You deserve it! You have made it to Step 6.
All of this is meant to communicate that the only real way to see a city is to see the city. I met a young lady who had a week in Hanoi and never ventured out of the old quarter. The old quarter is not Hanoi. Perhaps its a part or district or a location. Its not Hanoi. Hanoi is down other streets too. Get away from the comfort medium. Go walk and take the photographs and spend time in the city.
When you leave you want to be an ambassador and let others know that a slower trek through a city will avail more. Two weeks may be the itinerary but its not the city. Give it some thought as you plan your getaway. Its not so much a matter of where you stay. Home stay, guest house, hostel, 5 star hotel. Its where you go. Make the break and become the person blazing new frontiers.
Maybe you will decide to write a blog and record your places. My blog is meant to be written in every day as a mile marker of what I see, feel, wonder about. I purposefully chose Hanoi to stay longer in. I wanted to cool my jets. Find more todays and tomorrows and fill the moments with the walking and seeing.
When I finally leave Hanoi, undoubtedly there is a street I have never seen. It happened every time to me. That tour bus can cover more ground than my feet in a day. But I see things a tour bus can never happen to see. That neighborhood in Shinjuku with the flowers and Sake bottles. That small park in Hiroshima by the river. Busy Osaka not so busy when you walk down small streets with shy school children still smiling. Then there’s Hanoi. Manic and wonderful. Scooters driving all around but quiet park benches for reflection.
Its all there for you. How about starting one of these blog type things an letting us know what you see.