March 7, 2004

In Hanoi, Traffic and History Hum


TO cross the street in Hanoi requires nerves of steel, a Buddha's inner calm, or failing that, a stiff drink. Striking out in all three departments on my first walk around Vietnam's capital, I stood at an intersection and waited. Ahead was a torrential river of noisy scooters, weaving bicycles, cars and the occasional creaky, packed bus - no light, no officer directing traffic, no crosswalk. Five, ten minutes passed, without any break in the flow. Just as I was about to give up, someone gripped my forearm.

It was a tiny, elderly Vietnamese woman, and before I had a chance to protest, she pulled me into the flow of buzzing Hondas and smoke-belching buses. Then, paying no attention whatsoever to oncoming traffic, she kept walking straight ahead. For a few terrifying seconds I followed, as scooters, some balancing mattresses on the rear, others piled high with baskets dripping green, leafy vegetables, sped directly toward us, swerving aside only at the last possible instant.

Heart-pounding traffic thrills were an unexpected addition to my itinerary when I visited Hanoi for a four-day visit in mid-December. The guidebooks had described a relaxed, medium-size city of tree-shaded boulevards lined with old French-Vietnamese colonial-period buildings. Situated inland on the flat banks of the Song Hong, Hanoi offered many parks, dozens of small ponds and lakes, and intriguing Chinese and Vietnamese temples that had survived not only centuries of wear and tear, but also the ravages of Vietnam's decades-long war.

Lately, Hanoi has become a popular stop for Western travelers seeking a break from Southeast Asia's metropolises - and for Americans curious to explore the history of the Vietnam War. Tourism thrives in Hanoi's central old quarter, a warren of shops and lanes around the perimeter of Hoan Kiem Lake, a pleasant and peaceful green pool that has a temple floating in its northern end. The area also is packed with shoppers, small businesses, shops and workshops, some of which have been around for 100 years or more. Each street is named for the product that originally was made and sold there, so there are Roasted Fish, Jars and Sandals Streets.

Dozens of small hotels cater to foreigners in the old quarter. At the Lucky Hotel on Hang Trong (Hemp) Street, I settled happily into a large room with salmon pink walls, ornate black wood furniture in a décor best described as Victorian-Vietnamese, and on the other side of French doors, an outdoor balcony even larger than the room itself, all for $47 including breakfast.

I'd found the Lucky on an online site where it had received a few rave reviews from other travelers as a friendly place. I'm always skeptical of such information, but one morning around 10 a.m. I was out on my balcony, enjoying a cup of tea and the view of Hanoi rooftops when I was interrupted by an impatient shout from the balcony directly above. "Madame! Madame! Open door!"

Footsteps clattered, followed by a heavy knock at the door. I opened it. The Lucky's bellhop stood there holding a long-stemmed red rose in a vase:

"Madame, I bring flower to you."

Exiting the Lucky onto Hang Trong, I was happy to find that the hemp business of bygone days had been supplanted by fashion and home décor: silk, cotton and linen clothing and the occasional lacquerware shop. Tailor shops along Hang Trong and the adjacent street of Hang Gai offered made-to-measure dresses, along with ao dais (Vietnamese women's tunic-and-pants ensembles) and suits of fine Vietnamese silk in orange and electric greens.

I didn't have time to order a suit or dress, but there was beautifully tailored ready-to-wear, too: cheongsam-style silk blouses and, at Marie-Linh Mode-Couture, chic handmade linen blouses ($28) in black and Chinese red, cleverly designed with a side zipper that allowed the blouse to conform to the curve of the waist.

Hanoi, of course, is celebrated for its blend of French colonial and Asian style, which is still visible in the narrow two-story shop houses, ornate with Asian-inflected curlicue trim that resemble, at once, Art Nouveau vines and the tails of dragons. There are purely French touches, too - the Hanoi Opera House could almost be a city hall or museum in Paris. The opera house still functions and is well kept, unlike most of the buildings, which seemed in poor repair, not neglected so much as left to nap. On one stroll I happened upon the shell of a French colonial mansion, now abandoned, its once-grand front entrance now a tangle of weeds and litter.

Small Buddhist temples seem to be tucked into every other side street of the old quarter. No aromatic incense drifted from their round moon gates, only the smells of cooking; they'd long been taken over for living space during a period when religious worship of any kind was officially discouraged.

I soon realized that my usual method for exploring a city - leisurely, on foot with a map and occasional taxi rides or public transport - wasn't suited to the bustle and chaos of Hanoi. I thought about hiring a driver, but then, after stumbling on a little travel agency-cafe near my hotel called Kangaroo Café, decided to hire a guide instead, for $20 for a day.

My guide, a young Hanoi native and university graduate with very good English, asked me to call him Dinh. He whisked me into a taxi, and led me expertly through crowds of mainland Chinese package tourists to the head of the line at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, one of Hanoi's principal attractions.

Those entering the Soviet-style columned stone crypt aren't allowed to carry anything, and most have to wait a long time at a separate queue to check their stuff. Not me. Dinh, familiar with the drill, took my camera and knapsack to hold, and explained how I could meet him on the other side.

The mausoleum, modeled after Lenin's in Moscow (some say that the body of Ho, Vietnam's first president, is sent back each year for touchups by Russian embalmers), is a spooky place. Lights are kept low, and there are armed soldiers standing stiffly along the route adding to the eerie effect of the pale-as-paper Ho wearing a simple grayish uniform and lying in a glass box that's slightly tilted forward. The visitors' leaflet says that Ho Chi Minh, in "the transparent box," appears to be "having a rest." In the sunlight on the other side, Dinh was waiting. We had five or six more museums on our Day Tour of Hanoi program.

History, along with shopping, is the city's major tourism draw. Besides the mausoleum, there's a Ho Chi Minh Museum (which contains some of his personal items and his written works, and chronicles his history), a Museum of the Army, a Women's Museum, a Prison Museum (in the former "Hanoi Hilton") and an ethnology museum. All except the last one focus on the most recent history of Vietnam.

The emphasis in the military and history exhibits is on Vietnam's long struggle against the French colonizers rather than the war with the United States. In the chilly Hoa Lo Prison, built by the French, Dinh and I walked along corridors lined with miserable cells, each one fitted with shackles. In the courtyard was a French guillotine.

But, I wondered silently, wasn't this also the infamous Hanoi Hilton? Before I could ask, we turned a corner, and so did the tone of the prison museum's exhibits. No more cells, shackles or guillotines. Instead, there were glass museum cases, which included the flight suits and shoes of two former prisoners here: John McCain ("Now a Senator in the US House of Representatives" proclaimed the placard) and Douglas (Pete) Peterson ("America's First Ambassador to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam").

Somewhere between the Women's Museum (highlight: old pictures of Jane Fonda's visit to Hanoi during the war) and the Army Museum (displays of booby traps), fatigue and hunger struck. Dinh asked me where I'd like to eat lunch. "Take me someplace that you would go to if I wasn't here," I answered. He nodded, but warned me we'd have to cross a wide, busy street - early on he had noticed how Hanoi traffic turned me into a chicken.

At the curb, he gave me a little pep talk: "The most important thing is to go slow, go slow. Then the scooters and cars can see you, and they will go the other way. They know what to do, but you have to go slow when you cross the street in Vietnam." I wasn't convinced, but I followed him anyway, heart pounding.

Another fearful crossing later, and we were soon safely seated at a long, communal table, elbow to elbow with other patrons, at a small but busy pho shop called Mai Anh. Dinh ordered a big bowl of chicken soup with rice noodles and I asked for beef pho, which I eat all the time in New York. But when it came, the beef was thick, tough and rather flavorless. Not wanting to sound unappreciative, I mentioned to Dinh that in New York, beef pho came with razor-thin slices of meat. Was the thicker slice something special to Hanoi?

"It is buffalo meat," he said with a laugh. But, I said, I ordered beef, didn't I?

I had. "Beef" in Hanoi covers all cattle, and the most common in the area is the kind with big horns and a hump.

The next morning, at breakfast at the Lucky Hotel, I ordered chicken pho. (This was before the avian flu hit Vietnam. Right now, the Vietnam tourism board is advising tourists to avoid eating chicken.)

A lot of food is sold on the street in Hanoi, but since I was unfamiliar with the place, and not impressed with the general cleanliness of the streets, I hesitated to try it. But that morning at the hotel, I noticed something strange. After I ordered the soup, a young man came rushing out of the kitchen, past my table, and walked through the lobby doors and left the hotel.

MY coffee then arrived, but not the pho. Ten minutes later, the fellow returned with a tray holding a large porcelain bowl covered with another dish, which he took back through the swinging doors of the kitchen. Then, after a very short interval, a waiter came out of the kitchen with the same bowl, now uncovered, and served it to me: steamy, tasty chicken pho. This happened the next morning, and the morning after that before the light bulb flashed on: I shouldn't worry about eating from the street because, at least at breakfast, I already was.

My last morning in Hanoi I left the hotel before breakfast and went out to the street to buy the pho from its source.

Outside I sniffed the air. No pho. Then I walked down to the end of the block, and there she was: a woman with a ladle in her hand, surrounded by several low folding tables and early-rising diners squatting on small plastic footstools.

There was one problem, a big one. Between me and the pho seller was a road bustling with scooters, cars, bicycles.

I took a deep breath, then slowly, slowly walked straight into the river of Hanoi traffic.

The Bottom Line

I spent $69.06 a day on food, hotel, local transportation and activities during four days and nights in Hanoi. The exchange rate was 16,000 dong to the dollar, but many establishments charge in dollars.

Air Fare

I bought a round-trip ticket from Bangkok to Hanoi for $259 from the Blue and White Travel agency in Bangkok, 108/12-13 Kaosan Road, Banglampoo, telephone (66-2) 282 7705;


For the Lucky Hotel, 12 Hang Trong, Hanoi, (84-4) 8251029, fax (84-4) 8251731, e-mail address, I booked my reservation through the online service My deluxe room with double bed, refrigerator, bathroom with tub, and large balcony was $47 a night.

The Lucky is often full, and refers guests to the similarly priced Huyen Trang Hotel a few doors away at 36 Hang Trong, (84-4) 8268480, fax (84-4) 8247449, e-mail address There's no elevator, in the five-floor building, and the décor is slightly faded.

On the other side of the lake, near the opera house, I like the Dan Chu Hotel, 29 Trang Tien, (84-4) 8254937, fax (84-4) 8266786, or visit, a large, old colonial-style building with an interior courtyard and lovely tiled hallways. The rate of $55 for the "superior" room was instantly discounted by 10 percent when I expressed interest.


At the Mai Anh pho shop, 32 Le Van Huu, (84-4) 9438492, a lunch of pho noodle soup, tea and soft drinks for two was $2.66.

Nha Tho Street, near the Lucky Hotel, has quite a few restaurants and cafes catering to international tourists. Of the Western-style restaurants, I liked La Salsa, 25 Nha Tho, (84-4) 8289052, which did a sort of Spanish-Vietnamese-French tapas menu, with sautéed mushrooms, duck liver and pine nut pâté, and squid ceviche. A light dinner with glass of red wine runs around $7.50.

I tried several places that served Vietnamese cuisine. Garden, 36 Hang Manh, (84-4) 8243402, had tasty spring rolls, but a sautéed beef dish was tough and flavorless. Dinner was about $7. Lunch at Brother's Cafe, 26 Nguyen Thai Hoc, (84-4) 7333866, was better, and the atmosphere pleasant. A buffet laid out in the open-air courtyard includes cold and hot dishes. The buffet, with a fresh lime soda drink, came to $7.50.


At the Kangaroo Café, 18 Pho Bao Khanh, (84-4) 8289931, an Internet cafe and tourist agency, I booked a day tour of Hanoi ($20). The guide was excellent. Transportation ($10 in cab rides) and admission to various museums (about $6 total) are extra.

Except for the women's museum, the following are closed for a couple of hours at lunchtime.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and Museum, 3 Ngoc, (84-4) 8463752, is closed Monday and Friday. Admission to the mausoleum is free; the museum is 30 cents.

Hoa Lo Prison Historic Museum, 1 Hoa Lo; (84-4) 8246358. Closed Monday; 66 cents.

Vietnam Women's Museum, 36 Ly Thuong Kiet; (84-4) 8259935. Closed Monday; 66 cents.

Vietnam Military History Museum, 28 Dien Bien Phu; (84-4) 8234264. Closed Monday and Friday; 66 cents.


Marie-Linh Mode-Couture,
4 Hang Trong; (84-4) 9286304.


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