If you want to cross the street in Hanoi city just go, don’t hesitate, just go. People will drive around you, even the ones that are texting on their mobile phones while driving and not really following what’s in front of them. Street crossing rules don’t apply here.

These guys are very keen to take you on a little private tour of Hanoi.

According to official government stats Hanoi has nearly four million registered motorbikes. Every time you’re trying to cross the street you see a wall of scooters coming towards you. You’re likely to visibly age if you decide to wait for a gap or an opening, ending up collapsed on the side of the road from dehydration and exhaustion.

The locals have developed different street crossing strategies but generally advise to just walk on the street and confidently move forward at a steady pace.

On day one I was trying to cross the street next to Hoan Kiem Lake. I stood there for maybe five minutes trying to find an opening in the ongoing stream of scooters, buses and cars. A few Dutch tourists stood right next to me trying to ascertain their risk factor too.

We stood there until I was pushed into the throng. I looked around at a local and he had a big smile on his face and continued shouting something in Vietnamese to me that I guess roughly translated to “keep walking, you fool”. And while I’m sure he’s seen this situation million times, he still found it quite funny.

Everyone travels differently. For me it’s always about people more than buildings, restaurants, fancy food, museums and galleries. I believe the most important part of any traveling experience is found in peoples’ stories. Hanoi was for me like a proverbial candy store when it comes to interesting people.

It took me couple of hours to decompress from the flight and feel this place, but when I finally did it, the city and its inhabitants were quite spectacular.

Most houses in Hanoi are quite narrow because property tax is based on the width of the building.

Hanoi is sort of a place you need to approach with an open mind. You need to have a desire to really get under its skin and let yourself be a bit uncomfortable: explore little places that normally tourists wouldn’t go or even necessarily want to experience.

That unpredictability of exploration makes the process interesting. You won’t get far with English, so if you want a full experience, you should try to learn few basic words before you go to Hanoi. It won’t take a lot of effort, and everyone will appreciate you trying it. It’s not only polite but also good for a few giggles with the locals.

Live tracks running through the centre of Hanoi. If you have to wake up for work at 5.30am you won’t need to set your alarm.

Vietnam is changing fast and Hanoi, with its vibrant population, is massive contributor of that change. You can see a lot of the old world clashing with the new. There’s growing economic disparity, where communism clashes with capitalism. Confucianism mixes with Catholicism and Buddhism. These competing and somehow complementary ideologies are beautiful and everywhere.

Older Hanoians are very quick to point out that Hanoi is different now. Lifestyles are more modern and buildings are getting taller. I heard that all the young people from small villages are abandoning farm life and moving to the cities because they’re after a more dynamic lifestyle.

I imagine this contributes to the traffic on the streets of Hanoi, and the reason why driving styles are so crazy. Quite often you can see a kid on a scooter with his mate in the back, driving on the wrong way of the street, in the opposite direction while sending text messages and talking to his mate.

I hear that in small villages, where there are no rules, this is fine. But when they come to the city and just carry on doing what they were doing back at home, it causes issues. It also doesn’t help that there’s not a lot of traffic police or government led coordination, leading to 20,000 traffic-related deaths every year and the number is rising with the influx of people into big cities like Hanoi and Saigon.

One of the streets in Old Quarter.

I love walking. I walk everywhere, even if it takes me half a day to get to where I want to go. It’s the best way to explore. You just slow down to pedestrian pace and really take your time to immerse yourself in the energy of the city. It’s fun cruising around the Old Quarter, the French Quarter and and the city centre and figuring out where to go next, who to talk to, where to eat your next meal or have some cafe da. You’ll definitely need a lot of ice coffee to keep you going in a 40C degree heat and 88-90% humidity.

I found the street food incredibly tasty. Some of my friends found it quite sketchy and were reluctant to try it because of the conditions these guys make the food in. To say it’s not necessarily clean is an understatement. There’s traffic everywhere, there’s dust, and it’s super hot and humid. If you think about it too much you’ll probably won’t give it a go. The vegetarian meals I had were pretty good, at any rate.

If you want some more conventional (and clean) fare that’s true to the street style, seek out state-run Food Shop No. 37.

It’s a tiny time capsule which will take you back in time to 1970 when the Vietnamese government tightly controlled the economy and prevented proprietors or managers from using unique names or setting up private enterprises. Pham Quang Minh, who owns the restaurant, took almost 10 years to renovate and design the canteen so that it’s historically accurate. It’s a very interesting and intriguing place to visit.


We asked Jane Fonda if she would like to meet American pilots in Hanoi, but she refused, she didn't want to.

Hanoi Hannah

Hanoi’s street life is exciting to observe or photograph. People seem to live their lives on the street doing all kinds of things.

If they’re not selling stuff, cooking food or moving produce around from one spot to another, you find them generally sitting around and people watching.

In the touristy parts of the city, the Vietnamese tenacity is on show, and everyone wants to sell some stuff to you or provide a service of some type. I had one guy come up to me with a massive tube of glue wanting to fix the soles of my shoes as I was walking. He was saying to me that my shoes “are no good, they broke” and before I even realised what’s going on started pumping some glue on them.

On day two I’ve decided to visit the infamous Hoa Lo prison also known as Hanoi Hilton. Hoa Lo which translates into fiery furnace is a remnant of French colonial rule. I’ve read a lot of books on the war few years ago and came across a lot of references to Hoa Lo and I’m pretty sure they were not at positive as the official Vietnamese statements on the walls of the prison. There’s an incredible amount of propaganda everywhere. Some of the stories describe captured U.S. GI playing cards and just chilling in the sun while having interesting conversations with their Vietnamese prison guards. I mean we all know what Americans did here right. The North Vietnamese had the right to be incredibly angry and that’s the end of it but the way these stories are portrayed would be quite funny if it wasn’t a serious subject matter.

The coconut lady told me she’s 88. She loves drinking coconut water and tourist watching apparently.

If you want to see some cool art that represents the new Hanoi and the young Hanoians, art that’s contemporary and has nothing to do with the government and politics you’ve got to check out the Manzi gallery which is situated in a little street not too far from the old town. It’s a very quiet spot compared to the city centre so have a good coffee and enjoy the exhibition. Definitely one of my favorite locations in the city.

Owning a car in Vietnam is ridiculously expensive, especially a luxury car for which you'll have to pay over 200% tax.

Street life is very vibrant and exciting to look at or photograph. People seem to live their lives on the street doing all kinds of things. If they are not selling stuff, cooking food or moving produce around from one spot to another you find them generally sitting around and people watching. It gets very interesting around the touristy parts of the city where everyone wants to sell some stuff to you or provide a service of some type. I had one guy come up to me with a massive tube of glue wanting to fix the soles of my shoes as I was walking. He was saying to me that my shoes “are no good, they broke” and before I even realized what’s going on started pumping some glue on them. You’ve got to understand that a country in transition from one system to another will create a strong economic disparity as government jobs are being cut and private sector is growing people who have been on the official government payroll for 30+ years find themselves unemployed trying to make a living on the street. You can see that pattern on display in Hanoi everywhere.

Hanoi - Street-Shaving Fancy a fresh shave or a modern Vietnamese haircut? This guy will sort you out in no time.

For a country that’s run on communist ideology the economic disparity is very much in the public view. You see a guy running around with a tube of glue right next to a guy who’s parking his brand new Mercedes C-Class right next to old cheap scooters. Surprisingly you see a lot of people driving some serious wheels around Hanoi. The thing with luxury cars is that the local government adds double tax on all European cars so the guy who drives that C-Class needs to pay almost 2.5 times what the car would be worth in Europe. These cars are not particularly cheep for Europeans so imagine paying 1 BILLION, 300 MILLION + Dong for it. It’s absolutely crazy but people aspire to these things and in one of the fastest growing Asian economies business is good.

One thing that I find a little bit annoying to look at, and that’s generally around all South Asian countries is when tourist haggle with the locals. I get that it’s a part of the experience because everyone does that and it’s been like this forever but these people don’t really have that much so why cut their cut? We’re happy to go to Starbucks and get a coffee full price and we never ask for discounts. We feed these massive corporate companies who inflate pricing because of the brand but we find ourselves walking into a tiny Hanoian coffee shop and want everything 1/4 of the original price. It’s bizarre considering that we spend our time arguing about few dollars. I’ve got a bit of tolerance for it if you’re a traveling backpacker on a budget but if you have a full time job in the west everything in Vietnam will be relatively cheap for you so don’t do it. Pay whatever they ask you to pay. Your quality of life is not under threat.

Traders outside of Đồng Xuân market.

Markets are such a big part of life in Vietnam. You can see Hanoians cruising around on their scooters from one place to another collecting vegetables, fruit and meats for their lunch and dinners. I had my Fuji X Pro1 on me at all times and must have shoot well over 200 photos at Cho Dong Xuan market in the Old Quarter. The place was buzzing when I got there at 5PM. Shooting people is a bit tricky as some of them get really angry when you do it. Cho market is place for locals and not so much tourists so it’s natural some people get a little bit annoyed. They are there to sell produce and not pose for photos but I loved that attitude. Nobody really took much notice of me even though I tend to get quite close to the action with my camera. I’d walk everywhere, behind stalls, in front of stalls, into the warehouse, everywhere. I always try to ask for a permission to take a photo of somebody but in some instances when I see something interesting happening I just snap away without asking.

Hanoi - Central-Market Outside of Đồng Xuân market. The guy right off centre of the photo was not too happy about me taking photos.

I made a little mistake by taking only one lens with me to Vietnam. I wanted to travel really light and didn’t want to carry extra  equipment thinking that shooting everything with a fixed 18mm will do the job. That unfortunately wasn’t the case. Fixed focal length portrait lens like a 35mm 1.4 or a 50mm 1.2 is a must. I’m actually going to go back to Vietnam next year because it’s a fascinating and incredibly beautiful landscape to  photograph. In the summer months the sun is really high up which makes the light quite intense. Shooting manual, which is what I always do no matter the light is tricky as you find yourself fiddling with the exposure, shutter speed and ISO dials. It is so much fun though I can’t wait to do it again with a bit more of a plan in my hand.

Hanoi is hands down one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever visited. It has a high energy level, incredible history, very stark contrasts between the old and the new, it has a very dynamic art and music scene, great night life and absolutely phenomenal food landscape.

The city will spoil you and its inhabitants will make you feel welcomed and safe. You will learn to love its crazy and unpredictable street life.

If you’re planning to come to Vietnam for a week or two make sure you start your journey in the capital city and you’ll leave inspired and energized and maybe, just maybe, you’ll finding yourself thinking about whether you could settle here and be a part of the exciting Vietnamese transformation.