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open mind, empty stomach

travel, food, and fun

Big, busy cities are not my favorite places to visit in developing countries. Hanoi definitely falls into this category. It is the second largest city in Vietnam and is full of motorbikes (and motorbike drivers), people, and noise. Visitors tend to use Hanoi only as a base for going to Halong Bay and Sapa. Most of the backpackers/tourists stay in the Old Quarter. I spent my first couple days in the touristy part of town and things went as usual. I found some great, cheap local food and dealt with all of the hassle of the tourist zone.
It wasn’t until I took a long walk on a damp Sunday night that I found the real Hanoi. I kept traveling south until the foreign faces and motorbike drivers disappeared. The outskirts of Hanoi were full of small outdoor eateries jam packed with locals drinking, dining, and laughing together. Most people totally ignored me and I got some smiles and a few “what are you doing here?” looks. Now THIS was my kind of place. Instead of walking around with a scarlet “t” on my chest and a target on my wallet, I was invisible; just walking and observing. I get an incredible high when I’m able to go into stealth mode like this and witness everyday life in a foreign place. It is one of my favorite parts of traveling. What made Hanoi special was that it wasn’t special. Behind the hustle and bustle, beyond the tourist trap, there were normal people doing the same thing that they do everywhere. Before I knew it I was asked if I wanted a motorbike ride, then another, then I saw a non-Vietnamese face. My little departure from (or arrival to) reality had ended.
I did do some of the required touristy things (Temple of Literature, Presidential Palace, Unle Ho), but nothing stood out as amazing. I was fortunate enough to meet a Hanoian on a bus from Hoi An to Hue and she took me out for a great night of local dining. For my last meal in Hanoi, I was joined by James and Beth, the British couple I had met in several other cities this trip. In addition to wonderful company, I got to enjoy a couple truly tasty dishes involving crickets at a place called Highway 4. Unfortunately, they were out of the pig ear salad. 😦 Hanoi really grew on me and it’s definitely worth checking out. I got to try many of the culinary specialties and get a glimpse of an overlooked, yet wonderful, city. Vietnam’s capital has a lot to offer and it’s all what you make of it. Enjoy Hanoi!

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