The constant chaos in all directions is making me jittery. Waves of motorbikes criss cross through intersections that lack stop signs and set the city soundtrack with constant honking. I must navigate this mad scramble on foot because the sidewalks are completely clogged with rows of parked motorbikes and food vendors with cartoonishly small chairs. As I attempt to cross the street a few feet at a time, a honking motorbike stacked with four passengers zips by so fast that I can feel the breeze cut through the humidity. At this moment I realize with no uncertainty that I shouldn’t have taken that edible.
Welcome to the Old Quarter in Hanoi, the chaotic capital of Vietnam.
Hanoi, which celebrates its bicentennial in 2031, served as the country’s political center under the name Thăng Long until the early 19th century. French colonialists conquered the city in 1873, and a decade later, the colonists made Hanoi the capital of French Indochina. The colonists were driven out in 1940 by the invading Japanese army, but decades of French influence remains, creating a crusty mash-up of French and Vietnamese style. Today, the city is both magical and menacing, alluring and alarming, like a coked-up race through an outdoor art gallery.
No direct flights connect Vietnam and the United States — at least not yet — so the journey from Los Angeles took nearly 24 hours passing through Taipei. For long overnight flights like this, I typically take an indica gummy to help me sleep, but this time I crashed out on my own. In practice, Vietnam largely ignores personal cannabis consumption, but on paper, the country has some of the harshest drug laws on the planet. I’m now carrying an edible in Hanoi and should down it without delay.
Like the vast majority of tourists, I planted myself in the French Old Quarter surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake. Backpacker haunts are concentrated on the north side of the lake, where you’ll find the Dong Kinh Nghia Thuc Square (as seen in the main image above) and the Temple of the Jade Mountain, which sits in the lake on a small island connected by a red wooden bridge (image below). On the weekends, a Night Market pops up with vendors selling street food and knock-off fashions. Louis Vuitton-like scarves sell for less than $4. The focus is on legacy brands, but I did see one poorly produced Supreme tee.
On the southeast side of the lake you’ll find non-fake luxury brands like Prada and Hermes. I choose to stay here in part because I found a high-end luxury hotel at significantly below-average prices. I stayed at the Hanoi Hilton.
Let’s face it, the American captives who referred to Hoa Lo prison as the Hanoi Hilton did the brand a disservice, so a real Hilton in Hanoi needs to offer superior luxury at moderate prices. Built in 1999, the Hanoi Hilton Opera curves like a half moon around the century-old, French-built Grand Opera House and matches its colonial-yellow Neo-Baroque facade. An elevated pool sits in the curvature on the opera side of the hotel. I paid approximately $130 per night.
For bougie cuisine on this side of the lake, chef Charles Voudouris (of Bistro Jolie in Bel Air, California) recommends the Press Club for French wine country fare by Michelin-starred Alain Dutournier. I decided to pair my indica edible with a restaurant splurge, but overly French servers would make me paranoid, so I opted for the French-Vietnamese La Badiane on the southeast side of the lake instead.
After downing the gummy at the hotel, I embark on the 25-minute walk to La Badiane and arrive to find a visually stunning space that adorns its walls with giant black and white photos of working-class Vietnamese nationals. The edible kicks in around the time of the first course, a scallop lasagna, that confirmed I’d picked one of the best spots in Hanoi. Half-cooked red tuna, chorizo-topped steak and crunchy shrimp follow, and the edible enhances the taste of each. But now it’s time to walk home.
At this point, I had only been in town for 24 hours, so I had yet to acclimate myself to the game of Human Frogger that is the Hanoi city streets. We’re talking about a situation so harrowing that there are actual How To videos for crossing the street, and I’m going to tackle this motorized obstacle course on a full-body indica high. “In-da-couch” chill, meet urban anarchy.
Everything typically seems to slow down when I enjoy indica, but as I face the street outside La Badiane, I experience the opposite: Everything is moving hyperfast. I don’t recall feeling this much urban energy since my first visit to New York City, and like that first visit, I’m once again the sidewalk-clogging tourist that locals must navigate around. As motorbikes race by, I see fruit-carrying grannies maneuver through the traffic with ease, yet I stand frozen on the curb like a turtle at the edge of a freeway. After questioning my edible consumption for several minutes, I finally see a break in the bike parade and make my move quickly across the street.
From there, it was a long straight shot down Hai Ba Trung with generally wider sidewalks, but some intersections were especially expansive and unforgiving. I’m now standing before one that seems particularly daunting. Cue up all the motivtaional bullshit — now or never, here’s to nothing, god help us, fuck it — I make my move.
Five paces into the street and I must stop. I stay perfectly still as motorbikes rush past me on both sides. I see an opportunity to cover more ground and take it, and then as several motorbikes see me and ease up on the accelerator, I make it to the middle of the road. Every single motorbike is honking at me. Finally, like the Red Sea parting before Moses in a possible DMT hallucination, I see a break in the sea of motorbikes and rush to the other side. I must look ridiculous to the locals.
Maybe it’s just stoned philosophizing, but the honking doesn’t feel aggressive like it might back home in Los Angeles. If anything, it feels like a turn signal or high beams to alert others of your intentions. I start to wonder if the trick is to put my trust in their, not my, street-crossing skills. Think about a pro-gamer playing Grand Theft Auto with reflexes sharpened to next-level accuracy. Growing up in Vietnam must instill those same skills in everyone bold enough to take the handlebars and conquer these fiery streets.
Best of all, that isn’t my only revelation during this walk. The combination of fear and indica have all five senses on high alert, and my heightened sense of smell starts to capture the wide range of rich and savory aromas coming from restaurants and street food vendors. The occasional blast of cooked fish sauce feels like a jab to the nose, but I mostly smell a fragrant mix of lemongrass, ginger, fresh mint and sizzling sliced beef.
As I cautiously make my way back, I’m only a few blocks from the hotel when I see the first and only accident during my time in Hanoi. Surprisingly, the cause was neither a person nor another vehicle. While making a left hand turn onto another street, a car slams onto the asphalt, with the left front side of the vehicle falling into a large open hole in the street. Someone opened a metal door to the infrastructure below, and no warning sign had been put up to alert oncoming traffic.
Within seconds, the sound of screaming men overpowers the orchestral honking, and in my anxious indica state, I realize I now have something else to worry about on the streets. After one more harrowing crossing to get to the hotel, I pass the Grand Opera House where young Vietnamese locals fill the steps drinking beer and eating shelled nuts and finally enter the Hilton ready to sleep off the rest of the high.
Eat, Drink, Play
Now for the travel tips.
On the northwest side of the lake, the fifth-floor restaurant Cau Go overlooks the lake with spectacular outdoor seating, King Roti offers unimaginably soft sweet bread for under a dollar, Phở Gia Truyền Bát Đàn is the place for meat & rice noodle soup (pho), and Banh Mi 25 sandwiches beautifully embody the Vietnamese twist on a French colonial classic. Visit the Terraco Sky Bar (La Sinfonia Del Rey Hotel) for rooftop drinks from skilled mixologists, while Essence serves dishes that highlight the country’s different regions. The elegant Apricot Hotel features a 10th-floor rooftop swimming pool with panoramic views of the lake, while the Oriental Jade, which also boasts a rooftop pool, is a more affordable option nearby.
On the southeast side, the art-filled, Japanese-inspired Tadioto bar feels like a Warhol-Hemingway lovechild. This youthful spot for “Drinkers and Thinkers” brews its own craft beer, including an IPA with coffee notes similar to Firestone’s Parabola. Other options include the Kumquat Tree speakeasy (look for the big red door) and the live music Binh Minh Jazz Club. Willing to splurge on a hotel? The 120-year-old Sofitel Legend Metropole is the pinnacle of colonial opulence with grandiose architecture, world-class restaurants and stylish bars, including the poolside Bamboo Bar. The casual throwback bar features a thatched roof and wooden floor built atop the hotel’s historic bomb shelter.
Journeys outside the Old Quarter typically start with the UNESCO-enshrined Halong Bay where forest-topped islets and limestone pillars fill the Gulf of Tonkin (image above). A one-night boat stay is typically enough to experience its magic. Pay a visit to BBQ Chicken Street (Ly Van Phuc) to see street-food vendors cook different types of poultry each night or play the home version of Fear Factor and swallow a still-beating snake heart at Snake Village. Buy or learn to make your own pottery here in a centuries-old village, and check out the four-mile Hanoi Ceramic Mosaic Mural for the world’s largest ceramic mosaic.
For a piece of war history, the wreckage of a B-52 bomber (shot down in December 1972) sits in the algae-green waters of Huu Tiep Lake as a tribute to the victory over the United States. Those looking to the future, however, can see capitalism striking back in the Tay Ho District (image below) where Beverly Hills-like neighborhoods continue to modernize the city with ritzy new developments.
Americans need a visa to visit Vietnam. Apply online ($80 for single entry, plus $20 in Fedex postage) for a loose-leaf visa page (i.e., a separate page unattached to your passport). Klook charges $10 to $15 for prearranged airport picks, and download the Grab app to hail cash-only taxis with GrabTaxi and member cars (a la Uber) with GrabCar that can be paid with credit cards through the app. To use this and other apps on the street, purchase a SIM card or a portable WiFi device like GlocalMe. Those who want to exchange USD (bring $50 and $100 notes for better rates) can do so at most hotels, banks and certain jewelry stores on Hang Bac and Ha Trung streets. When returning home, Priority Pass members have access to the Song Hong Lounges in both terminals.
David Jenison (email@example.com) is Editor-in-Chief at PRØHBTD.