Not all who wander are lost; but losing your way in this city may just be one of the best experiences.
Music pounded through the streets, shaking the restaurants stockpiled in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. It was dark when my fiancé and I arrived to the city, and the night was already alive. Revellers drank in nearby bars, spilling out onto the streets and restaurant employees smiled with beguiling faces while enthusiastically waving menus in our direction.
“Table for two?”
“Please, have a look!”
“Come this way, take a seat here!”
Patiently, I smile and shake my head to each of the hopefuls. We are trying to make our way through the Old Quarter’s winding lanes, looking for a place to eat that doesn’t have a menu as thick as the Bible — a good indication that the restaurant is catered to “tourist” tastes rather than offering authentic fare. And it seems we are not the only ones, as we are packed in with the sea of tourists trying to navigate around a woman selling balloons and a collection of hawkers peddling pastries piled up in wicker baskets.
Stomachs rumbling, we finally escape the Old Quarter madness. Choosing a direction at random, we walked until St. Joseph’s Cathedral’s looming façade came in to view. The quietly beautiful cathedral is surrounded by a wide square, framed by shops, cafes and restaurants. A boutique selling jewellery catches my eye, and I notice a sign pointing to an upstairs restaurant. The menu looks concise and features local dishes. Climbing up, we snag a table on the balcony and sip Hanoi Beer while eating bun cha — excited for tomorrow.
In the morning we grab a quick Vietnamese coffee and head straight out of the Old Quarter. While during the day the area’s many restaurants remain closed, the district is still crammed full with tourists, shops, travel agents and street vendors. While we did not exactly have a plan for the day, we knew we wanted to explore an area of the city that was not saturated by tourism. We wanted to experience life the way a local may view it in Hanoi.
After exiting the Old Quarter, we were met with the serene beauty of the Hoan Kiem Lake. The day was overcast, and the dove grey sky echoed in the lake’s still waters created a tranquil canvas featuring the striking red Rising Sun Bridge leading to Ngoc Son Temple. Built on Jade Island, the temple was built to honour General Tran Hung Dao, who is famed for defeating a force of 30,000 soldiers sent to invade Vietnam in the 13th century by Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan.
Looking solitary and forlorn, to the temple’s right stands Turtle Tower. In the still, grey light, the tower elicits a mystical quality — and it is no wonder. The tower was built to immortalize the legend of Hoan Kiem Lake.
Translating to “Lake of the Returned Sword,” according to legend Emperor Le Loi visited the lake in 1428. He was gifted the sword from the Dragon King in order to defeat Chinese invaders. Upon a successful campaign, Le Loi returned to the lake where he was met by a giant golden turtle who came to return the sword to the Dragon King.
Indeed, one of four of the world’s last remaining Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles made the lake its home until passing away in 2016. Known to locals as Cu Rua — or Great-Grandfather Turtle — he was believed by some to be the earthly incarnation of the legendary turtle. His passing brought a tide of sadness and mourning to the country — particularly as, to many, Cu Rua also represented Vietnam’s continued autonomy from China.
After visiting Ngoc Son temple — and leaving steeped in a calm energy — we began to walk away from Hoan Kiem and its legends that seem to linger above the lake like a mist in the light of dawn.
Where we walked to I am not entirely sure. For all I do know is that we soon left our fellow tourists behind, and made our way to a quiet community deep within Hanoi where we were the only outsiders around.
Here, Hanoi’s vibe seemed to change entirely. We had left behind the nervous energy of too many people in too small a space. People were more preoccupied with going about their daily lives to be bothered by us as we quietly soaked up the unfolding human narratives. Two men fished in a small lake in the middle of the community square, while others sat around chatting, playing games and smoking.
Further into the community, we walked along narrow, winding roads peppered with shops and the smells of cooking. Women gathered to sell drinks and chat. In the distance, a school yard could be heard while stray dogs ran between buildings.
Upon emerging from the narrow maze of structures, we found ourselves in the midst of an industrial area. First, we traipsed down a street that appeared to focus on carpentry. Particularly, carving coffins. Gradually, wood gave way to metal as we were enclosed on all sides by stall-upon-stall of automotive parts, gears, pipes and scraps. Mechanics turned to electricity as we passed stalls selling wires and lamp shops lit the way for us to, somehow, meander back to the Old Quarter.
The sun had begun to get lower in the sky by the time we wandered back to the beginning of our journey — Hoan Kiem Lake. While our souls had feasted on adventure, our bodies were famished. After visiting a nearby bakery, we rested our weary feet beneath an expansive tree near the water’s edge. The sun had cleared away the morning’s clouds and turned the lake a brilliant jade green.
Savouring sweet buns and eclairs, the park provided the perfect place to people watch. Couples walked hand-in-hand along the water bank, children played in the grass and benches filled with friends snapping selfies or people lost amidst the pages of a book. Opposite of our perch, and elderly woman served tea out of a large thermos to passers-by. She appeared to know many of her customers well. As people came and went, many stopped to chat and sip before moving on with their day. The afternoon passed slowly and pleasantly.
Satisfied but sleepy from our journey, we took a brief respite before facing the busy evening in Hanoi’s Old Quarter once more. While Hoan Kiem Lake was the picture of tranquillity by day, in the evening the surrounding park became a playground for young families. On Sundays, the roads around the lake close down and fill with pedestrians buying balloons, children driving toy cars and dance troupes gathering to give impromptu performances. The energy is infectious, and lasts long into the night before Hanoi heads to bed and prepares for another day.
Photos and text by Sarah Comber.