I feel guilty admitting this, but one joy of being in Hanoi was how cheap everything was, which fit my tight budget very neatly. We stayed at Classic Street hotel on Hang Be street at just $24 a night, and I thought it was wonderful: clean, air conditioned rooms, really nice people, and great location in the Old Quarter. Of course they put us in what felt like the imprisoned princess's chamber at the top of an impossibly tall tower... Okay, it was only the sixth floor, but throw in a spring-tight spiral staircase, and suddenly the whole world begins to revolve, as you climb round and up, winding endlessly higher and higher and hi-- I almost tripped and broke my neck a few times.
While Hanoi is supposed to be the most quiet and restrained of the main Vietnamese cities, I found it a seriously intense thrill for all the senses. The mere act of walking requires absolute alertness, as you zigzag between sidewalk and road, dodging squatting vendors, walking vendors, racing children, people digging into bowls of noodles while perched on tiny plastic stools in the middle of the pavement, and of course the endless tide of motorbikes and scooters quite literally moving in every direction--sometimes cutting straight across the sidewalk and coming to a stop inside a shop--with all the order of ants pouring out of a stomped-on ant hill.
Almost as numerous as the bikers are the street vendors--all of them female--from the girl dozing on a step with a little aluminum steamer (for buns, was my guess) at her feet to the old woman deftly butchering different cuts of pork on a wooden slab a foot off the ground (raw meats are commonly peddled all day long without refrigeration or ice). Then there are the ubiquitous women with the conical hats, distinct lope, and shouldered wooden pole from either end of which dangles a large platter-like basket. In Hanoi, you can't respectably sell a product unless you've got it in a humongous quantity that can be precariously stacked up, and these wandering vendors are no exception: fresh crusty bread, bitterly sour green plums (to be dunked in salt or pure MSG crystals and perhaps chased with squinty sips of home-brewed rice wine), bags of peeled pineapples and fresh water chestnuts, any of these things will you see heaped up in those flat baskets and artfully balanced on a pole, as the women wend their way through the streets and surging traffic. Hoping to make a little extra cash through a photo opportunity, one vendor pounced on me and I suddenly found myself wearing her cone hat and pinned down by the enormous weight of two baskets laden with pineapples. I was told that some of these women walk as far as 20km a day with their burdens and come home at night to pass out in a tiny room on a bed shared by as many as eight women.
Though we scarcely had more than a few days in Hanoi, we managed to squeeze in a lot of the obligatory cultural sights. But, as always when I travel, what I enjoyed most was simply wandering around (particularly where food was being sold), maybe staring a little goggle-eyed, sampling a lot of new foods, and trying out the few Vietnamese words I'd been practicing, and not being understood by anybody. Sometimes the response would be impatient or exasperated, but at other times, a smiling crowd would begin to form around us as everyone tried to guess what in the lord's name we were trying to say, adding to the overall noise and confusion--I liked that.