On my right, a motorbike stacked with flowers honks and cuts me off, followed by a mother riding with her kid in her lap. On my left, a motorbike skirts by with 3 empty “Bia Hoi” kegs strapped on each side. The road is chaotic, and to quote Anthony Bourdain, “One of the great joys of life is riding a scooter through Vietnam; to be part of this mysterious, thrilling, beautiful choreography, thousands upon thousands of people: families, friends, lovers; each an individual story glimpsed for a second or two in passing sliding alongside, pouring like a torrent through the city.” The day has just begun, and I am ready to explore the beautiful city of Hanoi. I have entered my happy place.
Wallpaper bricks line the walls of the banh mi stand I stumble upon, and tiny plastic stools are scattered along the street side. Behind glass, there are four trays — one with a mix of vegetables, and the other three stacked high with meat cutlets. From the outside, it doesn’t appear to be much. On the inside, however, a friendly Vietnamese lady prepares one of the tastiest banh mi sandwiches in the city of Hanoi. The sound of traffic and the scent of baking bread fills the 3-square meter restaurant, and the price of a full meal comes to $1.50. This restaurant is not unique, however; there are hundreds, if not thousands of banh mi stalls around the city, each with its own identity, and each with a happy person ready to serve you. With enough parking room for two bikes, I pull up and order the only thing on the menu.
After devouring my sandwich, I step outside and get back on my motorbike, yanking it off the curb, joining the steady flow of traffic.
Two lefts and a right later, I am cruising down a back alley surrounded on either side by beautiful French architecture. Bright yellow buildings stand tall, with green shutters open to the street. A cool breeze and mist tunnels down the narrow road, and the hum of mopeds slowly disappears. I pull up outside the Hanoi Social Club and put down my kickstand. Inside, an American couple is sitting near the back having croissants and coffee, and the sound of a guitar radiates from the second floor balcony. I order a cup of iced coffee and take a deep breath, basking in the ambient juxtaposition from the chaos just minutes prior.
One of the great joys of life is riding a scooter through Vietnam
After the coffee, I navigate to a travel agent office to pay for an overnight cruise tour of Halong Bay. I forget to take off my helmet, and the agent makes fun of me in a semi-friendly way.
My next stop is the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Now that I am leaving the Old Quarter for the first time, navigation has become far more difficult. Weaving roads, train tracks, and bustling markets stand as obstacles, while numerous trucks and buses ignore laws as simple as “drive on the right side of the road.” Red lights and do-not-enter signs are merely a suggestion. After about 30 minutes of wrong turns I find myself outside the ___ Square. I find a parking lot for the bike and begin exploring. The one-pillar pagoda is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined, and the wide, empty street of ___ Square evokes an eery sense of communist grandeur. After, we find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and sit down inside. Two minutes later, the lady serves us the only item on the menu — phô, perhaps the most classic Vietnamese dish. The fresh beef and herbs smells delicious, and the broth noodles make every bite indescribably tasty. Although my friend and I merely stumbled upon the restaurant, nearly every street-side phô shop sells similarly amazing quality.
Back in the Old Quarter after a busy day, I lurch up onto the curb in front of a bia hoi stand and ask the lady to park my bike overnight. She charges me $1, and I immediately pull up a plastic stool for a draft beer. The sidewalk kegs are one of Hanoi’s specialty, and a cup costs only $0.20. I join a group of Swedes and Germans and we begin a 2-hour drinking session, becoming friends on the spot. Skål. Bröst.
There is no place on Earth like Hanoi, and there’s no other way to see it than by motorbike.