Emerging from a thirteen hour overnight sleeper bus journey somewhere in the highway could have been one frustrating morning, but somehow these bus rides has been a normal occurrence to me for the past weeks when I started my Indochina travel, from border crossing between Thailand-Cambodia-Vietnam, to traveling all the way from Ho Chi Minh City, passing by Nha Thrang, Hoi An, Hue and Halong Bay towards the capital city of Hanoi. Finally!
I arrived on a cold, drizzly, surprisingly winter morning. With obvious lack of sleep and the idea of dragging my backpack once again in kilometers of walk in search of a place that I will call as temporary home for the next coming days, an unexplained loneliness swept over me as I fought my way against zooming motorcycles. Maybe it was just the weather or maybe I am just tired, but the truth is there are days when I wanted to stop moving, close the window shade and sleep for days.
My topmost priority was to reach the Old Quarters, the center of everything Hanoi is all about both in the past and present times, where most likely the location of everything budget friendly tourist needed.
My sense of direction was not working properly and I almost given up tracing my way to the Old Quarters. Maybe you are wondering why don’t I just hail a cab, but I am hardheaded lady who believes everything is walking distance.
Winter seems to be a high-season for tourist and after several minutes search I found an available cheap and yet must be the dampest room in Hanoi. Going back to my plan of closing the window and sleep for days? There’s too much action on the streets of Old Quarters to let it pass.
Old Quarters is the soul of Hanoi.
A 1,000 years old maze of streets which to describe as “lively” is an understatement. With no idle time, these streets pulses with action every minute to the tune of honking motorcycles or clutters of plates of steaming pho served on the street.
The old quarters or also know as Hanoi “36 pho phuong”, from the name itself is said to be consisting of thirty six streets and guild, with each street name and divided in accordance to the individual product sold, some examples are Pho Hang Bun (Vermicelli), Pho Hang Ma (Paper Product), Pho Hang Bac (Silver).
However, many streets no longer follow the “pho phuong” classification. It is normal to see streets selling mixed products, though on particular product can be found on most of them- propaganda and replica art.
How will you know if you have master the streets of Old Quarters? Quite simple.
That is when you can cross the street without the fear of motorcycles hitting you, when you can look at the driver in the eye and telepathically tell them “Hey, I’m crossing the street, I will not stop, I don’t care but you have to stop”.
It is easy to spot a hint of European inspired architecture among the arrays of wall to wall old buildings at the Old Quarters, though some are converted into a five star hotels while others are now neon-lit shop, there is no mistaken that these architectural facade is an additional reason on what makes the streets atmospheric.
Amidst all these movement in the Old Quarters, standing tall is the St. Josephs Cathedral of Hanoi (Nha Tho Lon Ha Noi) at Church Street. It is magnificent from the outside as it is even more in the inside. The surrounding area is a good place as well for coffee break, the typical roadside plastic chairs traditional Vietnamese coffee break.
For quiet time, I often find my self sitting at one of the benches surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake while admiring the reflection of Huc Bridge (Red Bridge) and the numerous visitors as they made their way to the little island of Ngoc Son Temple.
It is exhausting yet for no reason necessary you find your self restlessly walking each streets of the Old Quarters, simply for the satisfaction of walking and be part of this chaotic yet organized in a way street action.
I think I’ll stay in Hanoi for a while. Instead of sleeping for days, maybe I’ll just sat here at the lakeside and open a paperback, then when I am ready again I will enter the Old Quarters once more.