After my day cruising Halong Bay, I opted to stick to the dense Old Quarter surrounding my hotel for a deeper dive into its chaotic energy.
On the packed streets of Hanoi, the traffic lights and crosswalks are there for decoration. Hordes of motor bikes swarm the roads; pedestrians must clamber over restaurant seating (plastic stools and tables) if they want to use the sidewalks. Walking three blocks exhausted me.
The higgledy-piggledy view from my hotel window encapsulated the hive of human activity.
I dedicated Sunday to fellowship with a city church. A boldly ecumentical gathering, we met for lunch afterwards in the Slavik Teahouse. There I dined with the most international bunch I have yet encountered: a French-Cambodian-American family, a Russian-Filippino couple, a Serbian woman, a man from Manchester, and a lady from Zimbabwe, to name a few.
They proffered essential expat tips for making my way around the city, including a lifesaver app for booking taxis and a drugstore recommendation for picking up hair conditioner.
Shopping satisfied, I strolled the Old Quarter in search of tickets for the famous water puppet show.
I spotted the ticket booth, but a posted sign warned it would refuse payment by card. After circling round the main square in search of cash, I beat it back to nab a seat in the nick of time.
Musicians lining the stage provided live accompaniment as puppets sprang from the water, splashing and sommersaulting. Dragons breathed fireworks. A baby phoenix emerged from a shell. A king processed in stately solemnity. Comic relief lightened the performance, too: fisherman chasing their catch, a sly bird shimmying up a pole.
When the puppet artists emerged at the end to take their bows waist-deep in water, the theater pounded our approval.
On my way back to the hotel, I passed St. Joseph’s Cathedral. The signboard announced eight masses scheduled for Sundays alone.
The next day, I booked a street food tour with a vibrant local man. He coached me in the ways of Hanoi street walking (“don’t run” – walk forward slowly and surely) and introduced me to half a dozen mini-cafes with wares you wouldn’t meet in a tourist’s restaurant. I munched on rice pancakes with local beer to wash them down, then savored a cup of egg coffee: a dark drink crowned with a froth of yolk and sweetened condensed milk. Spring rolls and savory race cakes stuffed me to bursting.
My guide left me at a labyrinth wholesale market, sprawling over three stories and two buildings. Stall after stall jammed cheek to jowl in the clothing aisles, with sacks of grains, nuts, and mushrooms large enough to hide inside in the dried goods.
I combed the city valiantly for another theater performance, but finally contented myself with a photo in front of the famed Hanoi Opera House.
Instead I closed my evening with drinks at Infusion, a chill bar recommended by a couple from church for its authentic mocktails. Mango (what else), followed by a smoky Earl Gray concoction sent me happy to bed.