Fragrant wafts of lemongrass, ginger and chilli envelope my nose and tease my taste buds as I wait for my bowl of aromatic pho ga to cool. Sitting outside on a plastic chair of questionable quality and stability, I’m almost too close for comfort to the frenetic mix of scooters, cars and bicycles whizzing up and down the bustling Hanoi street while street vendors rumble by laden with eclectic and gaudy wares.
With my hunger satisfied, my thoughts turn to shopping and perhaps a memento of my stay in Vietnam’s elegant capital. Deciding against the vendors’ duck feather dusters and cheap neon flashing toys, I head into the Old Quarter near Hoan Kiem Lake. With its '36 Streets' each specialising in a particular trade, the Old Quarter is easy enough to navigate if you know what you’re looking for. I stroll along silk street, gold street and paper street before finally venturing to lacquer street where I bought an authentic hand painted dish.
Finishing the day off nursing a cool frothy beer at one of the Old Quarter’s Bia Hoi corners, I reflect on how the pace of life on Hanoi’s streets has increased exponentially since my first visit over 10 years ago.
The next evening I’m southbound for the small port town of Hoi An – now a UNESCO World Heritage site on the country’s stunning central coast. Traditional silk lanterns light up the night sky over the shimmering waters of the Thu Bon River as I chop chillies, fry wontons and delicately craft spring rolls during a Vietnamese cookery class.
An old European trading port dating back to the mid-sixteenth century, Hoi An has been exceptionally well-preserved with vestiges of native architecture which survived the war untouched lining the narrow, traffic-free streets. The pace of life feels slower here than in the capital. I soak up the old-world ambience as I meander through the narrow lanes and a glance up reveals roofs adorned with yin yang tiles and colourful porcelain-clad dragons, representing the emperor, prosperity and power of the nation.
Hoi An has also become something of a tailoring hub where shopkeepers will try to seduce you into their wooden fronted tailor shops with samples of suit jackets or floral dresses. Towards the beach – a mere stroll or bicycle ride from the main street, and a world away from the lure of a new wardrobe – I realise that a more traditional Vietnamese way of life continues to thrive: rice dries on the side of the road and buffalos work the fields with wooden ploughs.
Travelling in Vietnam, be it in a bustling city like Hanoi or a coastal town like Hoi An, the simplest things can be the most rewarding. So pull up a rickety chair by a street-side stall, order a cool drink and a steaming bowl of pho, and take the time to watch the world go by.
By Nick Nikolsky, Exodus Product Executive