Stepping out of our hotel, we turn left and walk along the rough pavement next to the street. Motorbikes zoom by as we pass by a lady frying up spring rolls in her little makeshift kitchen on the sidewalk. Random shops and eateries line the street and I glance inside a little hole in the wall restaurant to see a group of local men drinking glasses of bia hoi (draught beer), while a lady and her young daughter are in the corner eating some sort of noodle soup.
As we turn the corner onto Hang Buom, the busy traffic zooms by as we dodge our way past locals and tourists wandering along the street. A lady carrying baskets of fruit and snacks attached to a wooden pole across her shoulder asks if I would like some bananas. I politely say no and she smiles and lets us go on our way.
After some time walking past little streets and alleyways filled with old crumbling buildings, we come to another busy street where motorbikes, cars and bicycles all dodge us as we quickly cross the road, hoping that we don’t get run over. From here I can see the shore of Hoan Kiem Lake, the water glittering from the sunlight shining through the haze of smog above it. We somehow fight through the traffic to find ourselves on the lake shore, where locals sit on seats overlooking the water, some by themselves and some in conversation with others.
This is the Old Quarter of Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam; where the busy Asian city experience is at its best, and where we started our travels in the country. We were currently making our way to Ngoc Son Temple, which sits on an island in Hoan Kiem Lake.
From the north of the lake, I could see the temple sitting on the island, and a beautiful wooden bridge connected it to the mainland. We made our way around the lake to the entrance, where we paid our fee and crossed the bridge.
Ngoc Son Temple is dedicated to a national hero; Tran Hung Dao, and was built on the small island in the 1800’s. The temple is a very peaceful, shady and relaxing place if you can ignore all of the tourists. Inside the temple, there is a huge embalmed turtle that apparently weighed 250kg, and the waters around the temple are also apparently still home to a 200kg turtle known as Cu Rua.
We spend some time exploring the temple and then begin walking around the lake, the hot humid weather creating beads of sweat on my forehead. On the other side we leave the lake and walk along another street which leads us to Ly Quoc Su, where St Jospeh’s Cathedral sits old and weathered on the corner of Au Trieu. The very European cathedral looks odd among all of the other buildings surrounding it. We hear bells from the church and wander around to the back where we find a wedding has just taken place and the bride and groom are surrounded by wedding guests.
Not wanting to intrude, we head back to Ly Quoc Su and wander along the street looking for somewhere to eat. We choose a little restaurant that has a couple of tables and chairs and order some bun cha (marinated pork and meatballs with vermicelli noodles) and some nem cua be (crab spring rolls), plus a couple of 75 cent local beers. The food is mouthwatering and the beer is cold and refreshing.
We stepped out of the restaurant and back on the street, and all I could do was smile. I was so happy to be back in Asia, and even more so to be exploring a new city and a new country. I couldn’t wait to see what else Vietnam had to offer.