Want to live like a local in Vietnam? Just master crossing Hanoi’s chaotic streets. After that, you can do anything, says Shilpa Ganatra.
It’s Airbnb’s fault, this rising travel trend of living like a local.
As a generation of tourists, we’re well past the backpacker era of extended stays as outsiders looking in, and now aim to become insiders looking in, even if it’s just for two weeks.
North Vietnam is a good place to start, once it’s understood that one must live like a local by staying on the beaten path due to well, the necessity of limbs: it has one of the highest amount of unexploded bombs and mines in the world, scattered around its less-trodden places.
Yet its eventful history means it’s one of the most culturally layered countries in the world, as proved in its Roman alphabet, or its coffee culture, or the French influence in its architecture.
As a result it’s easier to blend in, especially in choked-up capital city of Hanoi, which rivals Mumbai in its dense population (7 million and counting).
Be warned — for an authentic experience, your visit should not include the following: a ride on a cyclo — the ubiquitous bicycle rickshaw; watching the water puppet theatre; a night out in the neon clubs of the Old Quarter; a visit to the ever-present Irish bars (their Guinness is terrible anyway); a picture of the One Pillar Pagoda, anything involving a selfie-stick; buying ceramics the price of a monthly wage.
In reality, the first real battle to blend in is crossing the road.
Navigating your way across veering cars with swarms of mopeds and cyclists around them with no due attention to lane/space issues seems impossible — it makes Patrick’s Street’s chaotic scenes seem like a country path in comparison.
Keen to explore Hanoi before meeting up with a local guide in her first evening, your not-so-intrepid reporter found herself circling around the block several times rather than risk her life by stepping out onto the road.
It transpires the trick is to choose when to step out, and continue on your trajectory fearlessly.
Hesitate or turn back, and that’s what will cause accidents.
Life-risks accounted for, spend at least an afternoon sipping egg coffee, a staple of Vietnamese culture that tastes much better than it sounds.
Made from egg yolks, condensed milk and thick, chocolatey coffee, it’s ubiquitous in the ‘coffee street’ of Nguyen Huu Huan, with Giang Café being the stand-out choice if you can find the terrace-like upstairs seating area.
As the ingredients list suggests, it’s a rich drink and you need a hardy disposition to stomach it.
Upgrade to alcoholic egg coffees at around €2 instead of €1 once you’re sure you can handle it, but not a moment before — my Baileys egg coffee tipped me over the edge with its creaminess, upsetting my stomach in a way I expected from street food.
In fact the makeshift restaurants are Hanoi’s highlight, as you’d expect by its popularity as an export.
You’ve not experienced Vietnam until you’ve tried the breakfast of bun ca, a fragrant noodle soup, best eaten in the humid outdoors while fearing for your dignity, sat on the ubiquitous plastic nursery furniture.
They’re not designed to embarrass oversized Westerners, my Viet friend assured me — their popularity is due to its affordability and the city’s space problem.
The occasional laugh at an oversized Westerner is a mere bonus.
However if your Airbnb/apartment/hotel offers a kitchenette, make it your business to visit the food markets, with Dong Xuan being the most famous.
Along the narrow streets or undercover market, pick up all you need to make a delicious Vietnamese dinner: tofu, crushed baby crab paste, dried shrimp as nibbles, juicy red tomatoes, snakes of several varieties, maggots, aubergines, delicious jellyfish, toads… Stomach turned and shopping bought, I visited the Orchid Restaurant for a lesson in authentic Vietnamese cooking.
I chose to go veggie for it, which only highlighted the essential use of herbs: Vietnamese basil, chives, coriander, dill, mint and lemongrass all combine to give the delicate, fresh flavor for which it’s famed, as exemplified in its famed spring roll, deep fried to provide extra crunch.
After that, it’s off to explore more rural terrain.
Airbnb’s live-like-a-local concept is nothing new to the isolated areas of northern Vietnam (the southern side needing an article unto itself).
With few hotels in small villages, domestic visitors have long relied on homestays to accommodate their trip, while it opened up to the tourist market it in the nineties.
Sapa Valley is a popular such spot.
Situated on the northern border with China, the expanse is geographically blocked off from the rest of Vietnam by a magnificent mountain range, and culturally blocked off from western trappings by decades of stringent communism.
Its strong and untainted culture means living like a local is an act more of mimicking than blending.
Rent a motorbike to one of the small villages like Ta Phin or Tavan, and locals, almost always dressed in their tribal uniform, will be able to direct you to the village homestay.
Homes are built by the families themselves using nearby wood and they’re not fully able to stave off the elements, but the welcome is universally warm.
Staying with locals gives invaluable insight into the minutiae of the community’s daily life, especially in the smaller homestays (a few larger ones have muddied the experience by being run more like guesthouses).
Wake up early enough, and you can watch the villagers at work.
With most communities almost self-sufficient, the fields of salmon farms, rice paddies and vegetable patches all need constant attention before the heat of the sun hampers work.
During a walk around the village later, we encounter a quick-moving rabble as a soon-to-be teenage bride is unwillingly brought to her soon-to-be husband.
I’m not fully convinced it’s as jovial to her as it is to the rest of the group, but before I debate the question of speaking up at an infringement of a basic freedom vs imposing Western standards to other cultures vs staying polite as a guest, they’re out of sight.
In the evenings, it’s time to enjoy a home cooked meal from the kitchen, usually a hob and utensils in one corner of the home.
The ubiquitous Pho is the usual dish, supplemented with ruou gao, a homemade rice wine that’s about 95% proof, judging by the mouth-burn it produces.
If that doesn’t knock you out for the night and allow you to ignore the snoring of your hosts, nothing will.
Our visit coincided with the 40-year anniversary since the withdrawal of American troops and Communist rule over the whole country, which is marked by a six-day holiday.
Locals ate pork from banana leaves, washed down with more ruour gao, served in cane-like shot glasses.
Kids played on swings and tried their best to climb a slippery pole, while courting teens showed off their prowess in rounds of goat catching.
Sadly for the large crowd but happily for the goat, he escaped the pen and bolted far away.
Game over, the goat broke loose.
Flights: Indirect flights from Dublin, Cork or Shannon to Hanoi begin at €550.
Accommodation: Hotels aside, rent a place on airbnb.com for Hanoi, where the average price for an apartment is €45 per night. In Sapa, a three-day homestay and tour costs $95 from www.sapaochau.org
The sights: In Hanoi, a day tour ( www.hanoitoursvietnam.com , from €50) will get the tourist boxes ticked quickly, leaving you to spend the rest of your time exploring the warren-like Old Quarter, or relax by Hoàn Kim Lake.
The shopping: The Old Quarter is the main shopping area for locals, who’ll by food, clothes and other items from its numerous markets and shops. The Vietnamese coffee filters (€6) and Blue Mountain ground coffee (€3) make good gifts.
The food: The best and freshest food is on the street than in restaurants.
The traveller’s rule of thumb applies: the more locals there are, the better the place is, but be prepared to eat what you’re given rather than pick from a menu. Giang Cafe (39 Nguyen Huu Huan) is a popular cafe for locals as much as tourists.
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