Matilda Woods is a part-time digital nomad and full-time bad-a$$ with a penchant for books, bars, and bouldering.
I've never met travel destination I didn't like, so what was my problem with Hanoi?
When I was planning my first trip to Southeast Asia, I kept getting the same advice over and over again: save lots of time for Northern Vietnam, it's way more interesting than the south, especially Hanoi. I asked every friend and acquaintance who had visited Vietnam in the last decade and they all told the same story. They waxed poetic about the narrow alleys and steaming bowls of phở, the majestic architecture, and the bustling market vibes. It sounded like my kind of city and besides, my friends and word-of-mouth travel advice had never steered me wrong before.
So, I booked what would be the longest stay of a six-month stint between Thailand and Vietnam, about 6 weeks, in Hanoi. I even booked it right at the end so I would have the magical city that everyone seemed to dream about revisiting to look forward to.
Of course, the fact that everything was going almost exactly as planned should probably have tipped me off. Or maybe the growing knot under my solar-plexus as I headed North from Saigon on a series of overnight buses and trains should have been the clue, but at the time I was traveling with a friend and was more than a little distracted trying to manage the anxieties of another to notice the source of my own distress.
So, in retrospect, what was my problem? In a word, noise.
There is one thing the stunning travel photos can't show you about Hanoi.
As we traveled ever Northward, stopping at historic French colonial and wind-blown coastal towns in turn, the volume around us was slowly, but steadily increasing until suddenly, it felt like we were living inside the world's largest tin can during a marching band contest.
Drivers in Northern Vietnam have a very different relationship with vehicle noise than North Americans. While North American drivers seem to save their car horn for emergencies or the alleviation of road rage, drivers in Northern Vietnam and especially Hanoi use their horns for everything. A North American honk (usually in the key of F sharp or A) means "Get out of my way, I'm about to hit you!" while a beep, meep meep, honk, ah-oo-gah, or jingle in Hanoi can mean almost anything and is thus, used constantly.
For many people, this doesn't seem to be a problem. In fact, if the opinions I got before my trip are any indication, this is the case for most people, but, for me, the constant noise was completely overwhelming, some days even incapacitating. I found myself exhausted after relatively short outings and my desire to see the renowned sights of Hanoi completely disappeared. It was just too much for me. The constant cacophony of relentless traffic completely overshadowed all that Hanoi had to offer.
If it's not clear already, let me force the point: I get that this is a 'me' problem and I am in no way inferring that you will have the same experience. In fact, my time in Hanoi made it plain to me that I, personally, am extremely sensitive to noise. As an adult who can't stand the sound of the vacuum and reacts to New Year's Eve fireworks the same way every dog ever does, I probably should have figured this out sooner, but, well, I didn't. Instead, I developed a habit of always, and I mean always, having a set of headphones on me. Usually, when I am overwhelmed in a crowded space I simply put my headphones on, often without playing anything, and I feel fine. In Hanoi, this wasn't an option since there is often no choice but to walk on the street, with traffic - I needed to hear everything around me just to stay out of the way.
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Just like I get that this is a 'me' problem, I also understand that my habit of having headphones available at all times is a coping mechanism and, luckily, I developed a few more which helped me enjoy Hanoi.
Even though I found Hanoi completely overwhelming, I managed and actually enjoyed myself.
Okay, so how did I deal?
Well, first, I found one noise I could focus on in the brash din. Basically, I started wearing my headphones again, so that I could just get outside without ruining myself for the rest of the day. I just made sure to listen to something that I wouldn't find distracting on a low volume, the lowest volume I could get by with.
Next, I found places I could enjoy in Hanoi without being in traffic. Where, you may ask? Hanoi's famous walking streets! Every weekend the area around Hoan Kiem lake becomes a pedestrian zone! Perfect.
Another great option is the myriad of rooftop bars all over the city! I mean, really, who doesn't love a good rooftop bar?
I also found that I could better deal with the noise if I made a point to find some quiet time for myself regularly. I found the Botanical Gardens to be a great choice.
Finally, it actually helped immensely to be IN traffic. On the back of a motorbike, where I wouldn't have to do the work of avoiding oncoming traffic, I found myself oddly calm. If the noise wasn't relevant to my decision-making process, I was suddenly okay with it.
So, would I revisit Hanoi?
Yes, I would.
I suspect that knowing what to expect and having a plan to deal with any noise-related distress will help immensely.
Hanoi is worth it, if only for the food!
Think I'm Insane to Hate Hanoi? Here's your chance to have your opinion counted.
© 2019 Matilda Woods