Asia’s hawkers’ headquarters is unmistakably Vietnam but it may not be for much longer. It’s only a matter of time before Hanoi catches up with other megalopolises and welcomes uncluttered streets characteristic of countries such as Singapore and South Korea. For now, the tradition of pavement businesses continues strongly – especially in Vietnam’s charming capital..
Words by Claudio Sieber
Downtown Hanoi. Early risers are commuting from the suburbs to trade their goods for cash. The al fresco salesforce has spent a fair amount of time arranging its wares to present them in the most artistic way possible.
Some have piled colourful arrays of flowers from the nearby wholesaler on the back of their bicycles, whereas others shuttle into town with their mobile kitchens to prepare savoury food on the spot. There are also pavement barbers armed with the tools of their trade, offering ad hoc trims.
The Vietnamese capital has cultivated its cultural heritage, and, aside from the delicious variety of authentic cuisine and age-old colonial buildings, street vendors of all trades are one of the city’s most ubiquitous sights. You’ll find them almost everywhere: in back alleys, in parks, next to markets, or underneath bridges. Many hawkers have a permanent spot on a pavement, and residents are expanding their ‘official’ eateries to the pavement, too. But the lion’s share of outdoor business is held by the vendors who cruise about by bike or on foot, offering a wide array of richly stuffed bánh mì sandwiches, delicious bún chả (barbecued pork patties with vermicelli noodles), and the worldfamous phở (beef noodle soup).
Getting lost in Hoàn Kiếm‘s narrow alleys is the only true way to explore the hidden gems of Hanoi, where the oriental streetfood paradise fuses with Indo-Chinese architecture. Once you’ve gorged yourself with all sorts of delicacies, you may want to laze at one of the numerous outdoor cafeterias and sip a Vietnamese speciality such as egg coffee, yoghurt coffee, or coconut coffee. One of the most pleasurable things worth doing in Hanoi, other than visiting churches and awe-inspiring temples, is to sit down and observe the chaos of flower-laden bicycles, shoe-shine boys, and mobile karaoke singers flowing past.
Still part of the maze-like Old Quarter, and just a stone’s throw away from the infamous Bia Hoi Corner, where you can get Asia’s cheapest beer, many tiny shops display their wares. Given the minimal space, it’s nothing short of a miracle how the Hanoians are capable of keeping track of their stock. In neighbouring streets like Hang Vai (aka ‘Bamboo Street’), only traditional Vietnamese bamboo pipes are sold or made to order, whereas you’ll find all the essentials for any celebration in Hanoi’s ‘Holiday Street’, be it Halloween, Christmas, or the most important Vietnamese holiday, Tết (Vietnamese New Year).
From the city’s pulsating heart, train tracks meander through the Old Quarter and the backyards of many communities to either Sa Pa in the north or Vietnam’s southern territories; it’s a bizarre setting and a window into local life, where you can enjoy a drink almost on top of the train tracks while playful children roam around and women dry their laundry. Hanoi offers plenty of such offbeat sights that go beyond the classic tourist map. Within convenient reach lies Tây Hồ district on the shores of West Lake, home to one of Vietnam’s biggest flower markets. Quảng Bá Flower Market showcases kaleidoscopic blooms from across the country – depending on the season, daisies, roses in all colours, orchids, and sunflowers can be purchased separately or arranged in fancy bouquets. Starting as early as 2am, Quảng Bá is also a popular spot to drop by for a nightcap or a noodle soup before eventually retiring home.
Although many Southeast Asians are fans of indoor fine-dining, people of all social classes gather on the sidewalks to enjoy authentic, delicious dishes. But with modernity taking its toll on the cityscape, the street vendors and their traditional goods could vanish at some point, and, with them, a fair part of the cultural dynamism which makes this megalopolis so unique. The sooner, the better: pack your essentials and make your way to the chaotic Vietnamese capital!
Jakarta to Vietnam
Codeshare route with Vietnam AirlinesFlies 14 times a week.
5 Senses – Sound
Water Puppet Theatre
acclaimed Thang Long
Water Puppet Theatre
gives you a great
a Vietnamese folk
art that dates back
to the 11th century.
several shows daily
unfold tales about
fishing, the planting
and harvesting of rice,
as well as village folklore.