Commerce and colour in Hanoi


Hanoi’s unique, no-nonsense character extends an exhilarating Asian welcome to visitors, while its bustling markets reflect an eagerness to do business.

Hanoi is home to some 7 million people who between them ride about 4 million mopeds and scooters. These vehicles define the city as much as motor-free bikes in Amsterdam, scuttling along the iron-girder Long Bien Bridge over the broad Red River and cramming the lanes of the Old and French Quarters. Hanoi means “land between the rivers” and it might as well refer to the rivers of traffic.

It’s a city of lakes, too – and that’s where residents and visitors alike find reprieve from the frenetic pace of Hanoi life. Frenetic, but invigorating: it would be a sad and stubborn heart that refused to beat in time to Hanoi’s good-humoured pulse. Yet there are moments of exquisite peace available for those who seek them.

The Hoàn Kiếm Lake, bordered on two sides by the Old and French Quarters, is the city’s natural core, a willow-shaded haven for joggers and tai chi shadow-boxers in the mornings, newly-weds posing for photos in the afternoons and cuddling couples and musicians in the evenings. A number of cafes line the shores of the lake, their tables spread beneath magnificent trees, just far enough from the taunting traffic. The Thuy Ta is one of these, a Hanoi institution and a popular local stop for ice creams, ice coffees and lakeside lunch occupying Hoàn Kiếm’s north-west corner.

Visitors inevitably gravitate towards the Old Quarter lying to the north of the lake, exploring the labyrinth of lanes for suspiciously cheap branded clothing and silk sleeping bags, haggling badly to the satisfaction of the vendors for “Good Morning Vietnam” caps and tee-shirts, and chancing upon intimate courtyard temples and pagodas. On weekend evenings the zone between the lake and the Cho Dong Xuan market hall is closed to traffic and a night market invades the lanes and passages.

Commercial vibrancy

Tourists and Hanoi locals alike bag their bargains before heading for tiny plastic stools at the street pubs for a glass or three of refreshingly light Bia Hơi lager. Vietnam is a Socialist Republic but its one-party rule encourages a commercial vibrancy that resulted in this being one of the fastest growing economies in the world over the last decade. Some colonial relics are celebrated, too, including the elegant terrace and cocktail bar at the Sofitel Metropole Hotel, name-checked in Graham Greene’s classic novel The Quiet American and a place to sample the high life with one of the novelist’s favourite Daiquiris.

From bobbing puppets to shimmering silk, Hanoi has an appetite for colour. I witness – and inhale - the apotheosis of this with a dawn visit to the Quang Ba flower market close to the giant West Lake. Just the waste bins here, overflowing with discarded lilies and roses, would suffice to stock most Western florists, but the exquisite quality of the bunches on offer belies a careful quality control. Vietnamese people love their flowers.

The heady aroma of lilies awakens my appetite and I head for a roadside breakfast of Phở bò soup, strips of beef cooked lightly in a bowl of steaming noodles, sprinkled with coriander, spring onions, lime juice and chilli. Then I perch on my plastic stool, Hanoi’s trademark furniture, and watch the morning moped rush accumulate.

During summer 2013 (15 June until 26 October 2013) Finnair flies to Hanoi three times a week with Airbus A330 aircraft (HEL–HAN: Mon, Thu, Sat, HAN–HEL: Tue, Fri, Sun).

The flight time from Helsinki to Hanoi is ~10 hours (10h55 from HAN to HEL).

Text by Tim Bird

A longer version of this article was published in Finnair´s Blue Wings magazine (May 2013).

Published May 6, 2013

Category: Local features