After some initial delays at Suvanabhumi Airport we finally arrive at the friendly and quiet Noi Bai airport. We clear customs within minutes, pick up our luggage and meet the amiable driver who is taking us into town. Driving into the city he points out some hard-to-see landmarks in the dark while managing two cell phones, driving with his forearms and honking all the time.

The honking, we very soon realize, is omnipresent in Hanoi. Everybody does it and it comes across as very friendly, even polite.

After we check into the CityGate Hotel, which is literally right next to one of the impressive ancient remains of the old city gate we head out into the darkened streets searching for something to eat and our first taste of some local bear. And of course to enjoy the crisp night air, something I have been craving for weeks now.

I have a hard time forming an idea of where we are and what the city looks like. We are staying in the Old Quarter. The streets are narrow and sidewalks are covered with parked motorbikes, street eats and beer sellers. Though there is not much in the way of streetlights we can make out that we are surrounded by really old architecture. In the dim light we make out some of the old architecture and Alexander points out how the area has an almost medieval feel to it.

We make it into the busier night market area and find an informal street eatery where the owner serves us a hearty duck noodle soup. We sit down at the foot high stools and dig in. I notice that no-one finishes their meals, Alexander says he read that no one ever does, it is too much. I smile at the idea, I’m sure I will finish my bowl, but I get proven very wrong.

On the way back to the hotel we stop at a beer corner. Again we sit down on tiny stools and get served two bottles of Ha Noi beer. It’s not cold, but it tastes okay. We are entertained by the  cheerful chatter of other patrons and the interactions of the youthful wait staff, sitting on parked motorbikes and smoking cigarettes when not hauling around heavy crates full of beer or serving snacks to the other guests.

We make our way back to the hotel where the jovial manager is still awake, ensuring us that the big sign outside our room will be switched off in minutes. We should not worry about the light bothering us; it cost too much to keep it burning through the night. He repeats this to use numerous times and even demonstrates, laughing heartily all the time.

I wake up from a mad cacophony out on the alley. Scooter horns are blaring and loud music emanates from somewhere, followed by announcements by a man and woman. Someone is chopping repeatedly at something and the voices of people doing deals can be heard. I walk over to the little balcony and peer onto the street. Apparently we live on an alley of butchers. Carcasses line the street and the honking drivers are loading drums with pieces of meat to be taken to all kinds of kitchens all over the city.

No use trying to sleep anymore. We decide to go see the city in the daylight and find some breakfast.

Something we enjoyed regularly throughout Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam on our travels last year were the baguettes sold everywhere. You buy them fresh, filled with paté, cold cuts, cilantro and a variety of other things. We pick some up at the first stand we see serving them and enjoy it on a bench overlooking Hoa Kiem Lake in the centre of town. A much missed and very satisfying breakfast.

At a coffee shop with a third floor view over the lake and surrounding area I try an egg milk coffee. Never heard of it before and had to try it. It is exactly what the name says, as far as I could tell. Egg gets whipped up into a furious foam with either some sugar or condensed milk to create a rich and decadent foam over which coffee is poured. The coffee floats down to the bottom of the cup. To enjoy it, you stir the coffee through the egg milk and drink. It’s rich, weird, delicious and something I might try again.

We visit the Temple of the Jade Mount on an island on the lake where the taxidermied remains of a 2.1 meter long turtle, found in the lake, is housed. It is a strange sight. The island attracts quit a crowd of curious day trippers and tourists, devout worshippers, and young lovers.

We wander the streets, looking for a spot where we can sit down and have some tea. An old man motions us over to his stools and I notice a tuoc lao. It is a water pipe, usually made from bamboo, in which people smoke regular tobacco. You put some tobacco into a hole down at the bottom and light it with dry sliver of wood, sucking in deeply as you do so. I’ve read about this custom and was curious to try. It’s been more than a year since I’ve even taken a drag from a cigarette, so I felt I could give this a go.

We sat down and I motioned to the old man that I wanted to try, he prepared some tobacco for me and hit me a piece of wood. I put the pipe to my mouth, inhaled, and filled my lungs with a bitter and strong cloud of smoke, exhaling in thick billowing puffs.

The head rush was instant and for almost I could not speak or think. The man poured me some super strong tea from an antiquated teapot and we sat with him and his two friends, slowly sipping the tea while enjoying the quiet kind of conversations people sometimes have by just nodding.

(Thanks to Alexander for the pictures of the City Gate, sandwich and coffee- for his account and more images go read Through the city gate)