For some people, Hanoi may be too dense and hectic due to ever-busy traffic with two millions motorcycles (and counting!), people and stalls packed on the street side. Crossing a street in the Old Quarter can give you a headache in the beginning. The city seems to be on the move constantly.
But if you get up early, you will see another side of the capital of Vietnam: It is peaceful and slow-moving.
Taking a morning walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm) is a good way to start your day and see the serene Hanoi. The lake is one of the most scenic spots in the city and serves as a focal point of its public life. People come here for morning exercise on the pavement around the lake. Some come here to have morning talks with their friends in the warm morning sunlight.
If you want an adrenaline rush, you may try jogging on the well-maintained, 1.7-km pavement lined with big trees, or join one of exercise groups around the lake.
After the exercise, what could be better than cooling down by the lake, admiring the Turtle Tower (Thap Rùa) in the middle of the lake? Legend has it that in the mid-15th century, Heaven sent Emperor Ly Thai To a magical sword (Thuận Thiên), which he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war, while he was boating on the lake, a Golden Turtle God surfaced, grabbed the sword and disappeared into the water. Since then, the lake has been known as Hoan Kiem Lake, which means “Lake of the Restored Sword”, because the turtle restored the sword to its divine owner.
After the morning exercise, refuel yourself with a delicious bowl of hot beef noodle (pho bo). This specialty of Northern Vietnam is famous for its delicate broth, which is made from beef bones boiled for hours in water with various kinds of spices, topped with fragrant fresh herbs. Now you are ready to start exploring the buzzing city of Hanoi!
Hanoi, Vietnam, November 2012.