"Don't run, and if you do cross, just keep going - the motorbikes will stop for you," is one local's advice on navigating the mad traffic of Hanoi, Vietnam's bustling capital.

The simplest task becomes a huge challenge in a city of nearly three million people and plenty more beeping and honking vehicles.

Hanoi is a city on the move with a vibrant, youthful energy and a growing excitement for its massive 1000th birthday celebration next year.

Humming along at its own fast pace Hanoi, and Vietnam itself, has resisted a history full of occupation and attack.

Regardless of communist ideology, Vietnam is a heaving mass of commercial activity, cultural pursuits and cordial people.

The frenetic movement of Hanoi draws the tourist in and is an endless source for people-watching when sitting at a street food vendor.

Delicious dirt-cheap delights and popular draught beer are available on most corners.

Motorbikes, trucks, cars, bikes and cyclos add to the stew in a simmering pot known as Hanoi's French Quarter. It's the remnants of the long-gone French colonial period from the 1860s.

This part of town is a lush hive of old European architecture, modern sprawl, volumes of electricity cables forming a wool-like canopy stretched throughout the city, dinky little shops, street markets, cafes and restaurants.

You quickly learn the city is full of secret gems.

Duck out of the mid-city buzz for a quick ale on Hanoi's Legend Beer balcony, near the popular Hoan Kiem Lake, for the perfect vantage spot to watch the city's rush and get free entertainment by those brave enough to take on the traffic.

One was in a wheelchair rolled out into the stream of motorbikes that promptly slowed, stopped and disjointedly veered around him.

A little later another fearless crosser was a blind man with his cane who miraculously stepped out into the intersection. Like Moses parting the Red Sea, Hanoi's traffic obeyed his shuffle.

Our local's advice was right because the motorcycles, cars and buses zoomed around him; if someone filmed it he could have been world-famous on YouTube.

Crossing the road seemed an endless source of bemusement for hapless tourists and foreigners alike who, like us, had never before been caught up in such a traffic torrent.

From early morning to about 10pm - before the 11pm curfew - the city is buzzing.

Then, as if someone flicks a switch, the city becomes eerily vacant.

We learnt this when leaving Seventeen Saloon - Hanoi's only cowboy-themed bar on Tran Hung Dao street, a couple of blocks from the main railway station, on the edge of the French Quarter.

While there was a Wild West theme, flowing whisky and beer there is strictly by law.

But the law puts a stop to our drinking and the city's hustle and bustle.

What once was, disappears. The traffic deserts the city. A calm is restored. All is gone and what is left is a few stragglers sitting in cafes or eateries.

It's organised chaos of a country moving, pulsating to its own beat.

And as Vietnam fast becomes a more-popular hot spot, so too are standards improving for restaurants, hotels and activities.

Try the La Badiane French restaurant for indulgence and cuisine befitting any international city. (Cua Nam ward, Hoan Kiem district.)

But if you want to get away from the hectic city pace then take a three-hour drive south to Ha Long Bay.

A cruise around the incredible archipelago is spectacular enough, however, on closer inspection these islands are home to a series of limestone caves that are ripe for exploration.

Named a world heritage site in the 1990s, (and now hoping tourists vote for it as a new Wonder of the World), these caves were used as a hideout and ammunition-storage facility against invading Chinese.

The caves were also used during the demise of the French colonial period and its Indo-China war and then yet again when fighting the Americans and their failed anti-communist intervention.

All this is the fascinating historical backdrop that makes Vietnam so unique.

Here is a country that has suffered 1000 years of constant interference by foreign influence - wars, raids and incursions that were all thoroughly thwarted and formed the strong Vietnamese character of resilience.

After years of isolation due to communist edicts, now Vietnam has opened up. And it's been embraced as a great south-east Asian destination.

It's cheap, cheerful and rapidly changing.

Another invasion is under way, but this time the Vietnamese couldn't be happier to see foreigners.

  • The writer was a guest of Accor Hotels, Asian Trails, and Thai Airways.

The West Australian

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