I step out of my hotel into the night, feeling the cool moist breeze on my hair. I am alone in a city where I don’t know anyone. I am in Hanoi for work but have a whole evening free for myself. I don’t want to stay in my hotel room. I have no Google map since my phone is not enabled for data. I have no plans, no research, no goal, no desire except to go for a walk. I have no expectations but am prepared to be surprised. I long for adventure but am secretly afraid that I might make a fool of myself. I will go with the flow, I tell myself.

Despite being a stranger here in Hanoi, I feel safe. There is something almost familiar about the rush of two-wheelers on the roads and the throng of people on the sidewalks. I feel a little tingle of excitement as I carefully note the shops and signs- these will be the breadcrumbs by which I will find my way back to my hotel. I have no idea where I am going.

hanoi vietnam
Image Credit: Nirupama Subramanian

I pass a large mall, the pretty Tran Tien Plaza boasting of Dior, Ferragamo and other designer brands. Across the mall is a McDonald’s. I have to remind myself that I am in Vietnam. Then I see the dark expanse of water across the road, bordered by trees, ringed by people of all ages and shapes. Later I came to know that this was the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, the heart of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. I cross the road and begin to walk briskly. The lake is not very large and I can see that it forms a large oval, ensuring that I can come back to where I started. Across the lake is a small structure, a pagoda that gleams with a ghostly light, casting orange shadows on the water that shimmer like strange fish.

Despite being a stranger here in Hanoi, I feel safe. There is something almost familiar about the rush of two wheelers on the roads and the throng of people on the sidewalks.

In a small clearing, a group of women dance in synchronized moves to what sounds like Vietnamese pop music. Aerobics by the lake. A short distance away, an old woman does her own moves, slow and graceful. Tai chi, probably. She is in her own world, oblivious to the music and noise around her. A group of petite young girls in short skirts take selfies, pouting at their camera phones and they giggle as they compare photos like girls all over the world.

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In the distance, I hear drums. On the other side of the road, a group of people have gathered to see a performance. I leave my path and join them, craning my neck to get a view. There are two large creatures performing what seems like a dragon dance. I had seen something similar in Bhutan. Two skinny men inside the dragon suit under an oversized head prance around eliciting claps and excited murmurs from children.

Hanoi vietnam
Image Credit: Nirupama Subramanian

On this side of the road, there are small shops and I am tempted to abandon my circumnavigation of the lake. The performers wind up their show and within a few minutes, the area has cleared. Small alleys radiate from the main road; one seems to have rows of shoe shops, another bags and Tee shirts. In between, is a small eatery selling pho; the Vietnamese broth. Diners perch on tiny blue plastic stools, expertly holding large bowls and chopsticks, their hands moving in swift arcs from bowl to mouth.

Suddenly I am hungry. Silently, a woman emerges in front of me holding a basket. There is something sad about her, an air of quiet desperation. I imagine a lonely hard life, a family back in the village waiting for the money she sends every month. She approaches me indicating her basket- There are small brown balls and soft cream rolls impaled on sticks.

“Donut”, she tells me. “Sweet”.

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Against my better judgement, I buy two of the sugary lumps of deep fried dough. The oil is faintly rancid but the donuts are soft and still fluffy. I wonder what she will do with the leftovers. I would have liked to listen to her story by we do not have a common language to communicate. I leave her leaning against a scooter, gazing sorrowfully into the distance.

Hanoi Vietnam
Image Credit: Nirupama Subramanian

A souvenir shop beckons and I find myself among colorful knickknacks- embroidered purses, lacquer boxes paintings of slender Vietnamese women on pale cream paper. I eschew those for coffee. Vietnamese coffee is famous and the decoction is had with condensed milk. There are brands with pictures of weasels and squirrels on them. I choose one with English writing- a blend of Robusta and Arabica which reminds me of the filter coffee that I used to have at home.

Though it is almost 10 pm on a weeknight, the area around the lake is still bustling. An old man is strumming the last strains of a melody on his guitar. A group of young boys and girls are kicking around what looks like a weighted badminton shuttle.

I have had enough of shopping. I cross the road back to the lake. Crossing roads in Hanoi is not very different from crossing in Delhi. The Walk, Don’t Walk signs are only suggestions not injunctions. You just step into the never ending stream of scooters and motorcycles and trust in the slowness of scooters and kindness of strangers.

I now see a glowing bridge across the lake, the red color exploding like a firework on a night sky. Another light illuminates the green weeping willow trees at the far end and I see the blurs of green red and yellow spread across the distance like a gleaming color palette. It is so beautiful that I stand very still for a moment just taking it all in.

Hanoi vietnam solo travel
Image Credit: Nirupama Subramanian

I have turned the corner and now am on my return journey. Though it is almost 10 pm on a weeknight, the area around the lake is still bustling. An old man is strumming the last strains of a melody on his guitar. A group of young boys and girls are kicking around what looks like a weighted badminton shuttle. Later I realized that this is the national game of Da Cau and not a mutated form of foot badminton.

I walk past Tran Tien plaza, and then am stuck in a swarm of people just outside the Tan Tien Hotel, all of whom seem to have decided to come out on their bikes for ice creams at that time. Kem Tran Tieng (since 1958) is a popular place for I see a guard shepherding people into queues for the ice cream. I avoid temptation and carry on stoically.

I sight the white porch of the Hotel Metropole and walk towards it, relieved. My feet are tired but my senses are full. I felt that I had been on an eventful journey not just an evening walk. The city and its people had revealed themselves to me along the banks of the lake and for two hours, I felt like I too belonged there. I was alone but never lonely, I just merged into it, became a part of the flow and in releasing myself from plans and expectations, I found a new kind of freedom in a new place.

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