I met Tuan just north of Hanoi’s Old Quarter at the Tran Quoc Pagoda at exactly 9:30 a.m. on the dot because I am that kind of Gay. Tuan wasted no time as he handed me a helmet, and we descended into Hanoi’s chaotic rush-hour traffic. It’s estimated that Hanoi has 5 million scooters buzzing through its streets, carrying anything from a family of four to a cage full of live chickens. (Yes, I actually saw this multiple times!)
Our first stop was the Temple of Literature in the western part of the city. Tuan explained that this Confucian temple is almost 1,000 years old and was built during China’s century-long occupation of Hanoi.
Walking through the incense-filled temple we witnessed children in their school uniforms praying to altars for good grades on their upcoming exams. Tuan told me this practice has been happening for centuries and pointed out turtle statues where students’ names from hundreds of years ago are etched in stone; they had received good marks from their continual prayer.
After walking through the ancient building, we joined forces with another queer traveler from Singapore and his guide. Our scooter gang hopped back in the saddle as we meandered through the city’s chaotic streets. Fong, the other guide, asked me at a red light if this was my first time on the back of a motorbike as he said, “Your hands are gripping the seat very firmly.” We all laughed and I slowly began to be more comfortable on the back of the scooter, feeling like Lana Del Ray in her Ride music video.
Heading north, away from the chaos of the city’s center, we stopped for a beverage at Cup of Fave, a gay coffee shop owned by the newly insta-famous Nguyễn Mạnh Hùng. I ordered an iced coconut milk matcha latte and was pleasantly surprised that it was served with a reusable steel straw.
Hùng explained to me that the pagoda cafe is on the same property as an international housing community and workout studio complete with a pool, The Village Fitness. (Yes, you can buy a day pass.) The charming cafe was surrounded by a huge star fruit tree, ancient bonsai, and a rainbow of colorful Koi fish. We shared some traditional tea with our charming barista before heading to the next destination, down a maze of narrow alleys decorated with a string of red lanterns for the upcoming Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year.)
We stopped at an old home – in the owner’s family for five generations or over 300 years. Newly constructed buildings surrounded the small one-room house, and at the center was a giant towering shrine dedicated to everyone who had once lived there. Numerous leftover sticks of burned incense surrounded the altar, and I could only imagine how many had been burned throughout the history of this home.
We then took a joy ride around the neighborhood of West Lake while Tuan pointed out different hip restaurants, queer-friendly clubs, and sights along the way. I was apprehensive about hopping on the back of someone’s motorbike that I had just met, but Tuan was a great driver and somehow made jokes and connected with me while navigating through Hanoi’s traffic.
We zoomed across a narrow bridge crossing the historic Red River, which was bombed during the American war and was initially built by the same French architect who designed the Eiffel Tower. We stopped mid-way through the steel behemoth to meander through the banana fields and public gardens that cover this area.
Tuan even took us to the nude “beach” on the river, where there was a makeshift workout gym and a collection of nudists preparing to swim. We giggled at how cliché it was for him to take us to a place where we could see naked guys and then questioned why someone would want to swim in the polluted river. After pondering if this area could ever be cruisey, we hopped back on our faithful steeds to the last stop of the day, a gorgeous hidden cafe in the city’s French Quarter.
Walking down narrow dark alleys in most cities should be avoided, but in Hanoi, it’s encouraged. In the case of Tamai Hanoi, we were greeted with floral art installations, a rustic wood-burning fireplace, and decor straight out of Dwell magazine. I sipped on fresh ginger lime kombucha and gawked at all the trendy Vietnamese youth.
Although this was the end of my tour, I can genuinely say that Tuan showed me a side of Hanoi that I wouldn’t have seen without him. Gay Hanoi Tours has city tours of Hanoi/Saigon via motorbike and off-the-beaten-path day trips outside the city. Tours are also hetero-friendly if you happen to be traveling in mixed company. Make sure to e-mail Tuan to set up a time while you’re in Vietnam.