After my Myanmar adventure, I flew into Hanoi for about a month of traveling Vietnam. My plan was to cross the country all the way from the North down to the South and into the Mekong Delta. I have to admit that I had mixed feelings about Vietnam. On the one hand I was excited to explore a new country, sample the famous Vietnamese cuisine and embark on a promising motorbike adventure along the Chinese border. On the other hand I was a little skeptical after hearing stories about crime, people constantly being overcharged and certain places already spoilt by mass tourism. But I wanted to see for myself and tried to keep a positive attitude. After a day in Hanoi, I met up with Angel from Canada who I had met in Bagan, Myanmar. We arranged to team up and travel together for a bit with Hanoi being our starting point. Hanoi may not have the tropical charm of Saigon but makes up for it with some of the best street food in Asia, a lot of culture and history and a likable type of gruffness and authenticity. Here are my personal highlights which you should definitely check out:
1| Old Quarter
No Hanoi trip would be complete without spending some time in its Old Quarter and luckily our hotel was right next to it. The quarter features the original street layout and architecture of old Hanoi and is the only remaining merchants’ quarter in the whole of Vietnam. It was founded in the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400) and back then consisted of only 36 streets. Each one of these was home of one of the guilds and bore the name of their craft which is still the case today. Hang Bac (Silver Street) was home to the silversmiths, in Hang Lan Ong (Herb Street) you can buy all sorts of herbal medicinal products and Hang Ca (Fish Street) is the home of the fish mongers. Although these names no longer necessarily represent what is sold there it is still the best place in Hanoi to buy anything from souvenirs and fake designer label goods to traditional medicines and Buddhist artifacts. Even if you’re not shopping, it is superb place to immerse yourself into the daily Vietnamese life.
2| Hoan Kiem Lake
Named after an ancient legend, Hoan Kiem Lake (lake of the restored sword) is the epicenter of old Hanoi and serves as sort of a focal point for its public life. In the early mornings you can watch locals practicing Tai Chi on its shores, it’s a popular spot for young couples to spend time in each other’s arms on one of the park benches and at night it makes for a great panorama. The small Ngoc Son Temple is located on a little island at the northern end of the lake. During daytime it can be accesses via a an old red wooden bridge, the Bridge of the Rising Sun. The pleasant surroundings of the lake make for a nice break after having toured the Old Quarter.
3| Temple of Literature and University of Vietnam
About 2km west of Ho Kiem Lake you will find Hanoi’s Temple of Literature. It was built in 1070 and was dedicated to Confucius whose influence is still an important part of Vietnamese culture. The temple honors Vietnam’s finest scholars and men of literary accomplishment. A few years later Vietnam’s first university was founded here.
The temple is a great place to wander around, unwind and explore the many pavilions, pagodas, courtyards and gardens. If it’s not too crowded, the temple makes for a good sanctuary from the traffic outside.
4| Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
The place where Ho Chi Minh’s preserved body, or affectionately referred to as “Uncle Ho”, is kept. The Mausoleum is an impressive Russian style building always guarded by two soldiers dresses in white. You can actually go inside to pay your respect but lines are supposed to be long and you have to adhere to an elaborate set of rules as you enter. In the end we are talking about Vietnam’s holiest of holies. Unfortunately we were not able to go inside since the mausoleum was closed during our stay (as it usually is during October and November).
5| Hoa Lo Prison Museum
The Hoa Lo prison was built by the French in 1896 and was used to incarcerate “anti-colonial revolutionaries”. After the French were ousted in 1954 and during the Vietnam war, it was mainly shot down American pilots who were detained in the prison. It was then when it received its new name: The Hanoi Hilton. An interesting artifact is the flight suit of former senator and 2008 presidential candidate John McCain and photographs of his capture by Hanoi locals.
6| Eat Phở
Hanoi is considered by many to be one of the world’s greatest food capitals and a street-eater’s paradise with plenty of options for those who want to eat like a local. Vietnam’s and especially Hanoi’s signature dish is Phở, a soup consisting of broth, rice noodles, meat and herbs. The dish comes with plenty of garnishes like onions, basil, bean sprouts and lime wedges. There are two varieties of Phở: Phở Ga which is made with chicken and Phở Bo which is made with beef. It’s fresh, light and is traditionally served as breakfast food. A good place can be found a few meters from the well-known travel agency Ethnic Travel. Very small, very local, very cheap and very tasty.
7| Drink Bia hơi
Bia hơi is a specialty of the North and probably the cheapest beer in the world. The light beer is brewed daily, matured for a short period of time and then delivered to the many bars around Hanoi. These popular street corner places are referred to as beer stations and that’s what they are. You sit down on small plastic stools, order a beer accompanied by peanuts and that’s it. Locals love it and if you pick one of the non-touristy places outside the Old Town, it’s a truly authentic experience. Since the beer is brewed daily, quality varies from day to day. I actually liked it. Downing a few after a long day wandering around a city was nice and the good best thing about it is that it’s so cheap. One glass for about 3.000 VND to 5.000 VND which is equivalent to about 15 USc to 25 USc.
Hanoi was a great start for my Vietnam trip. It takes a bit getting used to it with the crazy people and the constant hustle and bustle in the Old Quarter. But then it’s a great place to immerse into the Vietnamese culture and daily life. There is a lot to do and see, by day and by night and the food, especially the street food is amazing. I think after Thailand, this was the second best I tried during my entire trip. I can recommend staying at the Little Hanoi Hostel 1 on Hang Ga street. Good value and the friendliest and most helpful staff ever.