If you’re seeking a plethora of experiences on your Vietnamese sojourn, then this is definitely your city! Not only is Hanoi renown for its centuries-old architecture but also for a melange of rich culture with Southeast Asian, Chinese, and French influences.
Hanoi has held the title of the ‘Capital’ of Vietnam for more than a thousand years and through several invasions, occupations, restorations, and name changes. Through all of this and for a city of over seven million people (2014), surprisingly, this is still a very friendly city. Many locals will smile and say ‘hello’, which is lovely for a foreigner.
Charming Hanoi has a lot to offer a traveller, foodie, and adventurer. As with Saigon, Hanoi is also another hub for catapulting you to your next Vietnamese destination. It’s a good base for travelling to the north-eastern mountain region, such as Sapa or across the border and into China.
You’ll see lively games of Tá Lả (Rumy-style game) and also Xiangqi (Chinese Chess) played throughout Vietnam but also on the streets of Hanoi, typically by a group of men; so engrossed are the players in the game that you can take multiple photos without these guys even looking up.
Money also changes hands freely, which is another reason for the concentration and fierce competition.
The ferry from Cát Bà Island to Haiphong City involved a smooth 50-minute ride and the ferry was on time. Once in Haiphong, the wait at the train station was for a few hours to catch the Hanoi train, leaving at 14:35hrs. No problem, if you have a few hours to kill, check out the great little café named ‘The Station’ right at the train station. You can pick up good cheap food here with great service, a clean toilet, and free wi-fi.
Walked around loads in Hanoi as there’s so many sights to see and experience that you would probably need months just to visit a fraction, which is what I’ve mentioned here. Sometimes, it’s a fine balance of what to see according to the budget but still make sure you’re not missing out on experiences and the reason for travelling to that destination in the first place.
Hoa Lo Prison – As with many of the entrance prices published in the guidebooks (not updated for some time), this entry fee increased and is now 30,000VND.
The little that remains of this French-built prison (1886-1901) is fascinating, which even includes the original Guillotine used in the prison by the French. However, roughly three-quarters of the prison has been swallowed up by a surrounding new development, which overshadows the prison and not aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Very sad to see this part of history demolished but this is Communism giving way to Capitalism.
Throughout the prison’s exhibitions, the Vietnamese explanations demonise the “French Colonists” for building and using the prison for Vietnamese political prisoners agitating for independence; often prisoners were subject to torture and execution. However, later the prison was used in exactly the same manner by North Vietnam for American POWs during the Vietnam War, somewhat hypocritical. This prison became known as the”Hanoi Hilton”, aptly named by the American POWs.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – This is indeed an impressive building but too much bureaucracy for my liking. Seeing Ho Chi Minh in this preserved (pickled) state is rather bizarre if not somewhat macabre – perhaps others may disagree. I don’t understand the need for anyone to be kept in this state. Ho Chi Minh’s body is transported to Russia once a year for re-embalming.
The money squandered on building such a display of opulence and the continual maintenance would be better spent on the many people in need. Just my thoughts as there are still so many disadvantaged in Vietnam.
The guards and bureaucracy that surrounds this whole area is over the top. Whilst visiting hours are on, you can only walk in designated areas and guards will force you to walk half a kilometre out of your way only to arrive at the entrance gate. However, out of visiting hours, you can walk pretty much all over the grounds. The security you have to go through is similar to that in a major international airport.
One Pillar Pagoda – Quite touristy, under renovations, and I wasn’t really impressed with this site. Walking around the Pagoda is free but there is a fee to enter the actual building.
Zone 9 – Quite disappointed as read about Zone 9 whilst in Hanoi and was really looking forward to seeing this area, but sadly, the government closed it down a year ago.
Apparently, this was an old pharmaceutical factory where artists could express and display their art; also housed bars, restaurants, and cafés. The official reason for closure? A fire, which killed 6 people deemed the whole site unsafe…in Hanoi? Contradiction in terms and a long way to go still until freedom of expression exists in Vietnam.
Hoan Kiem Lake and the Tortoise Tower – Take a pleasant walk around this park and lake, with the cute Tortoise Tower in the centre. You can easily walk this from the Old Quarter and it’s also close to The Note Coffee shop, so, stop by and enjoy a coffee.
Lenin Statue & Park (Bien Phu St; across from the Army Museum) – An impressive statue of this era’s history and seems to draw a younger local crowd. Many political posters grace the streets near this statue (as in most of Vietnam).
Tu Linh Palace Hotel (No 2B Hang Ga, Hoan Kiem, Old Quarter, Hanoi 84) – Stayed here twice; first visit for 5 nights and the second visit just as an overnighter for the airport as had a flight to Estonia for the next adventure.
Great staff providing good service and very helpful. The wi-fi in the room is good. Everything is very clean and provided for in the room. The breakfast is excellent as everything is laid out buffet-style but you can also order dishes from a menu. Tea, coffee, and fruit are readily available and free throughout the day.
The hotel is close to many restaurants, coffee shops, hawker stalls, and only 2 kms from the bus station. Also booked a shuttle to the airport (USD$15 for 2 passengers) from the hotel, which was also very good service and about the going price.
Note: If you ever find yourself in need of a cab, beware! Cabbies will take you on a ‘scenic route’ and charge you triple or more of what the ride should be, which happened on our second stay at the hotel. Although the driver spoke English well when we got into the cab and I told him 3 times he was going the wrong way, he conveniently forgot his English and just kept going the wrong way; driving several kilometres out of our way and then charging us for the privilege! Don’t despair, everyone get’s ripped off in Hanoi – tourists more so.
The Old Quarter is Hanoi’s most historic district and full of all sorts of street markets flowing out onto the kerbside but also shops; some streets only specialise in one type of item, for example, jewellery. The stalls open early and close late’ish in the evening, not sure if there is a set time.
There is also a weekend night market to look out for, which is supposed to be great for food and souvenir shopping, if you’re lucky enough to be in the city over a weekend.
Hanoi has earned the reputation of being second to Beijing as the world’s exotic food paradise and I can honestly say, there’s no shortage of bizarre choices here (dog, snake, insects, grubs), especially along the streets and in markets.
Throughout Vietnam but especially in Hanoi, dog meat is a local delicacy. I steered clear of this dish, as there’s no way I could bring myself to knowingly eat dog. Although I had a dish in Yangon (Myanmar, Burma), which didn’t taste like any meat I recognised and thought it was dog.
The food is wonderfully delicious and diverse in Vietnam; think I’ve mentioned this once or twice throughout my posts on Vietnam. Hanoi is no exception and there’s such an excess of restaurants, cafés, street stalls, markets that I’ve included only a few favourites.
Typically, you will pay double or more for a street dish (or anything you buy in Hanoi for that matter) than a local does; it’s just the way it is really.
- Lighthouse Coffee Shop (468 Quan Su- Hoan kiem) – A favourite haunt for yummy snacks and great coffees at reasonable prices. The service here is great and the ambience is wonderful in this original 1897 lighthouse building.
- The Note Coffee (64 Luong Van Can) – Another excellent haunt for cheap great coffee and cakes. This quirky 3-storey place hands you a Post-it note with your order so that you can write whatever you feel like at the time and stick it anywhere on any wall (f you can find a spot). The walls, ceilings, chairs, and tables of the whole coffee shop on every level are plastered with thousands of Post-it notes from locals and global travellers; it’s a very cool idea.
- Giang Café (No. 39, Nguyen Huu Huan) – The hotel recommended this café, you must try an egg coffee, it’s absolutely delicious and moor’ish. This local coffee is served in a small cup and topped with whipped egg yolk, not too dissimilar to a Zabaglione. It’s delicious and I would never have known about this place unless recommended by a local; this place is rammed with mainly local students. The tiny doorway is easy to miss from the street but once you find it, walk up the stairs and you’ll bump into somewhere to sit in the couple of rooms.
Leaving for some Sapa trekking then on to Eastern Europe
The Cong Ty Tnhh Hung Thanh bus (300,000VND) journey to Sapa takes about 5.5 hours in a sleeper bus. I don’t like a sleeper bus, as I can’t get comfortable in one. I find these especially uncomfortable for short day trips when you don’t want to lay down, all you want to do is clutch the sides of your seat whilst watching the near miss crashes on the road! Best not to look sometimes…
Hanoi to Eastern Europe
Decided to start a new chapter in the travel year and fly to Estonia (Eastern Europe)…in the winter!
The main reason for the change of an already sketchy plan is that visas are too hard to obtain and too expensive for extensive (6+ months) independent travel through China, Mongolia, and Russia; the next countries after visiting Vietnam.
If applying whilst in Australia (my country of residence), this possibly would be easier. However, applying for visas whilst on the move through different countries makes it harder and takes valuable time, whilst your current visa’s time is running out. I believe if you’re doing tours for a few weeks, then it’s not such an issue.
I’d love to hear from anyone who has spent extensive time recently, travelling independently through these three countries but also if you’ve travelled on and off the Trans-Siberian.