This August I had the chance to spend a week in Hanoi with some friends from Canada. Vietnam is somewhere I’ve wanted to go since I was young. Over the years I’ve read books about both it’s recent war history as well as it’s more distant history. I’ve heard lots about it’s rich culture from friends who have visited and seen various photos and documentaries on the food, natural beauty and the culture, and even a Top Gear special that was set there years back. Suffice it to say that in coming to Asia, for some inexplicable reason, one of the countries I most wanted to see was Vietnam. It was like Bosnia for me in a way; it was a place I’ve always felt drawn to, but not for any particular reason, I just did.
So when we were planning the trip, the question came up of where to go; the North or the South? Ideally, one day I’d like to have months to travel up the whole country, but we only had a week, so we decided to go with the North, on the advice of friends who have been. Hanoi it was, and we decided to travel around the areas accessible to us in day trips, and I’m so glad this is what we settled on.
We arrived in Hanoi in the afternoon, and after waiting for hours for a visa in the airport, we were finally in Vietnam. On the way out of the airport and into town, to the sound of the Backstreet Boys playing over the radio in the car, I got my first look at Hanoi.
The first thing I noticed was the colour. There were so many colours everywhere. There were tall, skinny French style homes, mismatching and crammed together and painted in bright colours, with ramshackle little shops and garages nestled in; there was pastel pink next to lime green next to sunflower yellow and robins egg blue. It was such a contrast, the style being so French, and yet the garish colours and the greenery of the palm trees and the dilapidated state of so many of the surroundings made it so unique to Hanoi. There were people riding scooters piled high with their belongings, people sat outside the shops on little plastic chairs, and a general lack of any discernable order; I loved it already. Along with all the colour and people and the palm trees and chaos, it was also a kind of strange novelty to see the Vietnamese flag flying next to the hammer and sickle that is so infamous in so many countries I’ve been to before.
In that first car ride I knew it would be a good trip, the trip I had been waiting for.
Day trips aside, there was already far too much to see in Hanoi for me. So, in this post, I’ll focus only on Hanoi (and it’ll still be a long post).
Along with too much to see, there was too much to eat! The food was one of the things I most looked forward to before the trip, so I’ll start with that.
Bánh mì, Egg Coffee and More
There really is nothing better than sitting on a tiny chair in the street eating fresh bánh mì. Bánh mì is one of my favorite foods, and I definitely made the most of my time in Hanoi in that respect – I had bánh mì wherever I could find it! In case you’re thinking “isn’t it just a sandwich?” (which is silly anyway, because who doesn’t like a good sandwich?), it’s not just a sandwich; the introduction of the baguette and pâté were a product of the French, which the Vietnamese took and ran with, so those sandwiches are actually a part of colonial history. Egg coffee is another example of local cuisine with a history; egg coffee apparently first originated in post-war Hanoi when milk was scarce, so the locals started replacing milk with whisked egg yolk. Regardless of how true this story is, the coffee is now made with whisked egg yolk and condensed milk, and the resulting coffee is like having your desert and your coffee in the same cup. It’s so sweet and unlike any coffee I’ve ever had. I had my first egg coffee in a hot and crowded café near Hoàn Kiếm Lake with a young Vietnamese guy who was exchanging a free tour for the chance to practice English, and I was hooked. It was the first of many egg coffees over the course of the week, and even an egg beer (which was actually pretty good, but doesn’t sound really appetizing in retrospect). Along with the bánh mì and egg coffee I was loving all the spring rolls, which they do fried and fresh, the bún chả, which is grilled pork and noodles, and of course phở, that well known soup that we all love all over the world. And the beer! I had plenty of beer that cost me less than half a dollar, and the one thing that I love more than beer on a hot day, is a cheap beer on a hot day in a plastic chair on the street.
As for the sightseeing, there were just too many things to see for such a short trip – but here are some of my personal highlights!
Communism and Hồ Chí Minh
One of the first things you’ll notice when you arrive and start walking around Hanoi is the communism. Not that you’ll notice the effects of the regime on the people or the goings on, but you’ll see the flags with the hammer and sickle, and you’ll see propaganda (which they’ve realized is a novelty for foreigners, and have now started selling prints of) on billboards. You’ll also see Statues of people like Lenin (in Lenin Park), and a multitude of statues and propaganda photos and posters of their dearly departed president Hồ Chí Minh, the Chairman and First Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Vietnam. Communism is nothing new to me, given my travels through and living in ex communist countries, but seeing a statue of Lenin that hasn’t been relegated to a museum or just knocked down and destroyed was new.
So of course, we couldn’t miss the Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum and Museum. When you first arrive to the mausoleum and museum complex, you’ll have to go through a security check that rivals airport security. Actually, the airport doesn’t mind what you wear and lets you fly with lighters, so really, this one was more thorough. We had to cover our shoulders to enter the complex (but knees are alright apparently), and you’ll have to give up your lighters and cigarettes (although they didn’t catch mine on the scanner, so you could get lucky and end up a rebel like me). The Mausoleum is where Hồ Chí Minh lies in a glass coffin for the people to see, following the precedent set by the Soviets with their preservation of Lenin, and continued with the body of Mao Zedong, who died and was embalmed shortly after Hồ Chí Minh. We didn’t actually go inside to see Hồ Chí Minh, because I’ll be honest, the lines were hours long – school groups and summer camps take the kids to see the body, because what says summer holidays like looking at the corpse of your dead leader? So anyway, we went to see the outside of the mausoleum, and really, I know this is probably some sort of blasphemy, but it is just a body … so I’ll just try to catch him next time. Along with the Mausoleum, which is flanked by a lot of guards with guns, there is the Hồ Chí Minh Museum. The museum is a whole different ballgame. When we first walked in we found ourselves in the propaganda through years display, titled The Portrait of Hồ Chí Minh, which was just a lot of propaganda posters and testimonials from propaganda artists about what a great man “Uncle Hồ” was. However, the rest of the museum was like an acid trip through Hồ Chí Minh’s life. I’m not even exaggerating; it was all a bewildering array of abstract art pieces, strange shapes, disjointed scenes of life ranging from rural life to fifties table settings to depictions of war. It was the strangest museum exhibit I’ve ever wandered through – and I actually really liked it, go figure.
The Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum
Some of the strange things inside the Hồ Chí Minh Museum
The Hanoi Hilton
One of the highlights for me was the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, or the Hilton Hanoi as it was known by the American POWs that stayed there. Much of the original prison has been demolished to make way for a fancy hotel, but the rest has been turned into a museum. The prison was first used by the French colonists to house political prisoners, and then by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War, to house American POWs. As a result, the museum is really interesting in that it shows snapshots into two different periods of Vietnamese history and is also used as propaganda, which is interesting to see if you can see it for what it is. On that note, when you visit the prison you’ll be given a few narratives about it’s history. The first is that the French were a bunch of barbarians subjecting people to cruel and unnatural methods of torture (not entirely untrue, but the bias is clear – French are awful, communist prisoners are saints), while the Vietnamese prisoners were secretly organizing under their noses. In the last room you’ll visit on the tour, you’ll see how the underdog, the communists, were finally triumphant, and they drove the French away, and thank God for those prisoners because they went on to found the first communist party. This part is true, many of the people that were influential in the founding of the party were prisoners at one point or another in this prison, and it is also true that the French could be pretty brutal. So the propaganda works; you’ll come away rooting for the communists. The second thing you’ll take away from the visit is that the Vietnamese were wonderful to the American POWs during the war, treating them like VIP guests. They had Christmas parties for them, gave them going away gifts when they left and played friendly basketball games with them. They even have pictures of Senator John McCain coming back to visit, because he apparently was thankful for his treatment during his five and a half year stay in Hoa Lo Prison. Knowing that almost all their American prisoners at one point or another after their return to America shared the details of their brutal torture, starvation, and criminal neglect made this part of the museum all the more interesting to see. Books have been written, interviews given, and war crimes charges considered, but if you don’t follow up on what you see and read at the prison, you might be fooled into thinking this narrative is truth. Overall, the prison is an interesting place; it’s more than a little gruesome and macabre at times, and informative in many respects – but I would suggest that if you’re going to visit, you do your own reading up on it before accepting all the narratives they’re pushing there as truth.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake, Night Markets and Beer
Another highlight of mine was the Hoàn Kiếm Lake, or Green Lake. Not because the lake was anything special, but because of the area around it. There is a pretty temple on an island in the lake, a little pagoda called Turtle Tower, and a nice walking path around the lake. The area was full of school groups asking to practice English with foreigners, joggers who look crazy for running around in the heat and families and friends all hanging out and enjoying the day. At night though, the temple and pagoda were lit up and there are restaurants, cafes, and bars lining the lake, bringing it to life.
On the weekends the streets around the lake close and street performers take to the streets and night markets open. The energy around that area had me smiling all time. There was good food, cheap shopping and everywhere you look it seems like there’s something going on. The night markets are huge and the food is good, but the shopping is what you come for. There was so much shopping to be done and it was so cheap. There were the usual tourist things (like those pants with the elephants on them that seem to be sold in every warm country from Africa to Asia), but there were also so many things unique to Vietnam, and all the knock off brand names were fantastic. This is the place to go if you want a Louis Vuitton bag for $20. I came home with too many bags (I may not be a Louis Vuitton fan, but I was in the market for a few backpacks), a shirt and shorts set covered in bright yellow bananas (because why wouldn’t I need a banana suit?) and I couldn’t help myself – I got the Good Morning Vietnam shirt. Not only are the shopping and the food in the night markets amazing, but there’s a Beer Corner! If you walk straight up from the lake you’ll make it to the Beer Corner, which is a chaotic, bustling, collection of street bars with little plastic chairs in the street. It was exactly what I was looking for on my holiday.
The Temple of Literature
The Temple of Literature is a Temple of Confucius and Vietnam’s first national university. It was built in 1070 and the various pavilions, halls and statues were stunning. I would suggest reading up on the Temple of Literature before going (if you’re interested), because there’s little or no information in the complex, so other than being a lovely walk, you’ll have nothing to take away from the experience. Then again, for someone who’s not used to seeing temples, it is quite a good one, so maybe that’s enough for a lot of people. In any case, I came home and had to do some research on it.
The Trấn Quốc Pagoda and the West Lake
The Tran Quoc Pagoda is a the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi, and it was on a little island in the West Lake. It was gorgeous and made for some great photos, but unfortunately we had to sneak in when nobody was looking and rush the visit because we weren’t all wearing appropriate clothing. Not only was that visit rushed, but it was also a little overshadowed by the walk around the West Lake to the Pagoda. We had thought it would be nice to walk a ways around the lake, but we were sorely disappointed. The reason for this? The Lake was full of dead fish. And I’m not talking one or two, I’m talking dump trucks full. And not just fish – I did see the occasional dead snake and bird as well. The smell had me gagging all the way to the Pagoda, and when we finally made it there we were more than happy to get away quickly. Apparently the dead fish were likely a combination of pollution and also the high temperatures, and it’s not the first time it’s happened. Regardless, the West Lake was not a highlight for this trip, but maybe it’s nicer in the colder months.
The Imperial Citadel of Thăng Long
The Thăng Long Complex looked really impressive from the outside, and it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so we figured we might as well check it out. It was first built in 1010 and continued to be the seat of the Vietnamese court until 1810 when the capital was changed. Despite this impressive history though, the reality is unfortunately a little underwhelming to see, because by the 19th century, the French had moved in and many of the already run down royal palaces and other structures were torn down. All that remains is the Đoan Môn gate to the palace complex, a flag tower, and some steps to one of the palaces. Because not a lot is left, aside from getting a few good pictures of the gate, there isn’t too much left to see. They have been excavating the ruins here though, and there is a small museum housing some artifacts, but without a background knowledge in the history of the area the labelling doesn’t help much. So my suggestion is, if you are interested in the history of Vietnam, (which you should be, because it’s fascinating) then you should read up on the history before going to see this site, rather than expecting to have your questions answered by the site itself.
After wandering around for a bit somewhere beyond the main gate, I found myself a tunnel; and who doesn’t love a good tunnel? There wasn’t any information about it, but after making it down the narrow stairs, I found myself in an old bunker. As it turns out, the bunker does have a name, apparently it was known as D67. There was nobody else there, no information other than the occasional label, and a whole bunch of telephones. According to my Wikipedia research after the visit, D67 was used by the People’s Army of Vietnam from 1954 to 1975, and was the headquarters of General Giap during the war. I liked it. There were some staged rooms, a bunch of old uniforms, typewriters and switchboards, and like I said before, many telephones. So that was a little hidden gem at Thăng Long, if you prefer war history to imperial history.
Bunker D67 and it’s many telephones
St. Joseph’s Cathedral
St. Joseph’s Cathedral is a late 19th century Gothic Revival church in the center of the busy old town. Initially I thought I’d say that it’s a little out of place, but I guess everything in Hanoi looked a little out of place in a way that made it look like it was in exactly the right place, and the same goes for this church. It looks like it belongs in Europe at first, but then, so do the French doors and balconies on the buildings surrounding it. I liked this area a lot, the quaint little cafes, restaurants and shops that line the streets around it give it a great atmosphere, and the strings of fairy lights that hang from the trees around the square in front of the church make it a great place for an evening drink on a balcony.
Perhaps one of my favourite places was Train Street, and the area around it. It is exactly what it sounds like; it’s a street with a train. The narrow little street is full of cafes selling egg coffee, snacks, and beer on tiny colourful chairs, but then the train comes. Like clockwork, the vendors pack up their chairs and tell tourists to move back and suddenly theres a train barreling through the spot where you had been sitting, less than a foot from your face. And then, as though it never happened, the street returns to the way it had been. Within minutes the chairs are back where they had been, the kids go back to playing on the tracks, and the ladies selling donuts are back to offering tourists their wares. The trains come at certain times, which are posted on sign board in a lot of the cafes, so if you want to see the train come through, it’s pretty easy to plan for it. We ended up being around for two trains, and the novelty certainly hadn’t worn off by the second train. Not only did I love the thrill of being so close to the speeding train, but the atmosphere at the cafes made it a great area to come for a beer in the evenings (or the afternoon for us day drinkers). Not only was train street a great experience, but we had some of the best food of the trip in the area around it, so this area is worth a look for more than just the instagram photos!
So these are my Hanoi highlights. I feel like this post has been a really long one, but it probably isn’t nearly long enough in truth. Hanoi was both everything I thought it would be, and also so much more. It was so lively and had so much character; whether I was walking through the night markets or just wandering the streets in the evenings, I had a smile on my face the whole time. The colours, the friendly people, the architecture, the food and the history make this place entirely unique; literally everywhere we went there was something new to see, and I can’t wait for my next visit.
Tips and Honourable Mentions
- Always look both ways before you cross the road, but when you do cross the road don’t hesitate and don’t run or slow down – walk steadily straight into traffic and don’t stop until you’re at the other side (it might sound like nonsense, but really, the people on the scooters and in the cars know how to go around you if you keep a steady pace, but accidents happen when you run or suddenly slow and they can’t anticipate where you’re going to go).
- Eat all the food.
- If you want to see Hồ Chí Minh, go at like 7:00 am to line up, because he’s a popular guy and the lines are long.
- Dress codes (for women): If you’re going to see Hồ Chí Minh you will need to cover your shoulders, but knees are okay. If you’re going to temples it’s a safe bet that you’ll need to cover your knees, but for some reason shoulders seemed to be fine at many of the ones we went to. They don’t always enforce these rules, but it’s always best to err on the side of respect.
- Check out Ngon Villa near Train Street if you’re looking for a nicer restaurant that still has traditional Vietnamese food – it can be pricy (especially compared to the street food), but the food was amazing and the service was excellent.
- People told me before going that I should be more careful there than I am in Taiwan, because it’s not as safe as it is here. This is always a good suggestion when visiting the capital of any country, but I literally never felt uncomfortable in the least. I was out and about alone, and we went out in the evenings plenty, and there was never anything that gave me cause for concern. So while I’m sure there are pick pockets (like there are everywhere), but I didn’t encounter any unsavoury types or scammers during my stay. Also, I found that there were plenty of families and groups of people out and about late into the evening, so you’re never alone on the street. As well, there are so many tourists and expats in Hanoi that nobody will even give you a second glance, unlike some places where you’ll stand out for being foreign.
- I mentioned this briefly before, but there are lots of people (adults and children) around the walking area around Hoàn Kiếm Lake, often part of larger groups, that will stop you and ask if they can speak with you. This isn’t a scam, they really just want to practice their English with you, and will only take up around ten minutes of your time.
- I was told that it wasn’t a good idea to eat the donuts from the ladies on the street selling donuts from baskets, because often the donuts aren’t fresh and have been in that basket in the sun all day. Also because if you ask for one, they’ll give you a whole bag and ask you to pay for it even if you don’t want it. Honestly though, this is a little scam, but it’s still hardly any money to most foreigners – so I’d be more concerned about them being stale.
- Bartering does work here; so if you’re up for giving it a try, the night markets and tourist shops are a good place to get a deal.