Guess what? We’ve spent more nights in Vietnam’s busy capital city, Hanoi, than any other single place on this trip or our Eastern Europe trip last year. We’re as surprised as you are. What is even more surprising is that we really liked it.
We’re not typically big city type of people, instead preferring small, laid-back destinations to busy, noisy, crowded cities. But so far this trip, we’ve surprised ourselves by really enjoying Bangkok and now Hanoi. Both are big cities by any definition.
Here are the reasons we liked Hanoi:
Now this may be a Vietnam thing, not just a Hanoi thing. When we started this trip, we thought our food highlights would be Thailand and Japan. Well, so far, Vietnam is giving Thailand a run for its money. We’ve had some amazing pho, been blown away by Vietnam’s take on seafood spring rolls (!), and fallen in love with a good banh mi sandwich. Anyone visiting Hanoi who isn’t one of those “I only eat salad because my body is a temple” type of people should get themselves on a food walking tour to discover some of the food secrets of this city.
And don’t even get us started on egg coffee, a distinctly Hanoian drink. Basically, it’s a heavenly mix of thick eggnog and espresso. Egg coffee is one of those things we’ll have to try to make ourselves when we get back to Canada. And it’s calorie free (or so we assume because no one told us otherwise!).
There is Lots to See and Do
Hanoi is the cultural capital of Vietnam and the sights kept us busy for the several days we were there. But if you want to relax, you can go for a walk around the surprisingly peaceful Hoan Kiem Lake or get away from the hussle and bussle by visiting the Temple of Literature.
Want some history? We checked out the Hoa Lo Prison, better known in the west as the infamous “Hanoi Hilton”. This is where US pilots shot down over Northern Vietnam were imprisoned. Yes, this includes the person responsible for introducing Sarah Palin to the world, John McCain. The museum is interesting and details how well the Vietnamese treated the American POWs (cough cough). The military museum is also interesting for getting a different perspective on the Vietnam War.
When we wanted local culture, the Ho Chi Minh complex is very interesting and a nice setting to wander around. We walked through Ba Dinh square, and visited the One Pillar Pagoda, the Presidential Palace, and the preserved working headquarters and modest stilted house of Ho Chi Minh (or Uncle Ho as the locals call him). Unfortunately, we weren’t there on the right day to visit the mausoleum and actually see the embalmed body of Uncle Ho. That breaks Trevor’s streak, having previously checked out the embalmed bodies of Lenin in Moscow and Mao in Beijing.
And for something a little bit different, we checked out a water puppet show. A traditional form of Vietnamese entertainment originating in the flooded rice paddies of the country-side, there are now several water puppet theatres that put on short shows for tourists in Hanoi. Despite the wide majority (if not all) of the audience being tourists, none of the performance was translated. But, while we didn’t know exactly what was going on throughout the show, it was still interesting.
This was a bit hard for us to put our finger on. We enjoyed the overall ‘feel’ of Hanoi. Granted, we spent most of our time in the Old Quarter of the city, so maybe this isn’t true of the entire area. We found it fascinating, just wandering around the streets at all times of the day.
Hanoi has a big coffee culture, so there were always coffee shops with locals, young and old, sitting around on tiny stools drinking coffee. Many local restaurants spill out on to the sidewalks, where food is prepared, cooked and then eaten by patrons on tiny stools inches away from the busy streets. There are plenty of modern conveniences, but then you turn around and see an older lady walking down the street, wearing a traditional conical hat, and selling goods from her baskets hanging from a long pole over her shoulders. We also learned that almost anything, no matter how big, can be transported by scooter.
The Traffic, My God, The Traffic
Yes, the city is crowded. It is dirty. It is busy. Crossing the street is always tempting death due to a seeming lack of road rules. But you get used to it…just don’t change pace or stop half-way across the street, and trust that the guys on scooters don’t want to hit you any more than you want to get hit! The honking is non-stop. But somehow, it all just gives the city an energy that we weren’t expecting, and yet actually enjoyed.
Hanoi, and Vietnam in general, has some interesting quirks. One we find interesting is the apparent love of former US President Barack Obama. Both of the university students we used as tour guides talked about how great he is/was. And we even found a restaurant called Obama’s Restaurant with a big picture of the main man.
Another quirk was hotel naming. This is sort of a scam, but we arrived expecting it and found it more interesting than annoying. Here’s the issue – when one hotel is successful, other people will open up new hotels using the same (or similar) names and try to trick tourists into staying at their hotel rather than the original, better rated hotel. For example, our hotel was called Hanoi Lucky II Hotel, but all the signs just said Hanoi Lucky Hotel. Elsewhere in Hanoi is another hotel called Hanoi Lucky Hotel and another called Hanoi Lucky Hotel 3. We’ve also heard of hotels putting up fake street numbers to match the better known hotel, again to trick tourists. The same thing is done with tourist agencies and restaurants.
A last quirk are the street names in the Old Quarter. Many start with the word “Hang” meaning shop or merchandise. Then the second part of the street name will describe what is available on that street. So Hang Bac street (Bac meaning silver) used to have a silver ingot factory but is now lined with several jewelry shops. There are streets named after silk, fish sauce, shoes, and tin… We even saw an entire street of just party supply stores! Considering so many shops sell identical goods, you’d think they’d be more successful if they weren’t all side by side. We didn’t find the hammock district though.
Great Base to Explore Northern Vietnam
Part of the reason we spent so many nights in Hanoi (split into two visits), was because we used it as a base to explore northern Vietnam. After our first few nights in Hanoi, we went north into the mountains to see the rice paddies of Sapa. After a couple more nights in Hanoi on our way through, we traveled east to Cat Ba to see the famous Halong and Lan Ha bays. If we had more time, we could have also traveled south to Ninh Binh, the “Halong Bay on land”, whatever that means. Hanoi has a large, international airport so it was easy to get here from Siem Reap, and will be easy to leave here (we hope) to head further south to Danang and Hoi An.
We Love Hanoi
So that’s it. We love Hanoi. Three words we never expected would come out of our mouths (or be typed by our fingers, non-sarcastically). So yeah…next time you’re in Northern Vietnam, check it out and have an egg coffee for us!