Stepping through the sliding door of Nội Bài International Airport I was greeted with the all too familiar humidity that is Vietnam’s tropical climate. It feels heavy, thick against the chest, hard to breath at times, but it feels like home. For the first time twelve years I’m back in Vietnam, this time on my own terms. To say she was a country I was looking forward to visiting the most during my trip was a VAST understatement.
On my last visit I came with my father and acted like a COMPLETE spoiled brat. Back then coming to Vietnam was not the summer I had envisioned for myself at nineteen years of age. Devoid of creature comforts such as air-con, in-home wifi or even a toilet that you didn’t have to squat over, what is this life?
Needless to say I didn’t seize the golden opportunity at hand: having my father show me around his homeland. Looking back it could’ve been something amazing to be shared between us, needless to say I squandered that opportunity entirely.
I wanted to do things differently this time around – I wanted to explore Vietnam through my own eyes. I was ready to dive into the natural wonders, the amazing people, all the delectable foods and then some. I came expecting nothing, by the end I didn’t want to leave.
Here’s my story of Vietnam – first stop: Hanoi.
One of the many reasons I love Vietnam – it’s controlled chaos is something to behold.
Aside from the great eateries, cafes and a bustling nightlife my location in Hanoi made walking to the surrounding attractions MUCH easier. A weekend here is all you really need, anymore than that and you’re just taking away time from the rest of the beautiful north you can be visiting. Here is what you I saw during my weekend in the Vietnamese capital:
Vietnam’s Coffee Culture
If you ask any Vietnamese person what’s the first thing they do when they visit is simple: get a café sua da. It can be argued that this is quintessentially a vital part of Vietnamese culture. One of the few good things left behind by the French, and I greatly STRESS few, it’s the go to cool down beverage during those hot summer days. Shoot I can drink one anytime of the day!
After checking into my modest accommodations in the heart of the old quarter, I made a beeline to get my hands on some café sua da. The perfect café for an iced beverage and people watching was near Hô Hoàn Kiêm Lake: The Note Café. The greeter of the café was what drew me in. Her over the top “Hellos,” and “Have a great day!” had so much energy I couldn’t say no!
I was pleasantly surprised at the motif inside when I walked up to the counter to order. Every single inch of its walls were covered in post-it notes with messages from patrons all over the world. I ordered my café sua da and walked up a few flight upstairs to the highest seating I could find to watch the people below. With coffee in one hand, cell phone in the other I jotted down a rough mental map of what to explore for the weekend I was there.
National Museum of Vietnamese History
A good place to start your weekend, especially if you want to know more about Vietnam, is the National Museum of Vietnamese History. The museum does a good job chronicling Vietnam’s earliest recorded history, through feudal times with surrounding empires and into the modern world. It houses many ancient cultural artifacts (some recovered from sunken ships!) and provides a wider look at the many influences of the surrounding nations through its long history. Immerse yourself with this light course – it’s going to get heavy real quick!
NOTE: If you are interested in facets pertaining to the Vietnam War your best bet is to wait until Saigon and make a visit to the War Remnants Museum.
The Temple of Literature
Coined as Vietnam’s very FIRST university, the Temple of Literature was only a short walk from the hostel I was staying. Built in 1070 by emperor Ly Thanh Tong, it was dedicated to Confucius, sages and many other scholars among the many other temples in the area. Separated into five courtyards – a quick walk through of the grounds and you’d think you were in the setting of an imperial movie.
Every structure was more or less well maintained, their colors still shining bright into modern day. A pond lays within the walls and houses plentiful array of fishies, mainly to attract the children I deduced. There is also a building for prayers/praying where you can light incense and wish for better health, wealth or long life.
The entrance fee was nil in the grand scheme of things to explore this historic ground of Hanoi, worth a quick visit so put it on your list.
Hồ Chí Minh Mausoleum
For many in the western world they can feel indifferent about the next site, but it is one of importance to the history and people in the nation of Vietnam. Close by to the Temple of Literature you can tour the resting place of Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho as he was better known as. The building is GRAND when compared with other mausoleums, heck it’s bigger than most structures IN the city.
Opened daily to the public the mausoleum overlooks a giant courtyard in front where you will be met with plenty of guards on duty. For many Vietnamese that come to pay their respects they are often overwhelmed with emotions as they view Uncle Ho lie in state. This place is one where you need to understand the BIGGER picture of it all to grasp the emotional aspect behind it.
I myself didn’t make the tour of the interior – but that was solely down to my own ineptitude to find the entrance. By the way it was on the reverse side of the image above, ha!
NOTE: For a good course in the Vietnam War do watch the special by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Excellent portrayal of the actual events.
Thăng Long Imperial Citadel
The citadel was built in 1010 by the Ly Dynasty with the final expansion completed by the Nguyen Dynasty. Used as the seat of the Vietnamese court up until 1810 when the latter dynasty decided to move the capital to Hue. The citadel is located on a vast amount of land with everything considered. This UNESCO World Heritage attracts plenty of visitors daily and it’s not one to be missed. There are murals around the main structure depicting when the Vietnamese troops pushed the French colonists out of the north. A significant event that led to deepen the beginning of the war.
The flag tower, located nearby, is often seen as a symbol of Vietnam. One of the last remaining relics during the colonial rule by the French. Within the grounds there are also buildings in which important meetings were conducted throughout the Vietnam War. For war buffs this alone is worth checking out. Filled with relics from that time you can get an eerie feeling as you wonder from room to room, building to building.
Hanoi Train Street
After visiting a few of the above sights I thought it was about time for another coffee and a much needed foot rest. I headed towards the infamous train street of Hanoi for such rest and re-energizing beverage. Not often will you get a chance to sip on your coconut coffee all the while a moving train passes by.
Once I made the corner of the street (actually a train track passing through a neighborhood) I can see plentiful amounts of Vietnamese flags hanging from buildings. At ground level there wasn’t a shortage of small stools, tables and people to fill them. Everyone came for one thing, myself included: the show that happens at set hours every day.
I settled in at a local joint (that I ended up frequenting subsequent times after) and ordered up my coffee with a smile. The lady serving me was extremely nice and not only to myself, but everyone who wandered by, patron or not. One thing I love most is the resiliency of the Vietnamese people to be happy and joyous, especially through past hardships.
I do want to stress to people who come here to watch the train passing and that is to remember that there are people who LIVE here. For them this is BOTH a home and a business, so please treat it with the utmost respect when visiting.
Around 3PM I can feel the excitement building in the air as the owners of the shops started clearing stools and tables to the side. They were shooing people back to the sidelines, telling them to stick to the wall and not move forward an inch. What was going on I thought!
Through all the commotion I started to feel the rumbling of the tracks through my trainers. With each passing heartbeat it grew in intensity, the vibrations peaking. Until inevitably you hear the blow horn of the train emit a loud roar as it come into view. I was waiting with bated breath then suddenly the shop owner, now acting as a protector, worried I’d literally lose my head, pull me in CLOSE to the wall.
The closer the train got the BIGGER it became! A gush a hot air can be felt as it zooms by, at times no further away from you than a nose or two. No wonder why the shop owners want people to stand further back! The sound of the wheels against the tracks, melodic at times, but this time felt a little different. Maybe because it was just sheer inches away. Exhilarating was one way to put it! Heart pounding another.
Heed the locals warning and it’ll ensure you plenty more visits to train street.
Lotte Observation Deck – Hanoi
If the train street is a little too much excitement for you then maybe a bird’s eye view of the old city is more your speed. Head over to the Lotte Observation deck in the Ba Dinh District of Hanoi. With a reasonable price of entry and a 360 degree view of the city it’s hard to pass up if you’re in the area.
NOTE: I suggest getting a Grab scooter to here from Train Street as it is quite far of a walk.
A high speed lift brings you to the observation deck faster than your ears can pop. The only warning I can give you is to come here on a CLEAR day. Which proves to be tough with Hanoi under and almost constant ceiling of haze. The vista during the day I visited was less than par, mainly due to my own poor planning – learn from my mistake!
Sometimes you need to have your own dance party. From top floor to earth in less than a minute.
If you’re up for a challenge then I highly suggest kicking off your shoes and sit on the glass box overlooking some 80 floors below. Good luck!
Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre
One of the must see shows in the area was definitely a night at the Thăng Long Water Puppet Theatre. The show runs daily with ample viewing hours throughout so catching one is quite easy. But if you are interested in the evening show do purchase tickets earlier in the day as the good seats can sell out quickly.
The stage is set with a pool of water in the middle and on both sides you can see artist performing the age old instruments with voice over actors/tresses. From what I can make out of the narration with my poor Vietnamese listening skills, is the story of farmers and their encounters while cultivating their crops. At one point there were dragons in the mix so I cant entirely be sure what went on!
It was so interesting to me to see how the puppeteers controlled and manipulated the puppets that I spent nearly the entire time pondering how they did it. Pure wizardry if you asked me. The many patrons were oohing and ahhing over it just as much as I was! Thunderous music played by the band that you can feel in your chest is how you know these performers enjoyed their craft and putting it on display daily.
Treat Yourself to a Massage
Found throughout all of SE Asia are affordable spas and massage/reflexology places. I actually feel that there are more spas than anything else to be quite frank! What that spells out for the western traveller is a great time to pamper oneself. Hanoi is filled with four to five star spas/salons where one can “treat yoself!” and treat yoself you should! With every offering from deep tissue, shiatsu, Thai style, full body scrubs, facials and bamboo therapy to name a few you can find one that your body needs.
Best part is that THEY ARE AFFORDABLE! Back home in the states I never entertained the idea of spas of any sorts because they can be expensive. Not in SE Asia and definitely not in Hanoi. They were so affordable I would go back to back days and not break the bank. For exampled I did a 90 minute hot stone treatment for my back for around $21. Yes you read right, TWENTY ONE DOLLARS US! Treat yourself to some pampering.
One of the things I loved about Hanoi was the amount of street food on every corner. Before I dive into the subject more I want to point out there is a difference in street food in Vietnam say compared to Thailand. In Thailand street food mainly pertains to carts where people sell a few individual items, think meat on sticks (or seafood), in which you can buy and continue on, amassing a variety of delectables for dinner. In Vietnam street food is mainly small stools and tables lining the streets from morning till night serving a dish or two of their specialty. Here are full meals, usually a bowl or plate of food, ready to be consumed on sight from patrons.
Make sure you visit the Hanoi Night Market where it is surely to get lively. Plenty of food options to satiate your hunger when you’re done haggling with the local business for goods. Also you’ll never know what kind of babies you’ll encounter either!
Phew – now that that’s out of the way lets dig into some street food in Hanoi!
First off you should know that some streets in the city serve only one dish, for the entire street, at every stall. Yes that means the one on this corner to the end corner will serve the same dish, making only choosing which establishment to go to the toughest choice. Secondly the flavors of the north are some of my favorites. They can range from spicy to light and airy to downright fishy. Your palette will thank you for blessing it with such a range of flavors. Lastly you cant leave Hanoi without TRYING BUN CHA! Yes that famous north Vietnamese delight made famous by Obama and Bourdain when they came to visit. I had to try my hands at said dish and I will say IT DIDN’T DISAPPOINT!
I could honestly write an ENTIRE post on just Hanoi street food alone! But I wanted to give you guys something to salivate over. Next time you’re in the capital wondering what to eat you will have plenty of options to choose from!
There you have it – my quick weekend in Hanoi, but this definitely left me wanting to come back for more. Hanoi is a GREAT PLACE to base yourself when exploring the north of Vietnam. Sapa, Ninh Binh, Ha Giang Loop, Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island – all of which is accessible through the north’s most populace city.
If you had more time to spend in Hanoi what else would you add to the list? Tell me all about it!