Before leaving for Vietnam, I had heard mixed reviews. Travelers either loved it or hated it. Many said it was their least favorite country based on the attitude of the locals and how they were treated. I was skeptical going in and was expecting to come out the other end disliking it. I went in equipped with my prejudice and tales of other’s travels. But, after spending several weeks in the country, the verdict is in: I loved it (and my travel companions loved it). I loved the people, the food, the country and history. Of course, there are always isolated incidents of doing bad business, not bargaining properly and getting ripped off, or coming across someone who is having a bad day and just feels like being nasty. But I didn’t find my experience to be any different from my time in other countries like Thailand (remind me to tell you the story of the time I got kicked by a seller in Bangkok after walking away from a bad deal on a necklace).
We spent three whirlwind days in Hanoi. Arriving late at night, we were greeted warmly at our hotel, Le Mercure in the Hoan Lake District (94 Ly Thuong Kiet Street) [See map]. Our first traveller mishap occurred when my travel companion left his brand new iphone in the taxi. The hotel which had cameras on the outside, called the taxi agency and tracked down the driver who within 10 minutes brought back his phone! Besides their wonderful service, the hotel was beautiful, elegant and very clean. The staff were professional, courteous and very helpful. A continental and Asian breakfast was served from 6-10 am. A travel and tour agent desk was also located close to the dining area which helped us book many tours around Hanoi. After having spent a few days in Hanoi, we were extremely happy with our hotel choice and chose to spend an extra night after returning from Halong Bay.
Day 1 in Hanoi:
Due to being extremely jet lag, we were up at 5, had breakfast at 6, and were on the road at 7. We first walked over to the epicenter of Hanoi, Hoan Kiem Lake (less than 10 minute walk from our hotel). We walked around the lake, saw the locals practice Tai Chi and started our journey in Hanoi with the scarlet Huc Bridge and the Ngoc Son Temple. The temple is located on a small island in the middle of the lake only accessible by crossing over the Huc Bridge.
Next, we passed the Martyrs’ Monument, a memorial dedicated to martyrs fighting for Vietnamese Independence.
And then the real journey began when we crossed over into the labrynth maze of the Old Quarter. Our day can be summed up in one word: Over-stimulated! There was so much to see and take in. I could have spent days and days discovering the quarter where the streets are divided into categories of what is being sold. There is a hardware street, candy street, liquor street, cemetery headstone street and endless streets selling specialty items. It was so easy to spend the day in the Old Quarter, getting lost, stumbling upon exotic markets, street food stalls and so much more. The streets and houses are very narrow (based on the tax laws in the olden days which were based on the width of the home). Crossing the streets was the ultimate adventure and took a lot of guts and courage to not think about being trampled by the millions of motorbikes charging straight at you.
Besides taking in the experience, some highlights of the Old Quarter were the Dong Xuan Market, Memorial house ( a traditional merchants’ house which reminded me of the Japanese series I watched as a child ‘Oshin), Bach Ma Temple and the food stand street.
In the evening, we went back to the hotel for a ‘rest’ which meant we passed out at 7pm and woke up at 5am the next morning. Oh the sweet, overpowering sensation of being jetlag.
Up at 5 again, breakfast at 6 and picked up at our hotel by a local travel agency at 8. We opted for a bike tour of Hanoi. Our tour guide took us to a residential neighborhood in Hanoi where bikes were picked up from a very friendly man (who we later found out was a famous Vietnamese cyclist and champion). We rode the bikes with our tour guide through some crazy motorbike traffic before we headed towards Truc Back Lake and the West lake (Tay Ho).
What a beautiful area in Hanoi. Completely different from the Old Quarter. It was sophisticated with beautiful new luxury homes right on the lake- a sharp contrast from the rugged and old dirty style of the Old Quarter. We stopped on the lake for a ca phe su chua and then biked across the Thanh Nien road making a short stop at Tran Quoc Pagoda. The Pagoda should not be missed. It is simply breathtaking and one of the oldest remaining Pagodas in Vietnam.
After a quick pilgrimage to the pagoda we rode our bikes west to the vast manicured streets leading to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum Complex. The Mausoleum is a monumental piece dedicated to the Communist leader of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh. Here you can see the morbid pale body of Ho Chi Minh in a glass case. It’s quite a somber experience.
Outside the complex and to the east in stark contrast to Ho Chi Minh’s stilt house is the gorgeous colonial building which is now the Presidential Palace. The streets are large and tree lined resembling many streets in Paris and the colonial houses are beautifully restored to a bright yellow hue.
Our bike tour ended where it began just north of the Old Quarter. We were then transported back to our hotel.
Next, we headed to the Hoan Kiem Lake area to see what we had missed the first day. We shopped, ate and visited the monuments surrounding the lake including the neo-gothic St. Joseph Cathedral which is in bad need of a serious wash.
For dinner we went to Nha Hung Dao (26A Tran Hung Dao). Out of all the food, street food and hotel food we had in our short time in Hanoi, this restaurant definitely stood out as being the best. It is a large open space in a restored French villa with street-food style stalls who prepare their specialty dish. Once seated you can order off the menu which is then directed to the appropriate style. There was a diverse list of offerings on the menu and the food proved to be delicious.
We started off again by walking to the Old Quarter to book our tour to Halong Bay (which turned out to be more expensive). After a quick walk around the Quarter, we headed to the Temple of Literature. Thank you to our Lonely Planet guide we did not fall for the crowds of young Vietnamese ‘students’ that start talking to you and offer to walk around with you to ‘practice their english’ and turn around and ask you to pay them money at the end of your tour. Beware!
After the tour at the Temple of Literature, we took the best mode of transportation in Hanoi, the cyclists to the Hoa Lo Prison Museum. It was a very depressing place, only a quarter of what originally existed on these grounds. The prison was formerly called the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ for US POWs during the Vietnam War. Prior to the American war, the French imprisoned Vietnamese activists. If you like history, I would definitely recommend paying a visit to the prison.