Hanoi is amazing it is the very definition of havoc, heaving with people, traffic and just such a great place to be. Never play Candy Crush on a plane! I was sitting next to a Malaysian kid of around eleven, Carolyn was next to his mother. We had sat near them in the departure lounge when the boy had been getting an earful about playing games on his phone which mum duly confiscated. On boarding, the mother asked if we would like to swap seats but we declined, partly because they are good seats but also because the boy looks pleadingly at me as if to say “please don’t move, I want some peace”. To pass the time a game on my iPad (yes I do know how sad this sounds!). The kid is watching me and within a minute he leans across to offer advice. Minutes later he joins in with fingers tapping across the screen every few seconds. I give up, give him my iPad and let him get on with it. Fingers whizzing the screen he makes short work of the game and points out to me what I am doing wrong and let’s me in on a few cheats.
We had organised a a visa approval letter in advance and so were able to pick these up at the visa counter straight away and whizzed through immigration. The officials, like all immigration staff were grim-faced and seemed devoid of any humour. At least the process this time was quick and painless and I would recommend it to anyone over getting a visa from an embassy in your own country. It does pay to read the accompanying instructions though. There was a young guy arguing loudly with the immigration people saying ” I told you three times, I don’t have any money”. right paperwork but no cash – big mistake! The officials clearly didn’t care and weren’t going to help someone with that sort of attitude. Hopefully he got it sorted out (or maybe they put him on the plane back to from whence he came!). Lesson: bring the cash and leave the attitude at home. Never argue with a uniform in Vietnam. They always win!
The Old Quarter
When we arrive at our hotel, in the Hoan Kiem district, we are pleasantly surprised – although later we will discover that the rats outnumber the guests by a considerable margin! It is located in one of the narrow streets of the old quarter and, even at 9.30 am, it is buzzing with street vendors, people and the Honda Dreams are everywhere.
Markets are where most people to do their shopping here and Don Xuan, the largest in the Old Quarter, is virtually on our doorstep. We dump our bags and head off to explore and get a feel for the area. The market stocks just about everything you could possibly need, and many things you probably don’t – we skipped the fresh duck embryo for breakfast! We spent a lot of time just wandering the streets and alleyways of the old quarter which seems to have gotten even busier than we remembered. Fewer “local”shops and more souvenirs but still very much a local feel.
The only traffic rule in Hanoi is – there are no rules! Crossing the road in an art form, one that we had to quickly remember in order to stay alive! The Vietnamese will always find the quickest route from A to B, regardless of who or what is in the way. On our first full day in Hanoi we see three motorcycle accidents. Thankfully none were serious (or involved either of us!) For a few tips on surviving the traffic here see our separate post in the Travel Tips section.
Food and Drink
One of the many joys of Hanoi is the amazing variety of food on every street. The smells of barbecuing meat is never far away. Stalls and shops sell tasty Pho for breakfast and lunch and all manner of grilled meats.The street scenes change dramatically from day to night-time as shops turn into food outlets into the late afternoon – can make life difficult when trying to find your way back to your hotel after a few Bia Hoi! Bia Hoi is another of the many delights of Vietnam. This “fresh beer” is brewed each day and, having no preservatives, last only for 24 hours. It is available in lots of places and a bargain at 5000 dong (25 cents) a glass! It is usual to eat when drinking and all the Bia Hoi places offer tasty treats like “Nem Phung” boiled and sliced pigs ears in spices and wrapped in leaves like spring rolls. We were first invited to try these by a couple of teenage girls whilst crouched on the ubiquitous minute red stools of Hanoi’s famous beer corner. They insisted on taking a selfie with us to mark the vent ! The stall owner quickly followed suit and took a photo too – clearly not a common occurrence amongst foreigners!
There are many sights to see in Hanoi, far too many to mention here, but a few that stood out for us were:
Temple of Literature
Established in the eleventh century this was Vietnam’s first university and is where, even today, students still come to celebrate their graduation. In 1484 Emperor Le Thanh Tong decreed that all graduates have their names inscribed here. Dedicated to Confucius, the temple honours Vietnam’s finest scholars.
Vietnamese women’s museum
This museum details the role of women in Vietnamese society and in the ethnic minority groups throughout the country, both in the present day and in recent history. Lots of information on the roles women took in fighting for the liberation of their country from the French and more recently in the Americans. The Museum also provide a fascinating insight into the marriage customs amongst the ethnic minority peoples.
Ho Chi Minh’s Stilt House
Ho Chi Minh was surely one of the great leaders of all time and is one of my personal heroes. When we last visited Hanoi it was possible just to wander around the rooms and gardens of Ho’s house quite freely. Now it is all behind glass! Nevertheless it is an interesting place and one of the few that was open today (Friday). We wandered past the huge concrete mausoleum which houses Ho’s body which had just been returned from being re-embalmed!
The mausoleum was created against the wishes expressed by Ho in his will in which lest instructions that, rather than be the focus of attention after his death, his body be cremated and his ashes scattered throughout the country. Why they can’t let the poor guy rest in peace instead of sending him back to Russia every year, I really don’t understand.
Hoan Kiem Lake
In Vietnamese legend Hoan Kiem Lake is known as “The lake of the restored sword”. It is best visited in the misty early morning when everyone seems to be practising Tai Chi or at night when the tower in the middle of the lake and the bridges are beautifully lit.
We also visited the One Pillar Pagoda sadly now more like a building site. The renowned Temple of Literature is also undergoing renovations and much was covered by canvas sheeting, but still worth a look. Dedicated to Confucius and honouring Vietnam’s greatest scholars, on the day we where there it was graduation day for a lot of students who where celebrating by having their photos taken in their newly acquired gowns and mortar boards.
One of the most interesting museums was the Military History Museum on Dien Bien Phu Street. It has a lot of exhibits both indoors and out, detailing the wars the Vietnamese have fought, mainly those against the French and Americans. A huge number of photographs inside whilst in the courtyards are many examples of the tools of war, fighter planes, tanks, bombs etc. with a very evocative centre piece of a massive sculpture made from the wreckage of downed aircraft. In many ways Hanoi has changed a lot since we first visited years ago. Vietnamese tourists now outnumber foreigners by about 100 to 1. Lots more development of buildings and infrastructure, not all of it pretty, or well thought out, but a clear sign that Vietnam’s economic growth continues at an astonishing rate.
Still one of the most exciting capital cities in Asia. We managed to survive the streets of Hanoi without injury and now head off to do some trekking and around the ethnic minority villages. It will be nice to get out into the countryside after being in cities for a couple of weeks.