I was terrified during my first few nights in Hanoi. It wasn’t about crime (very little), or violence (even less). My fear was stoked by the motorbikes, well motor-scooters, actually. The roads in the capital of Vietnam were flooded with them. Sometimes it was hard to find a place to walk. And crossing the street? Yikes! As one Vietnamese friend joked with me, “In Hanoi the green light means go. You can still go with the yellow light. But when the red light comes on? You can still go!”
Thankfully, I got over my anxiety, learned to cross the street safely and fell in love with this amazing city. There’s plenty to be joyous about in Hanoi — friendly people, delicious food, cheap beer, and fun shopping (think silk, pearls, and handicrafts).
Get Lost in Hanoi’s Old Quarter
One of my favorite places to explore was the captivating Old Quarter with its twisty streets that seemed to change their name mid-block. Often, as I made my way through the jumble of food stalls, jewellery shops, liquor displays with pickled snakes and scorpions, seasonal gewgaws (Santa caps, anyone?), and clothing shops, I’d get thoroughly lost. That’s when I would stop into one of the numerous cafés, order a thick Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk over ice, and just go with the flow.
The Old Quarter is an entertainment hub at night jumping with packed karaoke bars, discos and clubs. The best spot I found for people watching while quaffing a cold one was at the intersection of Ta Hien and Luong Ngoc Quyen streets, informally known as Beer Corner. Spilling out on the street from various bia hoi establishments, folks from around the world sat on small plastic stools sipping fresh, cold, draft beer and swapping stories late into the night.
Savor Vietnam’s Foods and Flavors
Mouth-watering Vietnamese cuisine is all over the city, but for an inexpensive, dinner the Old Quarter can’t be beat. To experience as many flavours and vendors as possible, I took a $20 food tour that went to pre-vetted (read hygienic) vendors and tasted phở (broth, rice noodles, slivered beef, and fresh herbs), bún chả (the pork patty, rice noodle, broth dish that Barack Obama ate with Anthony Bourdain when he visited the city), súp cua (crab soup), bánh xèo (rice pancake), gỏi cuốn (spring rolls), bánh tiêu cadé (custard donuts), and cà phê trúng (egg coffee). Egg coffee? At Café Giang, our guide told us that during World War II milk was scarce. “The owner of this café, Nguyen Van Dao, has continued to make the drink that his father created in 1946 when he was a bartender at the Metropole Hotel. “It is a secret recipe,” she said. The frothy beverage came in a cup sitting in a dish of hot water to keep it warm. Trying to take a sip, I found I was better off using the small spoon provided. Thick and custardy with a hint of coffee, it was delicious.
Delve Into Vietnamese History
Hanoi is more than 1,000 years old and uncovering its history was a bit like peeling back the layers of an onion. My first foray was the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, home to the Ly Dynasty in 1010. All that remains of the original Thang Long or Dragon Palace are the steps, flanked by stone carvings of the mythical creatures. Unfortunately, the French tore the Palace down during their control of the country from 1887-1954. The spot at this UNESCO World Heritage Site that intrigued me the most on the grounds was Bunker #67. Headquarters to the Vietnam People’s Army, this was where Ho Chi Minh helped direct operations during the bombing of Hanoi. Another structure I discovered was a vestige from a much earlier time, the concubines’ building. Climbing up some incredibly steep stairs, I came upon a small altar and an open platform at the top. Sitting back and enjoying the breeze, I looked out over the sprawling lawns and noticed group after group of graduating students getting their pictures taken. The girls wore ao dais, the traditional women’s slim, slashed tunic and trousers, and the boys were in dark pants and white shirts — much more photo-worthy than the shapeless, dark blue gown I wore at graduation.
Hanoi’s Temples Will Catch Your Eye
Another must-see historic site for me was the Temple of Literature. Built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius, its purpose was to educate mandarins. In one pavilion I saw 82 stelae honoring graduates from the 1400s. Wandering the five courtyards filled with beautiful reflecting pools, I marveled at the giant drum and gong hanging in their own pavilion. What a great way to tell students it’s time for class!
To reach Hoan Kiem Temple, near the Old Quarter in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, I had to cross an Instagram-worthy red bridge full of tourists taking selfies. Once on the island, I entered a courtyard with a brass kettle filled with smoking incense. Ancestor worship is big in Vietnam and the practice of burning joss paper items to keep the deceased happy in the afterlife is common. I watched as people burned what they called “lucky money,” surprisingly a lot of it was fake American bills, in a small outer brazier. After visiting different altars with various deities, I checked out a small room presided over by a taxidermist’s turtle. The description said that according to legend an early emperor was helped by a huge turtle who gave him a sword to fight off enemies. The emperor came back to the lake and returned it to the turtle. Was this possibly an ancestor of that early sword-bearing beastie? I’d like to think so.
Mausoleum and Museums Honor Ho Chi Minh
On the day I visited the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, museum, and stilt house in Ba Dinh Square, I got up early. I had been warned about the crowds and even though I was there before the gates opened at 8 am, the lineup snaked almost around the block. Thankfully, it moved fast. Military men in white whisked us along to spend our few minutes gawking at this tiny, wizened leader, so perfectly preserved. I had read he gets “refreshed” in Moscow every fall. Also on site was the stilt house where he lived between 1958 and 1969, the One-Pillar Pagoda built to resemble a lotus blossom and the Ho Chi Minh Museum. The museum was filled with black-and-white photos depicting his life, including his years in Paris.
To learn more about the 54 different ethnic groups in the country, I made a trip to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. Four miles (seven kilometers) west of central downtown, the museum comprised a main building and a collection of traditional village houses built to the specifications of different ethnic groups. Climbing up a steep ladder, I peeked into a Tay stilt house, then followed the outdoor path to see an impressive Bahnar communal structure and a Yao home. My favorite was the soaring, thatched-roofed Giarai tomb with its anatomically explicit wooden statues. A bonus was catching the water-puppet show, which was included in the admission price.
At the Vietnamese Women’s Museum, I was able to examine ethnic minority garb and learned about the many different wedding rituals. The exhibit on the role of women in families covered everything from parenting to preparing meals and one floor celebrated women in history, including the heroes of the French and American wars.
A rather gruesome destination I was compelled to see was Hoa Lo Prison, where the French colonial regime incarcerated, and beheaded, political prisoners. During the American War, POW’s dubbed it the Hanoi Hilton. The prison itself was no longer there, having been demolished in the 1990s, but the gate house was transformed into a museum. It housed a horrifying French guillotine, descriptions of the Vietnamese resistance movement, photos of incarcerated American pilots and items such as the late U.S. Senator John McCain’s flight suit and parachute.
Where to Shop in Vietnam’s Capital
One of the less frenetic areas of the city I found was the French Quarter. Much of the architecture here was of the elegant French colonial style, including a beautiful Opera House. Walking the tree-lined streets, I discovered bookshops, boutiques, and galleries. This is also where you’ll find high-end designer brands such as Prada and Burberry.
At the other end of the spectrum is Dong Xuan Market, in the west end of the Old Quarter. Hanoi’s largest and oldest covered market offers bargains galore on clothes, household goods, and foodstuffs. Built by the French in 1889, it was destroyed by fire in 1994 then totally rebuilt, staying true to the original design, including the distinctive five-arch entrance.
MORE ABOUT VISITING HANOI
Getting There: Noi Bai International Airport is 28 miles (45 km) from the city. United, Air France, Vietnam Airlines, Eva Air, Korean Air, Cathay Pacific, and China Southern are some of the airlines that arrive via San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York airports.
Getting Around: Traffic is chaotic, so a good way to get your bearings is to take a hop-on hop-off electric buggy tour that you can pick up near Hoan Kiem Lake. Taxis are plentiful, but make sure you write down the address and show it to the driver as most do not speak English. Xe om, or motorcycle taxis, are also popular and a little cheaper. Another option, which is best for longer journeys outside the city, is to hire a car with a driver.
Where to Stay: There are almost 700 hotels to chose from in Hanoi with something for every budget. A sparse but clean two-star accommodation can be had for around $25 per night, nicely furnished three-star hotels such as the Oriental Central Hotel cost $50 per night, and the posh five-star Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi (Charlie Chaplin honeymooned here in 1936 and Jane Fonda stayed during her anti-war trip in 1972) will set you back around $300 per night.