Arriving in Hanoi
Arriving at Hanoi International Airport does not prepare you for the city. It lulls you into a false sense of order and serenity. If you’ve organised your visa online beforehand you can sail through immigration and quickly collect your bags. If you come in summer then as you step outside the heat and humidity will knock you flying.
Driving into Hanoi you may ask yourself a couple of questions. Does everyone own a moped or motorcycle? Then you’ll realise probably not else there wouldn’t need to be 3 or even 4 people on some bikes! You may also wonder do they drive on the left or right-hand side of the road? The answer to this would be yes, they do. Either is good. You can also squeeze 7 lanes of traffic into 3. The chaos of South-East Asian roads. You just have to love them.
Once you hit the city those mopeds will continue to threaten your every move. You can’t walk on the pavements as they are full of parked mopeds and if you step into the street you’re sure to step into the path of one or three. When it comes to actually cross the road the idea is cross slowly and the bikes will negotiate around you. Run and they’re likely to take you out.
All these cars and mopeds might make you wonder what is the air quality like? The masks that so many moped riders wear may be a clue. In fact, Hanoi was recently named 2nd worst city for pollution in SE Asia. The Vietnamese government object to this. They feel that because the sample only had full data for 4 countries and not all 11 how can they be 2nd worst in the WHOLE of SE Asia? I’m not sure if that is a particularly resounding endorsement of the air quality though.
The Old Quarter
All that said there are a great many places to see in Hanoi, the people are pleasant to talk to and as you walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake in the Old Quarter, don’t be surprised if young people or even people with smaller children ask if you mind stopping and chatting for 5 minutes so they can practise their English. Hoàn Kiếm Lake is a sea (or rather lake) of tranquillity in the south of the Old Quarter. Many Vietnamese appear to come here to sit and relax or just meet up during the day. In the evening and at weekends it comes alive with people and the road around the lake is closed to traffic.
On the lake, there are a couple of islands on which you’ll find the Temple of the Jade Mountain which you can visit and the Tower of the Turtle which you can’t. The temple is a pleasant visit, crossing a scarlet bridge to get to it. At night the bridge looks beautiful lit up.
Hoa Lo Prison & French Quarter
Not far from the lake you’ll find Hoa Lo prison. It was called Maison Centrale by the French, who built it, and sarcastically the Hanoi Hilton by American POW’s who spent time there during the Vietnam War. If you are staying in the Hanoi Hilton, make sure your taxi drops you off at the right place. Photos below of both to help you.
Much of the prison has been knocked down but what remains gives a feel for what life may have been like. When trapped in a room with school tour groups the numbers must have been similar, though I doubt the prisoners benefitted from the air-con. The audio tour is excellent, giving more information about what life was like and the type of people held here. Executions were carried out by the French. One of the original guillotines is still here to see. They clearly didn’t give it up after the Revolution.
The audio guide will also give you the Vietnamese perspective on how the POW’s, including future US Senator John McCain, were treated. You may find this differs from what is found elsewhere on the internet. ‘Alternative facts’ is a phrase that springs to mind. South of Hoàn Kiếm Lake is the French Quarter. Here you’ll find many of the embassies, high-end shops and the Opera House. Worthy of a short walk around but there isn’t a huge amount to see.
Tran Quoc Pagoda
About 30 minutes walk north of the Old Quarter on West Lake you can find Tran Quoc Pagoda. If you don’t fancy the walk it is a short taxi ride away. Unfortunately, there are taxi scams in Hanoi. One ‘taxi’ offered me the trip for 400,000 Dong. Booking through the Grab app (they bought out Uber in SE Asia, available on Play store) the price was just 36,000 Dong. Once signed up to the app it is very easy to use and you can pay in cash so there is no need to give over your credit card details.
Outside of the temple is a tree that is said to have grown from an offshoot of the tree that Buddha once sat beneath. The inside of the temple is beautifully ornate and the 11-storey tower is also very impressive. This six-sided, red brick structure has contrasting white statues of Buddha on every level. It is free to enter and well worth the visit.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
A visit to Hanoi wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. ‘Uncle’ Ho is the founding father of modern socialist Vietnam and is held in great reverence. People will queue for hours for a chance to walk past his body and pay their respects. Guards outside the mausoleum will shout at you if you walk where you shouldn’t. The grass to the front is apparently cut by hand with shears. I was told the reason a mower isn’t used – Ho is sleeping. Sadly he wasn’t taking visitors at all on the day of my visit.
Near the mausoleum
Close to the mausoleum you can see the Presidential Palace, which Ho Chi Minh felt was too opulent to live in and two houses where he did live. One of these is a stilt house with a bomb shelter built beside it. The shelter looks bigger than the house itself.
If you have the time and inclination the Ho Chi Minh museum nearby is a monument to the socialist struggle. Not necessarily what you would expect from a museum it feels more like an art gallery with large, bold and dramatic sculptures rather than a place with historical artefacts.
Just outside of the museum is the One Pillar Pagoda. Once built on a wooden tower, since replaced by concrete, it serves as a temple to a fertility goddess, should you ever have need of one.
If you visit Hanoi at the weekend be sure to visit the Night Market along Hang Dao Street. It’s great for street food and ideal if you’re looking for your ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ t-shirt, brightly coloured trousers, skirts and shirts or a springy smiley.
Once you’ve visited the night market you also need to visit Ta Hien or Beer Street. Clearly a centre of nightlife it literally heaves with people. Many are sitting outside restaurants on miniature stools at small tables or just strolling around on a night out. The food is great, it’s fairly cheap and as most of the clientele are Vietnamese it feels really authentic. If you don’t like crowds, AVOID!!
Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre
Something else for your evening entertainment is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. The show lasts about an hour, is very entertaining for all ages and doesn’t require any knowledge of Vietnamese. It retells parables and fables once told out in the paddy fields and villages of old Vietnam. Be sure to pick up a programme as it gives the titles of each segment which will help with understanding.
Ha Long Bay
You can get day trips and overnight trips out into Ha Long Bay. When you hear there are 600 boats operating in the bay it does sound like it will be very crowded. And this is true when you visit certain popular spots like the Surprise Cave and Ti Top Island. However, the scenery is absolutely stunning with the limestone karst crags rising up from the bay, left behind when the sea level dropped and eroded the rest of the bay millions of years ago.
Surprise cave (SPOILERS) is a group of three caves inside one of the islands, created by water seeping through from above. You can’t help but be in awe the huge stalactites and stalagmites throughout the caves. Even though you may follow a train of people in, by the time you enter the third cave you will wonder where everyone has gone. It just seems to gobble them up like a giant cave monster.
Ti Top Island
Ti Top island has a very steep set of stairs to walk up for magnificent views across the surrounding islands. Your quad and thigh muscles won’t thank you but it really is worth the climb. Cool off in the sea on the thin sliver of the man-made beach when you descend.
If you’re sleeping on board overnight – and I really suggest you do – you are likely to be amidst other boats from where the shocking sounds of onboard karaoke ring out across the water. The sunset and the scenery make it all worthwhile.
In the morning you may visit a pearl farm. This really is a complete waste of time unless you know you want some pearls. Skip through this and take a kayak out and enjoy the scenery from sea level. It is breathtaking.
One really disappointing sight in this beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site is the amount of rubbish floating around in the water. I’m convinced a large proportion of it comes from the boats in the bay, whether intentionally or not. People need to take more care and not destroy the beauty for future generations of tourists.
Next stop from Hanoi is from Hue to Da Nang. Click here to find out more.
If you want to know more about Hoi An down to Nha Trang then click here.