Hanoi is unlike my expectations. I thought it would be a lovely French Colonial city with beautiful architecture, quiet and peaceful. Well, Hanoi is first and foremost an Asian city … busy … bustling … scooters everywhere hooting constantly to make their presence known, street upon street of shops selling their wares – do they live anywhere? I think the Vietnamese just live in a shop – there are so many and nowhere else for them to go … huge mounds of electricity wires everywhere. More than an Asian city, Hanoi is a south east Asian city – poor, everything is dirty and unhygienic.
The activity that takes place on the streets is full of fascination. The street is the home of the hairdressers – a service new to me is the hairdresser offering the removal of lice from your head. Well-groomed women sit on a chair on the sidewalk with someone picking the lice from their beautiful glossy hair. Wiring around lampposts or trees house live chickens. Cafes consisting of a few little stools on the street with a bucket of water to wash the dishes and a flask for heating the food they sell. Bars are a little more sophisticated – they may have some plastic tables. Entertainment is just everywhere in the street.
The traffic in Hanoi is unbelievable and never stops – mainly scooters and motorbikes but millions of them. There are apparently nine million motorbikes in Vietnam and it feels like all of them are in Hanoi. The only way to cross the road is to walk straight into the middle of the heavy traffic and weave your way through the traffic. It is sort of like trying to cross the harbor bridge in peak traffic time. The only good thing is that everyone drives slowly. I learned that the thing to do is to walk slowly with no sudden movements. If you move suddenly you are bound to be bumped by something – almost thought I was going to be hit twice on the first day. Be careful to judge the flow and move at the same pace as it moves.
What makes Hanoi unique is:
- The artistic influence evidenced everywhere from the fascinating souvenirs, glorious lacquerware, or paintings in the numerous galleries.
- Pervasive reminders of the Vietnam War – whether it be a fascination to see how a nation of “primitive people” managed to bring the great USA to its knees or a feeling of “there by the Grace of God go I”
- The French influence resulting in a type of nouveau Asian food that is light, fresh, and beautifully presented with wonderful flavours.
- The opportunity to splurge in a luxury hotel that is magnificent and such good value for money – in my opinion the hotels are better than neighbouring countries due to the French colonial architecture and the unequalled graciousness of the local staff.
You need four nights to experience what Hanoi has to offer, a week if you include day trips to Halong Bay and the Hill Tribes in Sapa. You want to spend the mornings experiencing the activity in the streets, shopping, or exploring the multiple quality museums and the remainder of the day escaping in the available luxury before enjoying a delicious dinner or attending the theatre. This city is about experiencing frenetic activity, incredible street scenes, and being spoiled in absolute lavishness.
- Be cocooned in luxury and grace at the Metropole Hotel with a coffee or cocktail to escape the hustle and bustle.
- Hire a scooter for the day and join the flow – study your route well before setting out as road directions are not the best.
- Explore the local art galleries in Ly Quoc Su and surrounds. Art Vietnam is at 24 Ly Quoc Su, Cuci at 22a Hai Ba, Thang Long Art Gallery, Apricot Gallery. As the art galleries move a lot due to censorship it is best to find one and ask for suggestions for more or check with your concierge.
- Visit the Military Museum to observe the amazing tactics of the Vietcong in the the Vietnam War as well wars against France and China. The grounds also contain several captured aircraft.
- Explore the Old Quarter (Dong Xuan Market): 36 streets of shops of all kinds. The interesting way they run their shops is by specialization so a street of shops just selling shoes is followed by a street of shops just selling spices, followed by one selling metal goods then arts and crafts or silks and so on. It is a maze and incredibly difficult to find your way around. To avoid wasting a day it needs a really good map – standard tourist maps are TERRIBLE – or guide if you are planning some serious shopping. There are two hour guided tours that I highly recommend. From memory Hang Bac is a good street for DVDs and souvenirs.
- Early in the morning visit the Hang Be Market(Fish and Produce) that has been there for over 100 years to be amazed and for wonderful photo opportunities. I recommend doing near the end of your stay so that you are unaware of how food is handled for the majority of your visit. Experience threading – the alternative to waxing or shaving. The skill and speed is a wonder to see.
- Halong Bay is a place of beauty and serenity and the drive there is a chance to experience the countryside in Vietnam. Whilst it can done in a Day Trip it is quite a lot of driving and rather frenetic – spending one night provides the opportunity to see more of the area and enjoy it with fewer people. Personally I would find it boring doing for longer than one night as I am not a water person into kayaking and swimming.
Food and Drink
Outside the Old Quarter it is actually pretty difficult to find somewhere to eat or drink that is not a five star hotel – not that I am into five star hotels but the hygiene around a pavement café where dishes are washed in a bucket of water that is filled once a day and food prepared on the ground using fish floating in another bucket or other ingredients in an open pot on the ground is something that makes my tummy heave. In addition the better restaurants are hard to find. However, the food is delicious at any of the hotels, the cafes in the Old Quarter and any of the better restaurants you find in the French Quarter. Club 51 sounds superb though I did not get a chance to try it.
Night Time Fun
- Attend a performance at the Opera House – try to get a seat in a box and feel like royalty. It’s not easy to do as the website does not work well so on your first day it may be necessary to go to the Box Office itself if the concierge cannot help you. Arrive early enough to enjoy cocktails and snacks in the adjacent garden bar.
- Than Long Water Puppet Theatre has its origins in the 11th Century when villagers made entertainment waist deep in flooded rice paddy fields and is unique to North Vietnam. The performances accompanied to traditional music show short sketches of ancient village life. As tickets sell out fast book tickets to the night time show on arrival or try to arrange with hotel prior to arrival – try to get seats as close to the action as possible as the puppets are not that big.
- Walk around the Old Quarter – the shops with their colourful lanterns are beautiful, watch the locals and there are many bars and cafes with outdoor areas to rest and eat or drink. Alcohol is inexpensive – both local and imported beer as well as cocktails.
- Handicrafts of silks and lacquerware are beautiful and inexpensive. The goods are not standard across all shops so if you see something you like, buy it. You may never find the shop again. I always regret not buying more of the notebooks made with ‘do’ paper with lacquer covers that make wonderful gifts or are something special to own for yourself.
- Art in all forms and price ranges. There are charcoal drawings on ‘do’ paper, insightful photographs of local scenes, and watercolours or oils. Explore the galleries and pick up something by one of the talented local artists.
- Lonely Planet Guides for anywhere in the world: Can be bought for $2 in old qtr in a shop that sells nothing else.
Where to Stay
French quarter which is central with beautiful hotels in the French Colonial style. The Hotel Metropole is the pinnacle – it’s a 5 star luxury hotel circa 1901 that has won many accolades including the world’s second best hotel in the world in 2012 and is definitely worthwhile if you are able to splurge. See link in the Useful links section for ideas of other boutique hotels to stay.
- Air Asia: Flys from Thailand direct into Hanoi at low prices
- Agode.com: Version of Wotif that specialises in Asian Hotels
- Shop Around: Always shop around for Tours at the multiple Tour Companies – NOT your hotel. There is a huge variety in price range for the same tours. Avoid saying where u are staying if in a Luxury Hotel.