Hanoi…….you’ve heard the stories, you’ve been told the tales……and it is all true!! This was our first port of call in Vietnam, we had also heard the stories and read reviews so we kind of knew what to expect……but we didn’t expect this!! When people ask me to describe Hanoi I simply tell them the about my check in at our hotel. Following the manager’s wonderfully warm welcome he proceeded to tell us two forty-somethings how to cross the road in Hanoi……yes, how to cross the road…..that and that alone, describes Hanoi to a tee. It is absolute mayhem!…..but no, there’s a lot more to it obviously and I’ll do my best to paint the picture here but one thing is for sure, there is no avoiding the feeling of being one part of the 7.5 million people that fill this city of wonder.
Before travelling , one important thing to know is that certain countries require a visa, and I, as an Australian citizen, required a visa to enter Vietnam. On the other hand Mick as a British citizen did not (and yes… he giggled and waved his passport like a fan to his face when I mentioned that to him…..smug). The entire visa application process can be done online, just enter ‘visa Vietnam’ in your search engine, lots of sites are available that can supply the relevant paperwork. Once you apply, they will send you a letter of approval, the cost of which can vary but we paid US$13, expect to pay there or there about’s. We used Hotels-in-Vietnam as their instructions seemed to be the most straight forward. Upon arrival in Vietnam you will present your passport along with your letter of approval, you will pay an additional US$25 and you will receive your visa from the customs officer.
Once all this was done…..we had arrived!! We were picked up by a driver which had been pre-organised via our hotel. This was very useful as the transportation from the airport is available but can be quite slow so we decided that a pick-up was the best option. It took about 40 minutes to arrive downtown. We stayed at the Hanoi La Selva Hotel, which we chose due to it’s great location. The staff were absolutely fantastic. Mr Kevin, the Manager (and adviser for all things pedestrian) and his staff could not do enough for us, and as we were traveling domestically through Vietnam, we stayed there on 3 separate occasions, their help, advise and customer service was wonderful throughout. We spent the majority of our days walking through the streets of Hanoi, with Kevin’s’ advise constantly ringing in our ears, one thing that you must be careful of is crossing the roads, you literally must go with the traffic otherwise you will get stuck in the middle of the very busy roads because no one stops…..literally….no one…..stops…..for anything!! Mick and I found that the best thing to do is either follow the locals….or just go, just walk….and do not stop, they will drive around you. We laughed so hard, it really is as if you have a force-field around you as cars, vans, motorcycles and bicycles whiz by mere centimeters from you.
We walked to the beautiful Hoan Kiem Lake.. this is where all the action begins it seems. You will see people relaxing, jogging, practicing Tai-Chi, picnics and the list goes on. I read about a really cool cafe near be the lake called Note Coffee, it was so unique and looked so gorgeous that I absolutely needed to go. Once you order they will give you Post-it notes and you can write whatever your heart desires and stick them amongst all the other hundreds and hundreds of other notes from people from all over the planet. Mick and I wrote notes about saving our beloved elephants as we both adore them….and also a couple mentioning the blog address…..if you find yourself in the area check it out.
We visited the Old quarter where every street has a unique style with shops, bars, restaurants and cafes. It was also an opportunity to sample the famous Banh Mi sandwich which is a must when in Vietnam and costs less than €2. The place we tried was called Banh Mi 25, apparently this is by far the most popular place in Hanoi to try this local favourite, world renowned in fact, frequented by backpackers, tourists and even the worlds best known and loved chefs…..yes, it’s that well known…. what we loved about it more than anything is that it’s not trying to be anything more than a street food cart…..because that is precisely what it is, with a few small, low tables and chairs on the pavement if you wish to sit while you eat. They cater for vegetarians too and I really enjoyed my pickled carrot, cheese and lettuce. For more ‘regular’ seated dining my favorite restaurant was definitely the Home Vietnamese Restaurant. Our meal here cost us €27 ($30) which is a bit pricey for Vietnam standards but it was well worth it as it served Vietnamese food at its best, we would definitely go back again. The restaurant is an old restored house which is absolutely magnificent in terms of decor and the service is of top top quality too.
Personally I’m not into egg’s but I do love coffee….. which seems like a very random comment to make in the middle of a blog post….but please bare with me…..Before traveling and while conducting my research, I read some very interesting articles regarding the inception of a traditional drink that originates from Hanoi that, rather oddly, includes both the above mentioned ingredients. It is called Egg Coffee…..and it is exactly as labelled. It is made of egg yokes whisked into a frothy cream, heated with sugar before the coffee is added. Basically it is a latte with the milk being replaced by egg yoke……..before you make any judgments you should try it….I didn’t because as I mentioned earlier I’m not into eggs but Mick did and he was very impressed. Apparently it’s super smooth and creamy and it actually works…..but only in it’s warm format according to Mick because he was given an iced version by mistake on another occasion and it was far from the enjoyable experience of the hot one. The recipe was developed during a time when milk was hard to come by in Vietnam and one rather resourceful cafe owner decided to find a substitute for the milk. How egg was even considered is beyond me but hey, apparently it does and is now enjoyed throughout Vietnam.
When we wanted to look into the history of Vietnam we discovered a museum dedicated to the brave women who stepped up in order to fight for their nation. It is called the Vietnamese Women’s Museum (naturally) and it is definitely recommended, not only by us but generally at it is seen as a very important insight into the role of women in Vietnam’s troubled history. It is three floors full of detailed explanations, photo’s and exhibits focusing on the history and the sacrifices these Vietnamese women made for the betterment of their people and it also allows you to better understand the culture of Vietnam and women’s’ place within society during the long years of war. Find out more by visiting the website from the link above.
We also visited the Ho Lo Prison in order to understand more the effects war had on this wonderful country. This is a very solemn place and you can feel the suffering that took place there just by walking round the darkened corridors and many of the exhibits speak for themselves, including the guillotine and the tiny 2x2ft cells where there was hardly enough space for a grown man to stand never mind lie down in order to sleep….hardly the Hanoi Hilton as it was sarcastically described by American POW’s. The prisoners captured by the French colonists were held in subhuman conditions and you can witness for yourself the jail cells in which they were kept. The prison was originally built to house less than 500 prisoners but at it’s peak held over 2000!! I’m personally a bit too sensitive so feel bad seeing things like this but Mick loves learning the history of a place and thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Hanoi and Vietnam in general through visiting the prison. As Mick say’s, mention Vietnam and people automatically think of the war, but how much do we really know about the history of this wonderful land and what it’s people endured in order to protect it?
On a lighter note we visited the Water Puppet show, I had read that this is a must see when in Hanoi so we decided to give it a go. An odd one this, the show itself is narrated in Vietnamese so don’t expect to understand what is going on although the literature that is provided with your ticket explains that the show is a story of the history of Vietnam and that water puppetry has a history in Vietnam that dates back centuries. The stage itself is basically a shallow pool of water in front of a curtained structure, behind which the puppets are controlled by the puppet masters. The show has a constant accompaniment of a live orchestra, something that completely mesmerised Mick, who spoke for hours afterwards about one particular instrument called the đàn bầu, he couldn’t (and probably still can’t) believe how an instrument with a single silk string can be made to create so many complex sounds…..his research on it afterwards went on for ages and he even posting videos of it being played….I got a bit bored……anyway, moving on….the show is a lot of fun and is exceptionally well choreographed. It is definitely not to everyone’s taste so better look into it before going as you probably won’t enjoy it if it’s not your thing.
The next leg of our tour of Hanoi took a little longer to decide than most of the others for one reason…..boats!!……We’re not good on the water so this one was something we needed to make sure we were able to cope with as neither of us wanted to spend the day hanging over the edge of a boat releasing the contents of our stomachs!! We looked into the cruise to Halong Bay at many different vendors and after receiving the 10th….maybe even the 20th…. guarantee that the water is very calm and sea sickness won’t be an issue, we decided to book…..although still apprehensive. A visit to a pharmacy the night before ensured a pocket full of sea sickness tablets and we were (almost) ready to board the following morning. We were happy to see that our vessel was a decent size….as size matters in these situations apparently……and all pilled up we were ready for the off. In all honesty all was very calm throughout and we’re still not sure if it was due the size of the boat, the calm waters or the tablets but whatever the reason, it made for a lovely excursion. Some of the most wonderful limestone formations and sheer cliffs you can ever wish to see. There are almost 2000 of these mini islands in what is a huge area. Included in the cost of the day trip was the option of a one or two person kayak taken out by yourself or a small row boat, in which you are taken through the water tunnel into the cove by one of the many local boat owners. We chose this option as taking photo’s for our albums was something we wanted to do, although I must say the kayaks would have been a much more adventurous option. What a wonderfully beautiful place and one that we are so pleased we decided to see.
That final sentence really does sum up Hanoi, it is a wonderfully beautiful place. People may disagree in terms of the city itself with it’s narrow street’s in which people discard of their rubbish on the streets, something that makes it far from pretty but this is their way and once all the shops close, stalls pack up and kids get tucked in bed, a whole swathe of council staff flood the streets and clean every corner of every little piece of litter, ready to repeat the feat the following night. We love nothing more than a city that is jam packed with people, movement, colour and life. Not many cities can offer such chaos and do it with a smile.
Personally we can’t wait to return….. and we will……we most definitely will.
You should too if you like the busy colourful chaos of an overpopulated city…. you won’t regret it