Vacationing in Vietnam: A Guide to Discovering the Best of Hanoi

Pho, historic attractions and the eighth wonder of the world are just a few of the many things you'll love about vacationing in Vietnam

Credit: John Thomson

Hanoi’s plastic chair society is just one of the many fascinating facets of Vietnamese life you’ll discover in the capital city

It was Hanoi’s storied past that attracted us to Vietnam’s capital city. After all, the city is over 3,000 years old and has been occupied by a host of conquerors from the Khmers to the Chinese to the French. I was also interested in seeing Hanoi’s architecture, a mix of traditional Vietnamese, colonial French and Soviet brutalism. The promise of great food and cheap digs sealed the deal.

A 45-minute taxi ride from Noi Bai International Airport to our hotel revealed a city of contrasts. On one hand we saw wide, leafy boulevards and Hoan Kiem Lake, literally a sea of tranquility in the city core. But turning a corner revealed another side of the city – dense Hanoi, tall, skinny structures fighting for space while thousands of scooters and motorbikes buzzed about town.

Walking around revealed another facet of Hanoi life: everything happens on the street. Whether it’s conducting business, entertaining friends or eating meals, Hanoi is an outdoor society. It’s also been called “a plastic chair society” because the locals sit on small plastic chairs, the kind you get in toy stores, accompanied by stubby, truncated tables. These little islands of humanity filled the sidewalks and offered us a fascinating glimpse into family life.

Credit: John Thomson

Hanoi Hotels Range from the Opulent to the Thrifty

Our hotel, the Hong Ngoc Cochinchine, at Cdn $50 a night, was cheap by North American standards, one of many in the Ba Dinh district. We were in a designated tourist area loaded with English-speaking merchants, English language signs, lots of ATMs and simulated western food to make the North American feel at home.

Our hotel was next to a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, the only western fast food franchise allowed into the city we were told, but whether by accident or design we never saw anyone eat there.

The luxury hotels congregate around central Hanoi and Hoan Kiem Lake. The Sofitel Metropole, one of the world’s grand hotels, is the most famous. Opened in 1901, its basement was pressed into service as an air raid shelter during the American War or what we know as the Vietnam War. Now, beautifully restored to its former glory inside and out, it’s become a tourist attraction in its own right. Home to dignitaries and heads of state, it is very expensive. Other luxury hotels in the area include the Hotel de l’Opéra and the Hilton Hanoi Opera.

Our cheaper hotel west of the downtown core was large and airy. Our hotelier was magnificent, ordering the “right” cabs for us – the taxi industry is a free for all – and telling us how to navigate Hanoi traffic. We had heard the stories beforehand, about how difficult it was to cross the street because no one stops for pedestrians. It’s true. Our first night on the street was unnerving. But we learned. She told us to step into a break in the traffic, walk slowly and confidently and look drivers straight in the eye. It worked. Scooters and motorbikes gracefully swerved around us. We had inexplicitly melded into the rhythm of the street.

Credit: John Thomson

Dine Like Royalty in Hanoi’s Many Eateries

Vietnamese food is, in a word, delicious. Influenced by Thai, Chinese and French cuisine, the Vietnamese make it their own by adding their own unique blend of herbs and spices. Whether the meal was cheap or expensive, we always ate well.

Pho (pronounced fa) is the staple. This simple rice noodle soup, in a broth enhanced with various spices to give it some heat, comes in two versions, Pho Bo (or beef fa) and Pho Ga (or chicken fa). The locals consider pho a breakfast dish but we consumed it day and night.

We also ate a lot of pork and seafood. Shrimp were served whole, heads and all, as I soon found out after crunching my way through a spring roll. Another surprise? Hot pots. I enjoyed an out-of-this-world eggplant baked in a clay pot and seasoned with lemongrass, basil, coriander, lime and chillies. Hanoi coffee, on the other hand, was an acquired taste. It was a thick, rich brew doused with evaporated milk.

Dining out was a festive affair. We ate at local eateries where we were often the only westerners. Obviously neighbourhood hangouts, diners would flit from one table to another. Even the servers got involved in the revelry.

Given its colonial past, Hanoi has many French restaurants catering to the tourist trade. Truong Trân, the young manager of Hanoi Fusion, the neighbourhood restaurant we frequented down the street, told us the locals prefer Italian. Who knew?

Credit: John Thomson

Explore Halong Bay, the Eighth Wonder of the World

NearbyHalong Bay draws thousands of tourists a year and we were no exception. The Bay is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site because of its 1,600 limestone pillars called karsts which populate the Gulf of Tonkin. It’s been called the eighth wonder of the world. A three-hour bus ride took us from our hotel to Halong City and our embarkation point.

We boarded our boat, L’azalee, kitted out in mod cons and tasteful decor, around noon. Afternoon activities included climbing up one of the karsts (using stairs not crampons thankfully) and a spin-off trip by kayak around a sheltered lagoon. Our cabin was immaculate and the meals were superb. Our guide, 21-year-old Hieu Dinh, was friendly and knowledgeable. He asked us to call him Hugh because he said he looked like Hugh Jackman. He didn’t. We all laughed. The real stars of the show were the karsts, hundreds of limestone monoliths that rose majestically out of the water. They were eerily stunning in the setting sun.

We anchored in the Gulf of Tonkin overnight. After a hearty breakfast we took another walking tour, this time of Hang Dau Go, a subterranean complex consisting of three massive caves hollowed out by centuries of wave action, each one the size of a football field.

From there it was a short hop back to Halong City and the end of our 24-hour tour. A waiting bus took us back to respective hotels. Because the Halong Bay tour is one of the more popular tours, if not the most popular, visitors should be prepared for fighting the crowds and being herded around like sheep. On the other hand, just think ahead to Hugh and those limestone karsts.

Credit: John Thomson

Visit Hanoi’s Museums to Understand its Turbulent Past

Given Vietnam’s evolution from a fiefdom to a communist state, we spent a lot of time touring Hanoi’s historic attractions. Uncle Ho’s final resting place, theHo Chi Mihn Mausoleum, was the granddaddy of them all. The brutish, concrete block surrounded by lush green parkland evoked reverence and tranquility despite its military trappings.

The Ethnology Museum, which pays homage to the 36 ethnic tribes that make up Vietnam, offered a fascinating insight to the country’s ethnicity. Inside – displays of clothing, utensils and crafts from the country’s various regions. Outside – examples of traditional Vietnamese housing. We also saw a water puppet show. Water puppet theatre is a big deal in Vietnam and as the name implies, consists of puppets controlled by rods underneath the water. The puppeteers are hidden behind an opaque screen. We felt we were getting a sneak peek of the larger Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre downtown.

The Vietnam Military History Museum showcased the country’s struggle for autonomy, specifically its historic conflict with China and more recently with France and America. The indoor exhibits highlighted Vietnamese persistence and ingenuity with an emphasis on homemade weaponry. Outdoors, the machinery of war, primarily captured American warplanes and armour lined the concourse. The centrepiece of the display, and the piece for which the Museum is noted, is a massive sculpture comprised of warplane wreckage welded together to form an obelisk.

Credit: John Thomson

Hunt for Bargains in Hanoi’s Old Quarter

Sandwiched between Hoan Kiem Lake and the Red River, the Old Quarter is Hanoi’s historic shopping district. Originally it was a maze of 36 streets, each one named after the good or service being offered. The jewellery street sold jewellery; the silk street sold silks. Today, there are over 50 streets and everything’s all mixed together but it was easy to spot the former shoe street as hundreds of shoes, primarily sandals, spilled out onto the sidewalk. We found most shopkeepers fluent in English; street vendors not so much.

The Old Quarter is a colourful jumble of people and stores and it’s fun to walk the streets and pop in on various shops. Aside from the ubiquitous T-shirt stores, tourists can pick up some worthwhile merchandise. Be on the lookout for silk embroidery and lacquer work. The Vietnamese are renowned for their delicate handicrafts. Lacquer work, which involves covering a wooden platform with high gloss lacquer, sanding it and painting it again and again is a time-honoured art. Traditional lacquer work is decorated with mother of pearl inlay. We saw expensive lacquer work and cheaper versions too in which the artisan used duck egg shell instead of pearl.

We also found replica water puppets for sale, blockish wooden figures in the style of the traditional water puppet but decorative rather than functional. As for clothing, Vietnam has its own thriving garment industry – it exports around the world – but the Old Quarter, ironically, carries foreign merchandise too. My wife bought a shirt from a store that said “Vietnamese clothing.” It was made in Turkey.

Credit: John Thomson

Explore Hanoi’s Hidden Neighbourhoods

Exploring Hanoi on our own, free of schedules and expectations, was the highlight of our trip. Leaving the hotel at 7 AM to take advantage of the cool morning air, we stumbled into a residential enclave bordering Truc Bach Lake. The community was just getting up. Families were eating their breakfasts on the sidewalk at stubby tables and on those ubiquitous plastic chairs.

“Hello!” a gaggle of children yelled to us though their window practicing their English. “Xio chao” we replied. Younger children waved to us from their doorways. Older children flashed the peace sign.

We passed a group of men doing morning exercises. One man was pulling himself up on parallel bars. I asked him if I could take his picture. He flexed his bicep and gave me a huge smile.

Back at our favourite restaurant, we met our friend Truong. He told us it’s a Vietnamese characteristic to be happy, to be content but not complacent. Hanoi is anything but complacent. The city is rapidly updating its tourist infrastructure. As a well travelled Indian we met on our Halong Bay tour put it, when the Vietnamese do something “they just get on with it. It may not be pretty,” he said, “but it does the job.”

Yes, Hanoi looked haphazard and chaotic but it was also dynamic. The city, like the rest of the country, was in transition, an intriguing blend of East and West. I’m glad we visited evolving Vietnam in its infancy. I wonder what it’ll be like five years from now.

Credit: John Thomson

Getting to Hanoi

We travelled from Vancouver to Hong Kong via Cathay Pacific. From there it was a one-hour flight to Hanoi via Dragonair, Cathay Pacific’s regional carrier. There are no direct flights from YVR to Hanoi but there are plenty of international carriers leaving Vancouver and passing through China, Australia and Indonesia.

A visa is required. We purchased a visa approval letter online for US $20 and then paid another US $45 stamping fee upon arrival at Noi Bai airport. We also got shots for Hepatitis A.

The local currency is expressed in dong. For rapid calculations we reckoned on 20,000 dong to the Canadian dollar. Large 50,000, 5000,000 and 1 million dong notes are commonplace. There are many ATMs in Hanoi, especially in the designated tourist areas.

English supplanted Russian as the official second language after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 and we found Hanoi youth anxious to practice their English. Like youngsters anywhere, they’re addicted to their smartphones which keeps them up-to-date on trends, music and consumer goods. The Internet is relatively open but Vietnam is a communist country and indigenous sites that promote democracy, human rights or question authority are blocked.

October through to December is the best time to go. The skies are clear and sunny and there is low humidity. It rains like crazy in Hanoi June to October. Don’t we get enough rain in BC?

Travelling to Hanoi