While Lynn was planning our trip to Southeast Asia, she changed our plans for Hanoi quite a bit. We struggled with whether or not we should go to Ha Long Bay or not. We pretty much made our decision when we realized it would take us over 3 hours to get there from Hanoi, essentially adding another day to our time in Hanoi. Which meant it would take away a day from another city or country we wanted to see. After reading some reviews about how crowded Ha Long Bay is with tourists, and how dirty it was, it made us feel better about our decision. We also realized that we would be in Krabi, Thailand at the end of our trip which has similar limestone karsts and isles.
After looking at things to do in Hanoi, we decided that the one day would be enough time to explore the city. We almost changed our minds again though after we had people telling us that Hanoi was one of their favorite cities in all of Southeast Asia. In the end, we stuck with our plan and we were glad we did. Even though we only saw a small part of the city, we felt like it was the perfect amount of time for us.
From Siem Reap to Hanoi
We had just spent 5 amazing days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and even though we were a little sad to leave we were looking forward to the rest of our trip. We had an early evening flight on Vietnam Airlines leaving Siem Reap, and arrived in Hanoi just a couple hours later. It was quite a change… having left the quieter, less developed city of Siem Reap and arriving in Hanoi, the second largest city in Vietnam (2nd to Ho Chi Minh City).
Upon arriving in Vietnam, we had to get our visas on arrival, which was a breeze. From there we got our backpacks from baggage claim… or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, the whole process took very little time. Luckily we didn’t have to worry about transportation because our hotel, Splendid Star Suite Hotel, had arranged a car to pick us up at the airport.
Our driver spoke English pretty well and was telling us all about the new terminal that was being built at Noi Bai International Aiport. The project was started in 2011 and was scheduled to be completed just a month after we were visiting (December 2014). That seemed crazy to us, especially considering the size of the project and thinking about how long it takes to complete anything in the U.S. We laugh, because it basically took Vietnam a little over 3 years to build an entire terminal at an airport and that is probably how long it will take Chicago’s O’Hare Airport to replace an escalator.
We pulled up to our hotel a little later in the evening, checked in, relaxed for a bit and then decided we should probably go out and walk around since we only had a day to see everything that we wanted to see.
Walking Around the Old Quarter in Hanoi
Any hotel that you’re staying at will probably give you a map of the area. If they don’t, I would question what type of hotel you’re staying in… I’m kidding, but it may be worth asking for a map if they didn’t give you one. If you don’t have a map, getting around the Old Quarter can be a little confusing because there are so many small streets and turns. I kept our little map handy at all times just to make sure I knew where we were and where we were headed.
At night it seemed like there were still quite a few people walking around, but not a lot of places were open. We knew that there was a night market not too far away, so we headed in that direction. It seemed like there were more people as we got closer.
When we got to the night market there were still quite a few people wandering around, but it seemed like things were starting to slow down. We figured we would check it out though, since it was still open. They had the street closed off to traffic and there were numerous booths selling anything from clothing, to artwork and even electronics. We stopped at a small booth in the middle of the street and were looking at some of the selfie poles they had available. We weren’t really in the market for a selfie pole, but they are nice to have for the GoPro and the one we were looking at seemed pretty well built. I think the price on it was something like $10 and we offered him $4. The guy said he couldn’t go lower than $6… so we offered him $4 again, which he declined. He let us walk away, so we knew that he probably wasn’t going to go any lower. We went to a few other booths and on our way back decided we would get the selfie pole… for the $6 price.
After that, things were closing down at the night market so we made our way back to the hotel to get some sleep, knowing that the next day would be pretty busy.
Things We Did in Hanoi
We had a few specific things on our list that we wanted to see, but we figured that most of our time would be spent just walking around and of course eating some great Vietnamese food. Here are some of the things that we were able to see and do.
Hoa Lo Prison
I’m not going to go into a full history lesson here about Hoa Lo Prison, but what we did learn was that the prison was first used by the French colonists in the late 1900s for political prisoners. That explains the name “Maison Centrale” that is above the gate of the prison. It was later used during the Vietnam War to hold prisoners of war. It was sarcastically known by American prisoners as “Hanoi Hilton”. One of the most notable prisoners during the Vietnam War was John McCain.
Hoa Lo Prison is not the most interesting museum that you’ll ever visit, but it is interesting to see how the story is told by the Vietnamese people. “Hanoi Hilton” was always a sarcastic name given by the American prisoners, but the images and video shown at the prison make it seem like it actually was like staying at a hotel. The videos shown at the prison say that the prisoners were treated very well and were never tortured, but many former prisoners contest to this.
Hoan Kiem Lake
We walked from the prison over to Hoan Kiem Lake and basically around the entire lake. Ho Hoan Kiem actually means “Lake of the Returned Sword” and is also known as Ho Guom… or Sword Lake. There is an entire legend that goes along with the lake and the structures in and around the lake, but I’ll let you get your history lesson about Hoan Kiem Lake on Wikipedia if you’re interested. We took our time walking around the lake, stopping to take some pictures every once in a while, but didn’t do much else. At the northern end of the lake is Jade Island which you can get to by crossing over the red-painted Huc Bridge. There was a fee to enter and walk around Jade Island which we didn’t really need to see, so we crossed back over the bridge and continued on our way.
Intersection at Legends Beer
Before we left on our honeymoon we were told by a friend of ours to go to Legends Beer (or bar), get a drink and enjoy the view of the crazy intersection. Legends bar sits on the second floor of a building right on the corner of a very busy intersection. If you can get a good seat, you can spend some time enjoying the chaos of the intersection below. There’s traffic coming from multiple directions and no traffic lights. It’s pretty chaotic, but somehow there is no honking, no accidents, and everything runs perfectly smooth like a well oiled machine. We drank a few beers and enjoyed our time watching the traffic.
Eating Some Authentic Vietnamese Soup
We walked around quite a bit in the Old Quarter looking for the perfect place to get some soup. We wanted to make sure we were going some place that the locals were going, so we scouted out a few places. We finally settled on one and walked in to wait for a table to open up. It didn’t take long until we were seated and ordering our soup. I don’t even remember what the place was called, but we had ordered and our soup was served to us just a few minutes later. I know Lynn enjoyed it (because she loves soup), and I enjoyed mine as well. Unfortunately, I had added so much hot sauce (for reasons I’m not sure of) that I wasn’t even able to finish my entire bowl. Either way, I highly recommend finding a local soup place and enjoying some authentic Vietnamese soup.
On the Streets of Hanoi
Scooters Rule the Roads
I’ve never seen so many scooters in my life. There were a lot of scooters in Siem Reap, but nothing compared to Hanoi. Just like Siem Reap, it didn’t matter how many people were supposed to be riding on a scooter, they would transport their entire family on one of them… sometimes 4 or 5 people. Carrying a little child on a scooter without a helmet is never something that would happen in the United States, so it was interesting to see people riding around with little kids between them and the handle bars.
It seemed like every sidewalk we walked down was crowded with people. It wasn’t people walking from place to place or waiting in line for something, it was just people eating or working outside restaurants, stores, or their homes… and they were all sitting on tiny plastic stools. The sidewalks were lined with tiny stools where people would eat, chat with friends, or even work on the engine of their scooter.
We found this part of the Vietnamese culture fascinating and later we realized that as people finished work they would go to bars and cafes to sit outside on tiny stools and meet with friends. We wanted to be part of this so we found a cafe with a couple empty stools and drank some beer with the locals. As much as we wanted to fit in, we stood out like two really big sore thumbs.
We got “tricked” by a woman on the streets. I’m not even sure how it happened exactly, but it went down very quickly. We just happened to notice a woman walking by with a wooden carrying pole, holding fruit. As soon as she saw that we acknowledged her, she had taken off her hat, put it on Lynn and was putting the carrying pole on her shoulder. We said no, that we weren’t interested, but she insisted and had me take a picture of Lynn holding the pole. She wanted money, and when we told her we didn’t have any money to give, she wasn’t happy.
Walking around we noticed quite a few bird cages hanging in the streets with song birds in them. Apparently this is something that is very popular which the Vietnamese people have been doing for many years.
While in Hanoi, I would definitely recommend taking some money out at an ATM and getting your account balance. The exchange rate is around 20,000 Dong for every U.S. dollar. After taking some money out and seeing our balance on our receipt, it felt good seeing so many zeros in our remaining balance.
Later in the evening, which was about 24 hours after we had arrived in Hanoi, we were headed to the train station. We were catching a night train to Sapa where we would be doing a homestay with Pham, a member of the Red Dao people in Sapa, Vietnam. We ended up taking a taxi to the train station from our hotel because it was suggested by our hotel, but we easily could have walked there. We were pretty sure our taxi driver went out of the way to run up the meter as well.
Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time in Hanoi, we got to see and do quite a bit, and we were able to experience a little bit of the Hanoi culture. We enjoyed our time there, but if we were to visit Vietnam again we would probably check out Ho Chi Minh City or even Da Nang, which is the closest city to Hang Son Doong, one of the largest caves in the world. I also think if we were to return to Hanoi it would probably just be another short stop on our way to Sapa to visit Pham again, and hopefully see the Sapa countryside during a drier (less rainy and foggy) time of the year.
I would still recommend Hanoi for a short visit, and maybe even longer if you wanted to venture out of the Old Quarter. One thing that we wanted to do was make it to one of the early morning flower markets, but we didn’t have time the morning we got back from Sapa. Our train arrived a little late and we had to take showers and get a taxi to to the airport… we were on our way to Bangkok. Maybe next time!