Our arrival into Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport was smooth but a little late. Instead of arriving at 1am we got to our hotel at 5am. It hardly seemed worth it to sleep, but knowing that we needed to be awake for the rest of the day, we made the most of a comfy bed and slept till just before the end of breakfast. The hotel was good until the boss tried to charge us for breakfast, sell us tours and then fiddle the cost of the room. We stuck to our price and eventually agreed on something that seemed fair. We were instantly reminded of Morocco, but felt much more prepared to bargain. We caught the airport bus into Hanoi centre to avoid being ripped off by taxi drivers and it worked well.
Since Russia, we have had a fairly good plan of where we will stay and often booked a few weeks ahead, but in Vietnam we decided to stop planning so much and take it as it comes. Maybe Hanoi isn’t the easiest place to start looking for a bed for the night because it’s a little overwhelming to begin with. Once off the bus we wandered the old quarter looking for a place to sleep that night. Walking around Hanoi is an experience in itself; it’s noisy, chaotic, vibrant and a little bit dangerous. The pavement is more of a scooter car park come restaurant, so walking in the road is often easier. Unfortunately, the road is full of scooters, cars and people carrying anything from scaffolding poles to fresh fruit. It’s daunting to begin with but you quickly get used to dodging the traffic to cross the road. Apart from this madness, concentrating on the traffic is difficult because the people, street food and shops can be fascinating. We have to say Marrakesh prepared us well for Hanoi.
Spotting fancy hotels was easy, but cheaper accommodation was often above a shop front or tour office and required a little more finding. First, we asked in a guesthouse which was full, but the friendly receptionist recommended another around the corner. We took a look at the room, but the whole place lacked atmosphere so we decided to try somewhere else. Eventually we found Flipside hostel, offering a double bed in a dorm with breakfast for $11 and lots of other travellers around. The bonus was that our third night was free and we could drink a fair amount of free beer. With our accommodation settled we had the afternoon to explore.
Hanoi may be the capital city, but most tourists visit only the compact old quarter and the area around the Hoan Kiem lake. Once we found the lake we opted to have a wander around it’s shores and since it was Saturday there was a great buzz. At one end we came across a free concert and there were sack races and other games for kids to join in with. We grabbed our first Vietnamese coffee which was sweet and strong. While we relaxed a little we were approached by group after group of teenagers or teachers with school children all wanting to practice their English. It has to be said some of the children weren’t very keen at all, but spoke when they were told to. We had read about a scam where Vietnamese befriend tourists and then take them to expensive bars and restaurants before making them foot the bill, so perhaps we were a little cautious. After a few times of being asked, we gave in and helped a group of teenagers. Once we had started it was hard to say no, but we wanted to get round the lake once so we couldn’t speak to everyone. Maybe the tales of this scam are a little outdated, but we think as long as you are careful speaking to people should be fine.
Our walk made us a little peckish so we went in search of Banh Mi, a Vietnamese baguette containing pretty much any filling you want. They are tasty and only about 30,000 VND (£1) so make a great meal. Our second taste of Vietnamese food for dinner was a dried beef salad and spring rolls. We were happy that Vietnamese cuisine has lots of fresh herbs, crunchy vegetables and citrus flavours. Everything is freshly prepared and although many of the restaurants are more like street food cafes the food is delicious. Back at our hostel we went up to the rooftop bar to relax and drink some affordable beers ($0.75). Unlike in Japan here we met a lot of people and it was nice to not think about the cost of food or drinks anymore.
On our second day, we visited the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh and his former palace and residence. The mausoleum was exactly the same as Lenin’s in Moscow, only built above ground rather than below. We walked round in a procession to see his wax like face and hands (creepy). The palace grounds and previous house were better to look around but not very impressive compared to European palaces. There was an exhibition about Ho Chi Minh’s life, but the guards closed it (presumably fo lunch) when we were about halfway through reading. To be honest there isn’t much else to see in Hanoi other than wondering the streets of the old town and a few museums so visiting Ho Chi Minh ranks quite highly. On the walk back we happened to come across a great ice cream parlour and then a good Banh Mi restaurant. We spent a lazy Sunday afternoon in the hostel taking advantage of the free keg of beer and starring in a photoshoot.
Our final day in Hanoi was probably a little too much time, but gave us the opportunity to plan where to go next and visit the national history museum. The museum was so so as it was more about archaeology than the history of Vietnam. They had some interesting artefacts but it isn’t really a must see museum. It was also more of a collection of artefacts without much explanation of their context or background.
We also stumbled upon a restaurant specialising in seafood noodle soup, dumplings and spring rolls. We tried one of each although we wouldn’t have the dumplings again. They were sticky starch, which was filled with tiny crunchy prawns and pork before being wrapped in banana leaves. We couldn’t associate them with dumplings at all especially not when they stuck to your fingers, chopsticks and the roof of your mouth like glue. Thankfully the noodle soup was better and we left happily full.
Although there’s not much to do on Hanoi we still managed to find enough to entertain ourselves. We visited the Hanoi water puppet theater to see the famous Vietnamese art of water puppetry. The show was 45 minutes long but fascinating. The puppets of people, fish, dragons, phoenix, turtles and weird doglike creature called Nge moved seamlessly. It was wonderful not to know how they moved or how the fireworks still stayed alight under the water. The live music was brilliantly timed and the Vietnamese singing made it feel very authentic. We would really recommended going to one of the water puppet shows.
To avoid another meal of Pho for the third day running, we went in search of something different and found Cha Ca. Cha Ca is fish cooked with turmeric and dill served with spring onions, chilli, coriander, thai basil, peanuts, sweet fish sauce and rice vermicelli. It’s all cooked on the table in front of you. It was something totally different and incredibly tasty. Probably the best meal in Hanoi and something we will be finding the recipe for. Stuffed we went to join in with a pub quiz and meet a few more travellers before bed.
Another speciality of Hanoi is egg coffee. It is made of egg yolks, condensed milk, strong Vietnamese coffee and sugar. Egg and milk are wisked together into a frothy and foamy mixture and added on top of the coffee. It is super smooth and creamy. It looks and tastes a bit like cappucino but a lot richer thanks to the egg. Invented in Hanoi, it can now be found on menues all over the coutnry. On of the best places to have it is Café Pho Co, located just a block north of Hoan Kiem lake. The entrance is quite hidden, but has a sign outside. You have to walk past a silk shop before entering a lovely decorated courtyard. Once we ordered out coffee downstairs, we climbed up some narrow stairs to the roof terrace overlooking the lake. This is a great place to get some respite from the hustle and bustle of the old quarter traffic.