Capital City of Vietnam
We spent a lot of days in Hanoi. Perhaps too many, and that was not the original plan as we wanted to go to the mountains near China in the north, but once we got to the hotel we spoke to the receptionist and he told us that it had been snowing the days before. To that, we were not ready. Not when you spend a day on a day that might or might not make it through the snow. So in the end we decided to explore Hanoi properly and whatever attraction was near to Hanoi.
Pictures credits: Natalia Wisniewska and myself.
1 – Arrival
Hanoi was our third city in Asia, but I decided to focus on Hanoi since we didn’t spend too much time on any of those two prior locations.
Hanoi airport is impressive but can immediately feel observed and watched from the distance. The arrival hall is massive, clean and very spacious. I’d say too spacious but that’s ok. It just feels like the architects focused on the size rather than the aesthetics of the building.
As for the visa we got it in London so we didn’t have any problem to get in. However, a piece of advice try to get it on time, otherwise you’ll pay a fortune for it. You can potentially save 30 quid if you do it with time and avoid all the hassle. We did see some backpackers going to a desk that said “If no visa, get it here” but to honest we didn’t ask for any information since we had ours in our passports.
Once out of the arrivals hall and after passing customs you’ll see that all tourists, mainly backpackers as we were, flock to the ATMs on the right hand side of the airport. We had to wait around 20 mins but it is highly recommended that you do it there, even if they charge you a commission for the withdrawal. Make sure you get enough cash, we got After all you’ll need to pay in cash for the shuttle bus to get into Hanoi, since the airport is approximately an hour and a half away from the city, and trust me there will be traffic jams.
2 – Getting into Town
This was the first local experience for us and since we didn’t know much Vietnamese we had to use English and hand signs but in the end it worked out perfectly. There is a transfer for foreigners from the international airport but it was too expensive and if you are brave enough as we were, you can go to the local terminal and get a dirt cheap local shuttle bus to centre town.
3 – Scooter and Motorbike City
As you approach the city of Hanoi you’ll notice that the amount of scooters start to increase until it is just a river of them wherever you go. Hanoi is a city meant to be travelled by scooters. Shame if you’re a tourist with a luggage or backpack because you won’t be able to enjoy the experience.
If you’re a pedestrian you’ll suffer like we did, because pedestrians don’t have the right to cross a street, actually you don’t have right. Even on a red light (unless there’s a police officer) they will try to go ahead. In the beginning this proved to be a challenged to both Natalia and myself but since I used to live in Caracas some time ago, it helped. Yet, Hanoi is at a complete different level.
The best advice I can give to anyone visiting this city is to walk with the flow and when crossing the street, don’t stop, just walk. Not to slow, not to fast, just at a norma speed. They will avoid you, trust me. And they will beep “a lot”. Don’t try to fight them and try to convince them that you’re a pedestrian and hence you’ve got the right to go. It will not help you at all.
Would I recommend you to rent a scooter to explore the city? No, honestly you don’t need it. Hanoi’s attractions are all at a walking distance and to be fair Hanoi’s most important attraction is the life you can experience when walking the streets, the alleys, the avenues.
5 – Socio-communism vs Capitalism
I guess I’m writing this because I don’t live or plan to live in Vietnam, otherwise we all know the consequences. I promise I will extend too much on this topic. Vietnam as China has a Communist government and everyone is very quiet and you can see it from the first step you put on the country.
As soon as you go out of the airport you will get this random people looking at you suspiciously for now reason. We all know who they are. The picture below shows an office that looks like a fortress. It has a the communist coat of arms, read and the start. But if you look closely there’s a Land Rover entering the offices. When we walk the streets we could also notice extreme examples of Rolls Royce and a golden Ducati.
Yet, when you walk around the city you can see poverty. I understand that for these people, there’s nothing wrong, after all the leaders always say the same as Chavez said it once “Being rich is bad”. Still, as Chavez I reckon that Vietnamese politicians have bank account overseas in foreign currencies, just as Chavez and now Maduro have.
I have to say that there is a massive difference between the two countries. I never felt unsafe when walking the streets of Hanoi, even though everywhere you go it looks very run-down. Caracas is the opposite is a city that can’t be walked even during the day.
I wonder what will happen with Vietnam once this system collapses.
6 – Hanoi Streets
I’d dare to say that best thing to see in Hanoi are its streets. Forget about museums, restaurants and temples. The most authentic experience of Hanoi is to walk every street you can during your stay.
Imagine a city so messy that every street has its own life. Imagine a city where every street has a tale to tell. This is Hanoi for me.
Yet, it is not easy to get used to Hanoi in the first place. The love and understanding of this city is not easy and it will take time to understand and love. However, in the end the love and admiration for it is so strong that it’s hard to live without it.
This city has a lot to offer for everyone and like I said earlier, its safety makes it easier for you to explore. I did hear some stories, but to be honest neither Natalia nor myself went through any unpleasant moment, even though we were coming after 11pm back to the hotel and our hotel was not in the city centre but a bit outside of it.
7 – Religion vs Communism
One of the most interesting aspect of the political system of Vietnam is the approval of a religion among its citizens. Since we arrived in Vietnam a week before Tết Nguyên Đán (Vietnamese New Year) a lot of people were going to temples to pray as well as visiting sacred places around the city. It seems that the mix of religion with communism in the case of Vietnam has proven to be a good combination. As people respects each other, or at least that’s what it seems like to us.
In terms of religion most Vietnamese people are Buddhist and then they follow tam giáo, which is a combination of the three philosophies (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism ).
The system also seems to take advantage of the ancient Chinese philosophy since people still visit statues and they place communism propaganda all around so the citizens can never forget who the big brother really is.
8 – Street Markets
If the streets are the places where tales are being told, then the markets are the places where the details of those stories take place.
The street markets are not every where but we were lucky to book a hotel just across the road from one, and whilst it didn’t help Natalia on her first day (she wanted to leave Hanoi after just 4 hours) it did showed us the real Hanoi. Of course markets in Hanoi are not for people coming from the first world, unless you like rough raw places. It is a place where you will see how things used to be sold in Europe a century ago.
Hygiene is not going to be one of the highlights, instead is going to be the big variety of stories, of lives, of people just living and trading on a daily basis. In these markets you’re going to find veggies, fruits, fish, meat (all parts of it) and even grilled dogs.
Note on the grilled dog: just in case you’re wondering, yes it is real, it is a dog. Since we were shocked and actually as a consequence I didn’t enjoy the taste of Bún chả (Hanoi’s famous dish) we decided to googled about Vietnamese people and they appetite for dogs. The truth is that luckily (from a Western point-of-view) grilled dog is not so famous among families nowadays. It used to be in the past, but the taste has changed and now only very poor people or old-fashioned families eat grilled dog.
9 – Street vendors or hawkers (Beware)
It had to happen. I mean you’re foreigner you want to be nice and buy some fruits to the hawker in the street and bang he charges you triple of the actual price.
One of the hardest thing to cope with the Vietnam is the amount of zeros in their currency and also not having small notes. In my case I paid the price for stupid. I wanted to buy some longan, because it reminded me a fruit from Venezuela and as soon as the guy saw my big 500,000 Dong note his eyes could not believe the note. I tried my best using a phrasebook from lonely planet. Bullocks! it just does not work. They will get you anyhow.
Two evenings afterwards we were walking near the Lake Hoan Kiem and out of nowhere this hawker selling Vietnamese deep fried doughnoughts. This girl was very friendly and she spoke very good English and that should’ve been the first warning sign. She agreed on taking a picture of her and me wearing the Vietnamese hat. It was cool, until I asked her that I only wanted one to try, but she gave me one of each to try. In the end, I had 5 deep fried of uneatable doughnought, and she overcharged us for them. Yes, it was entirely our fault. However, I decided to look at it from a different point of view, I look at it as if I paid for a nice picture and actually it was.
10 – Gastronomy
Vietnam and specifically Hanoi has some special dishes that are worth trying. I read that on the plane from Phuket to Hanoi. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of spotting a grilled dog on my day of arrival and that messed up my whole stomach and tongue alike. I did enjoy certain dishes but the main one or most famous dish did not suit my belly. Perhaps next time.
10.1 Bún chả & Vietnamese Spring Rolls
Bun cha is the most famous dish in the capital and it is a simple clear broth served with grilled pork, cold rice noddles aside, raw (unwashed) green veggies, and a dipping sauce called Nước chấm. I had very hight hopes on this dish but I two things put it off from it. First, the grilled dog as I said earlier and second the smell from the dipping sauce. They use some kind of fruit that when boiled and cooked releases a smell that’s not nice. In the end I ate the pieces of pork, but not the broth and I never dipped it in the sauce expect once.
On the other hand, there are the Vietnamese spring rolls and they should be called king kong rolls. They are huge, but they are delicious. They are heavy because they are fried and contrary to the rice wrapped veggie ones I’ve had in Europe before, this are very filling. They are best to eat with a cold beer and if you have a bit of soy sauce also it will bring out the flavour. Once again the person in the restaurant recommended me to dip the roll in the nước chấm and I tried it but I couldn’t eat. The smell really puts me off. But they are delicious rolls if eaten on its own.
10.2 Phở bò
This is the classic broth with noddles and pieces of meat and I have to say that perhaps I didn’t go to the right place, because it was very bland and average in taste.
10.3 Mì Xào
This one and the next dish are very similar in the ingredients and the only difference is that the noodles they use this dish are more like spaghetti, but it’s the same meat and veggies on a wok and served right on the spot.
10.4 Phở Xào
The look of this might not be the most yummy one, but once you try it you fall in love with it. It is a flat noodle, oyster, soy sauce, sugar, spices, morning glory, meat. They put all in a wok and very high fire. They mix it and serve it immediately. Normally one portion is not enough and you will always ask for a second one. Trust me.
10.4 Fruit Juices, Smoothies & Milkshakes
If anyone would have told me that Hanoi had such an amazing juices, smoothies and milkshakes I would have never believe it. But the true is that in Hanoi you can drink some very yummy fresh fruit smoothies and milkshakes and at a very good price.
10.5 Vietnamese Tea – Trà Sen or Lotus Tea
Another drink that I was not expecting to find here was tea. The Vietnamese tea is really good, it’s a variation of the green tea and it’s called lotus tea. It’s flavour is more similar to oolong tea from China than green tea from Japan, but whatever they say the quality is good. You can normally brew 3 to 4 times the same leaves and it acquires a nice roasted taste. I don’t know if I can find that outside of Vietnam but if I can I will buy this type once I finish all the teas I brought from Asia, including the Vietnamese tea.
11 – Architecture in Hanoi
For some people Hanoi might come as a very old run-down city and part of it is true, but that’s exactly where the charm of this city can be seen. Of course you can also find brand new buildings as shown above on the government building, but that’s more like a modern fortress and there is a huge Lotte (Korean/Japanese Department store) building but I decided not to take a picture of that because it’s like any other crystal modern building you’ve seen anywhere else.
Instead I took pictures of houses dating back from the French Indochina and colonial times because they simply say more. The mould around the walls but also the rich ornament of the facade of this houses is rich. Some of the houses they still keep the wooden windows and even doors. In general it’s a magical combination of European and Chinese influence and it is a pity that due to well-known circumstances some love have not been given to them.
There was only one place that looked different and it was more like in the West, it was no longer a house but a shop and you can see below, expect from that one, mosts houses look like the one after.
12 – Two classes of people in Hanoi
I’m sure that in the country they might not agree with this but there are distinctively two social classes, perhaps even more, but these were the ones I saw in Hanoi.
12.1 – Commoners:
These are the day-to-day working people, the ones that you see pretty much everywhere and who dress like everyone in the city.
12.2 – Better-off or just Overly Rich:
On the other hand, you can find the people who are dressed nicely and they visit very expensive cafes. I presume that people are somehow connected to the government in one way or another. Right opposite from where we drank a milkshake in the Tống Duy Tân street, we saw a very unique show of teenagers who would come with very expensive motorbikes, not only scooters, with their girls, with pets wearing a baby nappy, and dressed in a different way. We even saw what we thought it was a model or VIP lady, dressed in a long red dress with two bodyguards. This kind of people live a very different life from the rest of the people of this city.
13 – Hanoi people
Loving Hanoi is not easy at first sight at least, and so it is not for its people. People in Hanoi are not touristic oriented at all. They have a life and they don’t care about you tourist being there. But there’s hope in the new generation and also one or two old guy or woman out there, but do not expect them to be nice to you. Although that does not mean that they won’t become nice in the end, it’s a love that develops with time after all as much Asian cultures, it’s the relationship that counts and not just a mere “Hi!” and a big smile what the are after.
13.1 – Men
My honest impression is that most men do not work in Hanoi, or at least the majority of them are always in cafes, or hanging around in groups in the streets. This of course does not mean that there are some exceptions like the young man who served me the best fruit smoothie in Hanoi. That guy loves hockey and was such a friendly fella, I added him on facebook and we’ve exchanged a couple of messages. I hope he reads this post about his city and gives me some feedback.
The other man that came out as a lovely chap was the noodle chef at a street restaurant, where we ate the most delicious Pho Xao and Mi Xao. Picture below
And finally the hotel’s owner brother. We booked the room on airbnb and from the beginning I kept communication with him. I always thought it was his brother but in the Tet evening he told me that all this time had been him instead of this brother who is the owner of the hotel. This guy and two more men working at the hotel were so friendly. I will never forget when on the Tet evening we got drunk with the hotel owner, his brother and some of the staff.
13.2 – Women
Women are always working and wherever I saw them, they were always working, either on a restaurant or cleaning the street or carrying those heavy baskets with fruits or just women hawkers carrying things. I didn’t have the chance to exchange a good moment with any of them or even a word, but I suppose there might be some nice women too. Compared to men I never saw any women doing nothing. This was not only in Hanoi but the rest of the cities that we visited as well.
13.3 – Youth
Vietnamese kids, teenagers and young people seem to be the hope for this country. They really smile and laugh at people. I hope I’m not wrong but the next generation of Vietnamese people are going to be friendlier than the current ones. And you can already feel it when coming across one kid or young person.
14 – Small plastic stools
The one thing that was very hard to get used to was the mini plastic stool they use pretty much in every street restaurant. They are uncomfortable as nothing I’ve used before. I don’t consider myself a tall person being 1.68 mts. But these stools are knee joint crackers. I don’t even know how they can enjoy the food whilst sitting on one of these. They are very useful if you want to accommodate a huge group or people and I guess that’s they use them, but they are not comfortable to sit down and enjoy a lunch.
14 – Sweets and dried fruit
If you like dried fruits and sweets then Hanoi has a good variety of dried fruits. I didn’t know I was into dried fruit until I tried dried plums it’s just magical! You can get any dried fruit you want and it’s not expensive so you can go crazy and buy lots!
15 – New Year – Tết Nguyên Đán
We arrived to Vietnam without knowing a couple of things, but one of the main events that was going to take place was Tết, which literally translate as the “feast of the first morning of the first day”. Thus, most people and streets were a bit hectic and everyone seem to be rushing everywhere all the time. Still, it showed how a society living in such a chaos can behave in such a nice familiar way on the evening of Tết.
15.1 – Gifts
Any street had the word “sale” and perhaps it was in Vietnamese too, but people were not only buying clothes but electrical devices, among many other things, like food baskets as you can see below.
15.2 – Offerings to Buddha
Since most people are Buddhist they were buying products that could be left in the street in the evening for the Buddha. The most incredible thing is that nobody would take or steal any of the items left on the table.
Among the many things the one that caught my surprise the most was one fruit call the “Buddha’s Hand” and everyone told me that you’re not supposed to eat it.
They would also buy cherry trees, little mandarin trees and once again you were not supposed to eat any of its fruits.
The last thing that cannot be missed from a Vietnamese house on the evening of Tet is Chinese messages and golden envelopes among many other things.
15.3 – Celebration with No alcohol (in the streets)
One remarkable thing for the Vietnamese celebration of Tết Nguyên Đán was the complete absence of alcohol in the streets. I don’t know if it’s because of a tradition or because the government prohibits it during that day, but the atmosphere is so much better than any European New Year’s Eve (side note, I still remember when I had to quickly take my mum out of the crowd in Blackfriars Bridge in London because they started throwing empty beer and wine bottles)
Everyone was happy walking in the streets and even during the 20 minutes of the firework display everyone was looking up to the sky.
Families and friends and everyone altogether, it was such a nice atmosphere. I really have to give it to the Vietnamese that they celebrate in such a civilise way.
In case you’re wondering of course you can drink alcohol but just not in the streets. Actually the hotel’s owner gave us three heineken to enjoy and celebrate. We took the cans with us in a bag, but after seeing that nobody was drinking in the streets we didn’t drink them and carried them back to the hotel.
They only idiots I saw drinking were stupid foreigners putting on a show, shouting, pushing people….just why?
15.4 – New Year’s Food
I had the chance and also the luck to try the typical Tết cake in a place that I would have never imagine. Let’s with the short story on how this happened. After the fireworks were over by the lake everyone goes back to their homes to spend time with their families and in our case we just went back to the hotel room.
However, before we left the hotel to see the fireworks the hotel’s owners brother told us kindly to please leave the hotel from 11:45pm until 12:45am because they wanted to spend time together with their families. For us that was not a problem since we were going to see the hotel anyway. But to our surprise when we arrived at the hotel. The tiny entrance/hall was crowded. There was a table in the middle with food and drinks and chairs and all the staff was there with the hotel guests celebrating, drinking and eating.
It was the best experience during my stay in Hanoi. They were so nice. They served us the traditional food and also gave us beer, whisky and cognac. What else could you ask for?
The two dishes that I loved the most were: the pulled dried goat meat, it’s just delicious, and the Tet cake, which has a peculiar taste. I asked him what the ingredients are but he just laughed. I tried a big piece and I have to say that it’s hard to digest first, but with a good beer it goes well.
One last anecdote about this evening, most guests went to sleep and only the white hair, the owner’s brother, the receptionist, Natalia and myself stayed up all night drinking until sunrise. But at around 3:50am the receptionist shut the hotel with an electrical fence, so nobody could leave or enter the hotel. It was quite shocking for a city that I thought until then it was safe. Nothing happened to us but there you go, security first.
15.5 – The Morning After – Temple of Literature
After we woke up we went out to see what people do on the day after and we visited the Temple of Literature. It is one of the important landmarks in the city and we left it till the very end and it was worth it. We had to pay but not much and once inside a lot of people were walking and taking pictures. Most of them were rushing to the back to the temple to get a Chinese script on a red paper. I presume that this place does not look the same when it’s not Tet so we felt quite lucky to see that.
16 – Ho Kiem Lake
The lake is the most important leisure place for Hanoians, they normally go running, walking, sitting down by the lake. Moreover, it is a historical place in Hanoi that holds the best legend of the turtle who holds the sword. As I was doing some research I found out that there used to be an old turtle living in the lake but it passed out weeks before our arrival in Vietnam.
Here’s an extract from a vietnamese site ”
Stories of the Hoan Kiem turtle began in the fifteenth century with Le Loi, who became an emperor of Vietnam and founder of the Le Dynasty.
The legend said that Le Loi had a magic sword given to him by Kim Qui (The Golden Turtle God) to repel the invading Chinese forces.
One day, not long after the Chinese had accepted Vietnam’s independence, Le Loi was out boating on a lake in Hanoi.
Suddenly a large turtle surfaced, took the sword from Le Loi, and dove back into the depths. Efforts were made to find both the sword and the turtle, but without success.
Le Loi then acknowledged the sword had gone back to the Golden Turtle God and renamed the lake Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword).
The turtle is affectionately known as “Cụ Rùa,” meaning “great grandfather turtle” in Vietnamese.
Hoan Kiem Lake is also known as Guom Lake (Sword Lake).”
17 – Street barber
If there’s a profession that needs to be highlighted for its location it has to be the street barbers. They are not every where but if you find them they are quite interesting to see working in the middle of the street. I guess the pictures will speak more than my descriptions.
19 – Air Quality and Pollution
Among all the four countries that we visited in Southeast Asia, Vietnam and not only Hanoi was the country that we fell had the worst air quality. The amount of scooters, cars, industries and people burning papers, coal in the middle of the street also contributed to the bad quality air. The feeling of a soar throat was worst here than in Beijing for example. I didn’t use the mask as Natalia did, but I would highly recommend you to use one if you can.
Thanks for everything Hanoi and until next the time