Most of the Vietnamese people I know come from the South and their reaction when I mentioned I was going to Hanoi fell into two categories.
Actually, cancel that.
There was one main response which was a pause, followed by a frown, very shortly followed by a comment along the lines of “WTF do you want to do that for?”
There were however two distinct subcategories behind this response. The first was “Oh my God, you’ll be robbed / stabbed / murdered in your bed. The people are rude, the traffic is awful, and the food is terrible.”
The other reason was “There’s FA to do there…”
Before leaving I mostly put this down to a little bit of North / South rivalry. However, this malaise seems to have also infected the people of Hanoi. The first sentiment was echoed by the girl who checked us in to the hotel who whispered to us “You’ll find the people here are not very polite.”
“But you’re lovely” I said.
She shook her head. “Other people” she said.
The first question most people ask you in Hanoi is “When you do leave for Halong Bay / Sapa?” Thereby reinforcing the second response. It’s like no one can believe you actually want to be there.
Well guess what? Wrong and wrong peeps, wrong and wrong!
We had a wonderful time in Hanoi – we lived to tell the tale, found the locals friendly and, even though we were there longer than expected we found plenty of things to do. Just walking around and admiring the fabulous colonial architecture can take a few hours.
And the Hoa Lo Prison is also definitely worth a visit. This is where ex American Presidential candidate John McCain was held prisoner for many years.
My photo and the name Maison Central give this place a rather welcoming look, a bit like a swanky hotel. This may have helped to give the Hoa Lo the nickname of the Hanoi Hilton.
Believe me, after spending a few hours inside and learning about the history and some of the awful things that happened within these walls, this is one hotel where you really do not want to be a guest!
One of the best things I did in Hanoi was the Street Food Tour hosted by Mark Lowerson. A long time resident of Hanoi, Mark knows all the places to get great tasting authentic food, which would be unlikely to be on most tourists’ agendas. On top of this, Mark is a charming and knowledgeable host and despite the weather being against us (it was bucketing down the whole time) this tour was one of the highlights of Hanoi for me and something I will definitely do again.
Just one tip, if you are planning on doing this tour (and you absolutely should) – skip breakfast. No, skip dinner the night before and skip breakfast!!!
You can find Mark at: http://stickyrice.typepad.com
and on twitter at https://twitter.com/stickyinhanoi
I did the tour in July and on occasion, still find myself debating over which dish I liked the best. The Bun Ca which was fish with dill and tomatoes made with tea flavoured noodles? The crispy prawn fritters? The freshly made yoghurt with local coffee? Of the many dishes we tasted, they were definitely my top three although it was all delicious!
For some culture, we went to Ho Chi Mihn’s Mausoleum. Don’t let the long lines here put you off, they move pretty quickly. And who doesn’t want to see a perfectly preserved cadaver? You can also visit his house and see the rooms from where he conducted the war. You need to be on your best behavior though – no smirking or pointing or behaving in any manner that is not utterly respectful whilst viewing Ho.
Whilst we’re on the topic of showing some respect…how about, we try to adopt that as a general rule of travel? This is particularly directed at the young gentleman (and I use the term in its loosest form) who burst into the office of the travel agent I was in the middle of having a discussion with, blind drunk at midday, shirtless and trying to haggle over a coolie hat.
One, dude, I was already there…wait your damn turn.
Two, no one needs to see your disgusting sweaty beer belly. Put on a shirt. And some shoes.
Three, I don’t know how you managed to get that drunk that early…but don’t do it again. It didn’t make you look cool. It made you look like an idiot. And if the people of Hanoi were as bad as everyone said they were – that kind of obnoxious behavior would have got you stabbed. And you would have deserved it. It’s almost a shame they weren’t!
Ok, rant over. One of my favorite shops in Hanoi was the Sun Tailor. They make all sorts of gorgeous clothing, purses, jewellery, hair accessories, etc with a cute retro sort of feel to them.. Great for gifts…or for yourself and it’s all as cheap as chips!
The button necklaces and bracelets are just adorable and the headband with pictures of Italian cities like Rome…
And….oh…erm…places that sound like they may be Italian..are just gorgeous….
Another cool thing about Hanoi are the street bars. By day, these are normal shops. By night, the grills go down, plastic tables and chairs make an appearance, someone rolls out a cooler full of beer and some snacks and voila, the street corner becomes a bar! We visited the same corner bar in the old quarter several times and by the end of our stay, far from being hostile, the owners were greeting us like old friends!
For a day trip, we went to the Perfume Pagoda, which was for me, one of the highlights of the trip. It gets a bad write up in a few of the guides mainly for the over zealous nature of the women hawking cold drinks, beer, food etc both along the river and at the base of the mountain. Ok, this is kind of annoying…but try not to let this jade your perspective. The Pagoda itself is worth this.
And you gotta hand it to the women who row the tourist boats. They are tiny and each boat fits six tourists for an hour long ride to the pagoda and another hour long ride back. It was scorching the day we went and believe me…that woman rowing us deserved every cent of the hefty tip we gave. Although, if I had been her, I would have been a little snippy with her country women who were rowing alongside trying to sell us food and drink. In fact, whilst I don’t speak a word of Vietnamese, I swear our rower said something to them along the lines of “For the love of God, can you just sod off? It’s stinking hot and these bastards are fat enough without you getting them to cram beer and Mars Bars down their gobs.” It must have been her tone…
The only way to get to the Pagoda is by boat, then, after you land and fight your way through the ladies hawking their wares.including some quite scary looking rats in cages…you can either get a cable car up the mountain or walk. Some of our group chose to walk up the mountain to the pagoda, I went by cable car. Firstly because it was a cable car….I have no idea why I love them so much, I just do! And you know…walking up a mountain in blazing heat could give you some sort of ecstatic religious moment…or heatstroke. You choose!
The actual Pagoda is magnificent and really has that atmosphere of being a sacred space. Instead of being a Pagoda as I know it – a structure like the one we visited in Hue, the Perfume Pagoda is a series of rock formations set in a cave at the top of a mountain. The air is dark and cool which is a lovely respite from the blazing sun and just adds to that “otherworldly” atmosphere.
We never got to Halong Bay as the bad weather prevented it. However, the upside of that is that it gives us a great reason to travel back to Hanoi!
I’m going to spending my week looking at flights to Hanoi, have a fab one whatever you get up to!