During our 3 week itinerary in Vietnam, Hanoi was our first stop.
Our first impression was one of surprise and we realized, as we left the airport, that we were in for an incredible time.
What an effervescent city!
Hanoi became the capital of Vietnam in 1976 after the reunification between the North and South.
It’s located in the north and has become a hustling bustling city with a rising economy.
But this city is also full of contradictions as old traditions and new ways live side by side in an unorganized ease.
Colonial architecture and skyscrapers blend together. Beautiful ancient temples and pagodas are neighbors to modern shops. Old and contemporary museums are worth a look to understand Vietnam’s history.
You’ll find tiny spaces converted to food stops, cramped apartments over small shops, all sorts of transactions happening in the middle of the street.
And vendors pushing their carts selling everything from flowers to meat.
For us, the best part of Hanoi was to walk the streets taking it all in.
On almost every corner the smell of food blends together with the sound of traffic.
And traffic is mostly nonstop!
To escape the noise and the rain we took a side alley and ate with a family who cooked up a great deal on a street corner.
We got lost in the maze through small alleys and tiny streets and were surprised at how the crowds all move in different directions without ever running into each other.
Everywhere people were working or sitting on the sidewalks and the shops overflowed with enormous amounts of products crammed into small spaces.
.In contrast, we took part in local activities at Lake Hoan Kiem and although the noise level was often overwhelming, it was still possible to find quiet spots throughout our day.
.In Hanoi, motorbikes rule and one wonders how they manage to weave in and out of what seems like chaotic driving, without causing any major accidents.
But by some unexplained method, it works. Except when tourists try to cross the street!
After hearing lots of the same advice, here is how we attempted to properly cross the street.
Walk at a normal pace, keep walking.
Don’t stop, even if you see motorbikes coming at you from different directions don’t slow down or speed up and don’t stop.
They will go around you naturally, but if you panic in the middle of the road then they will be forced to stop, which will force those behind to do the same.. and it becomes a scary mess.
So hold hands, keep going together at a steady pace and you’ll get to the other side safely!
Hanoi can be a confusing city with a long list of things to see, but once you get your bearings you’ll discover a whole different way of doing things.
It’s impossible to cover it all in a short time frame, but below are a few things that we enjoyed during our week in Hanoi, hope you enjoy it as much as we did!
The old quarter is in the Ba Dinh District and through the narrow streets and back alleys, you’ll find lots of street food, small eateries, restaurants, and shops.
You can get anything you want here, including changing money, travel agencies and of course hotels ranging from hostels to 5 stars.
In the evenings, locals are out eating, drinking and socializing sitting on small stools laid out on the sidewalk.
The area is touristy but also extremely vibrant. There is a big church worth visiting and the Hoan Kiem lake is close by.
The old quarter is like a labyrinth.
Over the years people have come to the capital to make some money, sell goods, raise a family.
But it’s all done in such a chaotic way.
While you walk the streets you can find everything from live ducks to cheap rain ponchos to chic restaurants to street food to useless gadget shops to a multitude of things you didn’t even know could co-exist together.
It’s actually fascinating.
The Old Quarter was once called 36 Streets, and there is still evidence of the way this worked.
Way back, each street represented a particular trade and shops sold goods in relation to this trade.
As an example, you have a street with shops selling only musical instruments on Hàng Trống, (Drum Street) another selling only silver on Hang Bac (silver street) or silk on Hang Gai Street (Silk Street) and so on.
“Hang: means shop or merchant and in the case of Silver Street “Bac” means silver.
Most of the 36 streets are named accordingly.
Today this is still the case in spite of the plethora of tourist-geared shops that have popped up everywhere.
You have to look deeper to find authenticity and not stop at first impressions.
Temple of Literature
This temple is dedicated to Confucius and the art of learning.
It is here that the first university in Vietnam came to be in 1076.
Only royal families and aristocrats were allowed to learn here, but with time the university was open to all.
Students that became successful were highly recognized and their names were engraved in stone.
There are different pavilions, statues, and spaces dedicated for ceremonies.
You can learn about the rich history of this site and the ancient Vietnamese architecture has kept remarkably well throughout the years.
On the plus side, it has a beautiful garden with a large basin filled with plants and lily pads.
This place is a great refuge giving off an extreme sense of peace and quiet within the chaos of the city.
Hỏa Lò Prison
La Maison Centrale was built by the French around 1890. Through several conflicts and wars the name changed, and today it is ironically called the Hanoi Hilton.
It’s a very small museum but also shocking as it shows life-sized models of prisoners as well as dungeons and death row.
You can read the history on the walls, but some say it is not all accurate and may even a bit biased.
But still, it’s worth taking the time to understand the treatment of Vietnamese and American political prisoners.
It’s about a half hour walk from the Old Quarter or you could take a taxi here. The entrance fee is very small.
Hô Chi Minh Mausoleum
Located in Ba Dinh Square. Lines can be quite long long long as many Vietnamese people come here to pay their respects.
So if it is very hot out, beware and bring water while waiting.
If you want to come anyway, just follow the path after entering, read about the history displayed on the panels – it all leads to Ho Chi Minh’s final resting place.
Uncle Ho as locals nicknamed him was and still is highly revered here in Vietnam.
People come from all over the country to pay tribute. The mausoleum was inspired by the one built for Lenin, so just between you and me, it’s a little somber…
Hoàn Kiếm Lake
Go early morning when peace and quiet prevail. Locals exercise and socialize around the lake before crowds appear.
There is a small coffee shop on site. It is a slice of morning life before the noise level rises and people start crowding the area giving it a completely different feel.
Hoàn Kiếm Lake means Lake of the Restored Sword and is based on an ancient legend dating from 1428.
If you are not an early riser then try to come on weekends when part of the lake is off limits to cars and mopeds reducing the noise considerably.. but not the crowds!
Looking towards the lake you’ll see a small temple. It’s Ngoc Son temple and it sits on the small Jade island dedicated to Confucian and Taoist philosophers.
To reach the Temple of Jade Mountain, just take a small walk across Huc Bridge nearby.
On the outskirts of the city. Learn the history from past to present times.
There is an indoor exhibit, but the most attractive part is outdoors (personal opinion) where you can have a hands-on experience going through the reconstituted huts and homes. A great glimpse of how Vietnam’s ethnic groups lived.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum
Exhibits and displays on several floors. Each floor represents a theme which teaches you the role of Vietnamese women throughout the years and their commitment during the war and their struggle for independence.
There is a lot to take in here, pace yourself or choose the themes you are most interested in. Audioguide available.
Đồng Xuân Market
Originally built by the French it has undergone several transformations and is the largest covered wholesale market in Hanoi.
Stalls tightly fit side by side on three floors and you can find everything from dried shrimp to hats to phones to piled mushrooms and flowers.
You sort of feel like a sardine in a maze while making your way through the aisles, but after all, that’s what makes it unique.
Once outside of the market, we saw a woman having lunch on a pile of woven textile, a combination of different colors and imaginary tastes.
It looked so good that I tried asking where we could get the same thing.
With a big smile, she tried using hand signs pointing us in the right direction insisting it was “that” way… we said thank you and goodbye longer than it took for us to say hello, she was so nice..
but in the end, we never found the place and ended up eating with a family on a street corner.
Hanoi proved to be a busy, chaotic maze filled with crowds.
Lots of Traffic and a very high-level of noise.
But there are many other things that allowed us to see amazing and worthy places that make Hanoi great. Like the Temple of Literature. And taking a deeper look into local life around the lake and on the streets.
We met some wonderful people with whom we could unfortunately not exchange with words due to the language barrier, but we communicated nonetheless through hand signs and laughter, feeling happy to have taken the time to do so.
We also found some peace and quiet early mornings before busy life started to happen.
The Hanoians we met, regardless of social class were in general reserved, but always conveyed a sense of pride and a high level of generosity and their willingness to help even when we didn’t need anything.