8.2.15

Hanoi in 3 Days Travel Guide

Hanoi is a city of organised chaos.

Much has been said about Hanoi roads, where crossing the streets qualifies as an extreme sport. There's no discernible order to which traffic adheres, and vehicular traffic crawls at between 10-15 km/hr, because drivers/riders need to travel slow enough to react accordingly. I think, if you can drive in Hanoi, you can drive anywhere.

The one take-away from our trip to Hanoi was our acquisition of the skill to cross the streets like a Hanoian. The key is to walk at an even pace, keep a watchful eye to your surroundings, and don't ever step backwards. Somehow, like Moses parting the red sea, the multitude of vehicles coming your way will avoid you. It's completely exhilarating, and seriously, I'm considering this as a tick off my bucket list.

The roads in the day, and note that this is considered relatively clear

The same roads in the dark of night

No boot, no problem!

A typical sight along the roads, with a whole family of 4 perched on a single scooter

Another typical sight, of a little toddler riding pillion, surprisingly securely, behind her mother.

The art of texting while riding...and I can't even cycle in a straight line!


Duration

We had a somewhat fanatic trip, because we'd jammed our 3 Day-2 Night schedule with activities. If you want a slightly less maniac trip, with more pockets of bumming around, Hanoi can be languidly seen in-depth in about 5 days, excluding day/overnight trips to scenic Halong Bay or the hills of Sapa.


Weather

The best time to go is during winter, from November to January, where the cool 17-22C weather makes traipsing around the city most comfortable. However, bring a light jacket/coat just in case, as temperatures have been known to plunge to the low 10C when it rains.

Like many developing cities with growing pains, Hanoi is polluted. Blue skies and clean crisp air is not something that's in abundant supply. Which probably explains the many motorists wearing masks while riding.


Getting In

Hanoi is served by newly-built Noi Bai Airport for international flights. It's spartan and utilitarian, but functional and clean. Rain or shine, night or day, it's about 40-45 minutes away from the city center.

There's hardly any shops at the airport, so bring a book, or an iPad to occupy yourself while waiting for your flight.

Fellow Star Alliance's member Vietnam Airlines has a lounge, partner lounge of Singapore Airlines, on the 2nd level of the airport, which is great for chilling.

I've never seen so many Eames loungers in 1 spot! This was my favourite area of the lounge, and I took a catnap here!

The food wasn't great, and like the Metropole, the western options generally fared better than the Vietnamese food.

The spring rolls were soggy and lacking in punch.

The Pho was insipid. Copious lashings of sliced chilli and lime couldn't fix lift it from its pedestrian doldrums.

Chicken Pea Stew, Sausages, Vegetable Tempura. Only the stew was edible, even if it was amateurish. The tempura batter was soggy and waaaaaay too thick.

Beef Fried Rice, Spaghetti, Mixed Fried Noodles

Ham & Cheese Mini Sandwiches, which I peeled the good stuff off the bread.

The fancy-sounding but terribly boring Russian Salad

Libation to load up before you fly

Coffee and tea station

Bottled drinks with Bird's Nest(!) and fruit-flavoured water


Getting Around

Cabs are in abundant supply, but stick to the blue Hanoi Cab, which can be called in advance, and tend to charge by the meter. Be sure to insist on getting back your change. Some drivers will take an inordinately long time to count the change, in the hope that you would then waive them along. Try as best to carry small notes as well. Some will claim that they don't have any change to return.

You won't have to take cabs everywhere though, and walking around is quite a viable option most of the time. Most of the attractions are concentrated in the Old Quarter, which is within walking distance to the French Quarter. 


Expenses

1 thing I had to ask around, because it wasn't available over the internet, was how much currency to change and bring along. We brought about S$250 worth of Vietnamese Dong, which covered our airport transfers, cab rides around the city, entrance fees to all tourist attractions, cooking classes, food and souvenirs for 2 persons. Please note that accommodation and hotel spa treatments were covered under our credit cards.

Do note that many cash-only establishments accept American dollars in lieu of Vietnamese Dong.


Culture

Hanoians are big on Confucianism, because they were under Chinese rule for more than a thousand years. Buddhism is a major religion, and much of the architecture in Hanoi bears the Chinoisserie style. Chinese festivals and customs have also been adopted (and that's why we didn't opt to visit Hanoi over the Lunar New Year holidays), and temples are a common sight in Hanoi.

Hanoians are a real friendly, if a little reserved, bunch. They're also a very calm and laidback people as evidenced by the many residents who are perfectly content to sit by the kerb and people-watch. It's also amazing how unfazed they are when crossing the streets or driving along the roads. I would be a expletive-spewing hot mess!

Because Hanoi was in the thick of the resistance movement against foreign occupation, be mindful of praising the "imperialists" (i.e. foreign forces). These are people who've been occupied for so long under so many regimes, that when they finally achieved independence, they've, in the process, developed a bit of a complex. I think, that's why French food isn't as widely consumed here as in the more cosmopolitan Ho Chi Minh City.


Stay

The century-old Metropole Hotel, currently owned by the Sofitel group, is undisputedly the most luxurious accommodation in Hanoi. It's very conveniently located in the French Quarter, and within a 15-minute brisk walking distance to the Old Quarter. 

A major perk is the shopping strip of designer brands annexed to the hotel. In fact, there's an Hermes store on-site! How's about that for convenience?

A tip is to book an executive club room; the complimentary lounge fare will more than make up the premium in cost. Breakfast is served from 6am to 10.30am, afternoon tea from 2.30pm to 4.30pm; evening cocktails and canapes from 5.30pm to 7.30pm. Prices are upwards of USD300 including taxes for a Grand Premium Club Room.

The Club Metropole lounge, open all day and manned by the personalised butler service.

Personally, I prefer the newer Opera Wing to the Historic Metropole Wing. I was never a fan of antique furniture.

If you really, really, really want to eat at the hotel restaurants, stick to the western cuisine, which tend to fare better than their Vietnamese counterparts.

The full writeup of the hotel fare here


Do

Joining in a cooking class is integral to genuinely appreciating Vietnamese food. I'd highly recommend Awesome Travel (I know, I was apprehensive when I heard its name as well) which was, in turn, a recommendation by a friend. Spanning slightly over 5 hours, you get to learn basic Vietnamese (I learnt how to say "NO coriander/parsley/cilantro" in Vietnamese!) before being let loose to shop for groceries at the wet market, and whip up a fancy feast of up to 7 dishes. Thereafter, the class partakes in the fruits of their own labour in an outdoor dining hall along the red river with lots of beer and good cheer. It was my first on-tour cooking class and suffice it to say, I'm hooked! See here for an extended writeup of the cooking class and the recipes!

Signing up on a walking tour with one of the many non-profit groups is one of the best (read: unbiased) ways to see the city. You get the company of young undergraduates looking to improve/practise their English, and learn the city's history through the eyes of a local (and not a travel agency with their numerous tie-ups). I'd recommend HanoiKids or HanoiFreeTourGuides. HanoiKids is extremely popular and top rated on tripadvisor; they were booked solid throughout, so I suggest making a reservation at least a month in advance. I was booked, instead, on a tour with a cutie patootie teenager studying business English in one of the many universities in Hanoi, through HanoiFreeTourGuides. She's the reason I didn't get ripped off while buying souvenirs.

For foodies, join in a food walking tour of the Old Quarter. It can be daunting hunting down the right stalls, and such tours sift out the tourist traps. I'd recommend following Awesome Travel's Food on Foot Tour for an unforgettable culinary experience. The food that they recommended, mamma mia!

A spa session at the Metropole is an experience in itself as well. Prices are comparable to the Clarins Spa back home, but this is a hotel that prides itself on luxury, so nothing else but the best will do. And when better to pamper yourself than on a holiday? After all that walking around, your tired aching body will thank you for it. A 105-minute facial and body treatment will set you back by about 2.5m VND (about S$167).


Nightlife

The young pass the time in pretty much the same way as most Singaporeans: watching movies, hanging out with friends, and karaoke. 

The party scene isn't quite as established but there are underground clubs that are purportedly wild in that weed isn't exactly impossible to obtain and the consumption of the same by foreigners isn't exactly enforced against by the authorities. For the avoidance of doubt, this shall not be construed as an endorsement of any criminal activity.


See

Ho Chi Minh Complex

Just about every travel guide directs you to a tour of the Ho Chi Minh Complex (which comprises the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Mausoleum, Vestige, and One-Pillar Pagoda), but I found it skewed and boring. If you're short on time, skip the entire complex.

The entire complex is organized just so visitors travel in a linear fashion from 1 attraction to the other; beginning at the mausoleum to the vestige, pagoda and finishing at the museum.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is, by far, the most popular attraction in the complex, so naturally, it boasts the longest lines. You don't have to wait very long though - the queue moves briskly. It's quite a walk from the entrance to the mausoleum though.

Photos aren't allowed inside the mausoleum, and all you see is a swaddled mummy. It really just looks like any other ordinary mausoleum. The body is taken overseas for upkeep once a year, so be sure to check the schedule before going down.

The changing of guard at the mausoleum. 

One-Pillar Pagoda

The One-Pillar Pagoda is exactly as is sounds. It's a teeny tiny pagoda simply perched on a single pillar of wood. Totally uneventful, and it was undergoing renovations when we passed on by.

Ho Chi Minh Museum

The Ho Chi Minh Museum was by far the biggest time-waster. Many of the exhibits were closed, and many of the descriptions were in French and Vietnamese. All I learnt here was that Ho Chi Minh is extremely revered, and the occupying forces were the biggest unreasonable douchbags ever.

Presidential Palace

This used to be the home of the French governer, which was converted into the Presidential Palace after Vietnam achieved independence. Because of its historical role in French colonism, Ho Chi Minh refused to live here, even though he received distinguished visitors here. It is situated next to the mausoleum, which we cut back through from the complex on the way to West Lake. It's not open to the public, but the French colonial detailing does make a pretty gorgeous sight.

New Parliament House

Times are a-changing, and Hanoi has built for itself a new Parliament House, one that boasts a modern design that reflects its no-nonsense approach. This isn't open to the public either. But being situated just opposite the mausoleum across Ba Dinh Square where Ho Chi Minh read the proclaimation of independence, you'll see it on the way into the mausoleum.

Quan Thanh Temple

A short walk from the parliament houses, is the Quan Thanh Temple, one of the 4 guardians of Hanoi. This temple, which flanks the West Lake, guards the...no prizes for guessing...west.

West Lake

The largest lake in Hanoi,West Lake is flanked by the Thuc Banh Lake and leading hotel brands like the Intercontinental and Sheraton on the opposite end. Despite the masses thronging the lakeside, there's a sense of mystical tranquility about it.

Turtles feature predominantly in Hanoian legends, and are said to bring good luck. There were many vendors selling these little tykes along the lake shore. If you buy them, DO NOT release them into the lake. It's now an offense because way too many of these were previously released into the wild, becoming a disruptive nuisance to the ecosystem.

Tran Quoc Pagoda

Otherwise known as the National Founding Pagoda, this brick-red 12-level structure is the oldest Buddhist pagoda in Hanoi, representing the 12 stages of enlightenment. This is on a little island at the West Lake shore.

This half-century-old tree is grown from a cutting of the tree under which Buddha achieved enlightenment, a gift from the Indian president on his visit to Hanoi.

Thuc Banh Lake

This smaller lake flows adjacent to West Lake. Looks like West Lake, sans the crowds.

Temple of Literature

The Temple of Literature may be a temple now, but it used to be an institution of learning back when it was constructed more than 900 years ago. It's evidently has fallen into disrepair and a shadow of its glorious past as an Imperial Academy, but it's worth a look-see. We took a cab here, because it wasn't walkable from the other attractions.

The Confucian temple has 5 courtyards representing each stage of learning, and local students come to pay tribute for good luck, come exam-time.

The Steale of Doctors depict the names of those on the honour roll during the Imperial exams which are carved onto stone turtles, a symbol of longevity. It's now fenced off, because wayyyy too many an enthusiastic tourist were touching the stones, so much so that most of the carvings are now indecipherable.

The Well of Heavenly Clarity (it's an algae-green reflecting pool of sorts), where it's said to reflect one's soul to gain clarity and awareness of self, at the Third Courtyard. 

The massive bronze bell at one corner of the Temple of Literature, on one side of the 5th Courtyard.

The equally massive bronze drum at the opposite side of the 5th Courtyard, at the other corner of the Temple of Literature.

A diorama of the Temple of Literature as it now stands. It gives you a bird's eye view of the extensive grounds.

Hoa Lo Prison

I generally found the wartime attractions much more interesting, even if they were mostly a curated one-sided view of the war. Hoa lo Prison, sarcastically named the 'Hanoi Hilton' by its inmates, was originally built by the French to house political prisoners, which was then appropriated by the Vietnamese to keep American POWs. This is also a standalone attraction, so you'll have to take a cab to get here.

A mock-up of how political prisoners were kept in a communal room and shackled together.

Prison commodes.It's a teeny tiny hole, so you've got to have really good aim.

Solitary confinement for death-row inmates

The French imported a guillotine to execute prisoners, then hung the heads on spikes in the open square as a deterrent to the rest of the prisoners.

The Almond Tree planted by political prisoners to extract the bark, nuts and leaves for health/nutrition benefits, was instrumental in preventing a tragic wipeout due to dysentery.

French Quarter

The French Quarter is a neat and stark contrast to the rest of disheveled Hanoi. Wide roads, tree-lined boulevards, Italian renaissance and neo-classical aesthetics mark the French Quarter.

Opera House Within walking distance from the Metropole is the Opera House, a replica of the Palais Garnier in Paris. It's an architectural landmark, for good reason. It's gorgeous!

Hanoi Stock Exchange Opposite the Opera House is the Hanoi Stock Exchange. The Hubs ignorantly thought it was purely decorative, but it's an actual, working, functional stock exchange!

The bronze bull, a common fengshui sight of most stock exchanges. 

Press Club The Press Club opposite the Metropole, one of the few fine-dining institutions in Hanoi for a dressy night out.


Hoan Kiem Lake

This serene lake is right smack between the French Quarter and Old Quarter. Its serene tranquility is setting for many a gathering of the locals. Colloquially known as 'Sword Lake', legend has it that an emperor of the Le dynasty returned a magical sword via a golden turtle while on the lake. The return of the sword purportedly brought prosperity to the city thereafter.

Old Quarter

A must-see is the Old Quarter, a vibrant labyrinth of 48 streets not unlike Chatuchak in Bangkok. Just about everything is sold and traded here, from clothes to jewellery and blacksmiths and eateries.Even tombstones are carved here.

It's not all business here in the Old Quarter; people live deep inside the Old Quarter, accessible through hole-in-the-wall, snaking, pitch-black alleyways between shop fronts. We were brought deep inside the underbelly of the Old Quarter, a quiet sight far removed from the buzz.

Because each housing unit is so compact, they don't have private living rooms. Several housing units share a communal space for hanging out, a spartan room that's open 24/7 for use by the surrounding residents.

Impromptu street performances liven up the Old Quarter, from the amazing (like this hottie violinist churning out pop covers) to the weird (this infamous Vietnam's Got Talent contestant who was "free-dancing" - he was hilariously awful).

A street performance featuring the ethnic music of the Ve Cao tribe.

A typical sight - the overflowing beer garden


Path of History Tour

A major perk of staying at the Metropole is getting access to the Path of History Tour.

The tour is centered around the Metropole Bomb Shelter, a 4-winged underground square built to shelter up to 40 hotel guests during the American War (as referred to by the Vietnamese, and known as the Vietnam War by the west) .

The bomb shelter, long thought lost, was rediscovered during the construction of the pool bar

Our guide, Duc, who's been at this ever since the tour was established, brought history to life. The tour begun at a small exhibit of historical items, like a bottle of red found in the shelter; apparently, an Australian diplomat had deemed it important to be drunk while taking refuge in the shelter during the bombings.

I thought the tour was most engaging, and Duc's animated re-telling of history moved us to tears. My one takeaway: wars are terrifying, and no one is spared the horror of it.

Advanced reservations are advised. Each tour only accommodates 10 persons, so there's a real possibility of being disappointed if you attempt to join in the tour only after checking in.


Buy

We passed on the typical silks and trinkets that just about everyone brings back from Hanoi, and got Hanoi foodstuffs instead. Well, would you have expected a foodie to buy anything other than local foodstuffs?????

Vietnam is renowned for their legendary coffee, and I'd highly recommend the ultra-premium Luwak (the civet cat dropping coffee) and aromatic Arabica blends to buy as souvenirs for your chums. I used these to bribe the boss into allowing me on holidays. Check out Tam Loc Coffee at 103 Hang Buom for reasonable prices and extensive blends. 

Watch them grind the beans on the spot

And seal into individual packets for maximum freshness.

Another thing that'll keep your homebound friends very happy is candied fruits. The sugared apricot and plums from Hong Lam at 11 Hang Duong ensured a steady stream of visitors at my desk all week.

Eat

To me, Vietnamese cuisine was all pho and cha gio, pho and cha gio. I've never really took to it until I got to Hanoi. It's safe to say that I've acquired a love for Vietnamese food. I love how everything's always so well-balanced, and taste so clean and fresh.

For a sampling of the culinary best that Hanoi has to offer, make sure to hit up the Old Quarter. Squatting down on those tiny little stools while quaffing down a bowl of piping hot pho is an experience you don't want to miss.

Must-trys are Bun Cha (grilled pork), grilled fish, nem (fried spring rolls), the ubiquitous pho, and egg coffee. More details here.


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