Cultural Capital of Vietnam, and its Heart and Soul
I live in Los Angeles. So I expected Vietnam to be quite different. But what I didn’t expect was to step off the bus in the old quarter of Hanoi, and wander through the streets in awe of…well, just about everything. The warmth of the old buildings, the simplicity of life as women and men sold fruit off the back of their bicycles wearing the quite natural, traditional cones shaped hats (that I didn’t pull off as well later in the trip), and most of all how happy, relaxed, and welcoming just about every Vietnamese man and woman was with me.
I wandered the 36 streets of the old quarter for an hour on the way to my hotel, not because it took that long, but because I would stand on each street corner just taking it all in. It felt like I was in a real life movie all around me--the perceived chaos that was thousands of motor-bikes, the primary transportation in Hanoi, criss-crossing the city, seemingly without any order whatsoever. But there was such a flow to it all—orderly chaos we called it. I noticed that everyone looks out for one another, honking is a way of letting people know you are there, not that you are angry with them, and Hanoians care about other people getting to where they need to go as much as themselves.
Everyone rides a motor-bike—students going to school, women going to work, teenage girls riding side-saddle in skirts with their friends, mothers and children, even entire families on scooters, men transporting boxes 5 feet wide and 6 feet tall, cages of animals as large as a cow (yes, a cow). It was beautiful just to watch. I found Hanoi to be incredibly charming, if you are not distracted by the busyness and lack of modernity. Most of the history and fascinating places are within walking distance, or a short ride the old quarter. And it really is a walking city, although renting a motor-bike expends your range and flexibility. You can see most of central Hanoi and see a few of the major sights in one day. With two days, you can see most of the sights and really take in the experience of the city. 3 days is probably reserved for those that like a slow pace, really want to immerse themselves, or plan to visit the surrounding villages.
There is so much to see. Walking the old quarter and through the old city walls Hoan Kiem Lake, Silver Street, Hang Ngan, Hang Dao, Dong Xuan Market, Hat Street, Bronze Street, etc . Strolling around Hoan Kiem lake and across the brightly painted red The Huc bridge. The atypical Ho Chi Minh museum, and Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. One-Pillar pagoda and Tran Quoc Pagoda for a taste of Buddhist culture. Hoa Lo prison for the Vietnamese view of the American-Vietnam war—there are many war sights, and it is a true experience to learn about that period the Vietnamese’ perspective. But the real sight in Hanoi in my opinion is the people.
One of the reasons I love Vietnam so much is because of how different it is my way of life, there was so much to learn about myself and the world by meeting the Vietnamese, experiencing their culture and how warm and happy they are, and walking in their shoes (ok, most westerners won’t fit in their small shoes, but you know what I mean). We will help you plan which sights best meet your interests and desires, how much time to spend there, and how to get around, which might be a mix of classic sights and ones we know about that aren’t part of most pre-packaged tours.
Adventure in Vietnam means suspending your need for typical western amenities, and really immersing yourself in the Vietnamese way. Walk. Everywhere. Don a backpack filled with many big bottles of water (“Big water cold, please” is a phrase you will use every day when you visit in summer), and wander. Down small streets, through the local markets, following your ears, your nose, and your eyes.
Stop and talk to locals as much as you can. Ride the city bus. Rent a motor bike to visit more of the sights you want to see and be a participant in that orderly chaos. We’ll help you choose what to see and do that matches your type of adventure.
Hanoi is a family-friendly city. Many streets in the Old Quarter and around Hoan Kiem Lake are blocked for pedestrians only Friday to Sunday, and many music bands modern (guitar, violins drums etc) to traditional play around the lake on those nights. Traditional folk games are also set up for passers-by to join in (Bamboo jacks, Mandarin Square Capturing, Stilt walking, Bamboo dancing, Tug of war).
Ride a rickshaw/cyclo thru the 36 streets of the old quarter, take a walking street food tour or half day market visit & cooking class are also suggestions our family clients have loved. For active families, taking a half day bicycle ride the Red River bank to its surrounding villages will bring you an interesting experience (riding thru flower and vegetable fields and villages). We also suggest visiting the Bat Trang ceramic village, a village ceramic market where you can buy cute souvenirs and learn to make pottery products with local artisans, seeing a private water puppet show where the puppet artisan will teach your kids how to control water puppets in a performance, and visiting the many museums with older children.
Hanoi has several nice hotels, high end to midrange boutique. The best choice is the Sofitel Metropole Hanoi, a 5 old, luxury & charming hotel in French colonial style. It has an old wing with dark teak wooden stairs, floors, doors and windows, and and a young and stylish new wing with bright rooms in white, grey, red colors. There is a small swimming pool in the courtyard and near the pool, the hotel just found an abandoned air raid shelter, that is now open for visiting!
Hotel De L’opera is a combination of art and architecture, decorated in a perfect mixture of red, purple, green, yellow and blue. Beds are around 1.5 meters high, suitable for young people but older people will need help a chair to climb up to their beds and it’s unlucky to fall down the bed at night!
Apricot Hotel – This hotel is located on the quieter side of Hoan Kiem Lake, high-floor & in-front rooms offer a perfect view of Hoan Kiem Lake, romantic candlelight dinners can be arranged or just enjoy drinks on the terrace overlooking the lake under the stars. The owner is an art collector. He turned his hotel to become a art gallery. When the hotel was first opened, you could see nude pictures everywhere, but after a few years of operation and after many complaints old traditional guests, the owner finally replaced some with other pictures. But he is proud that when you come to his hotel, besides staying, you are living in an art environment (hotel is also higher priced due to this reason!)
Besides luxury hotels, there are several boutique hotels in the Old Quarter as well which are good choices for honeymooners with a medium or tight budget. Rooms are specially decorated with each hotel’s style, with high privacy but still elegant and charming.
One other reason I might stay 3 days in Hanoi is to try all the food! Choosing which restaurant to go to is as important to me as sightseeing. And slowing down and relaxing enough to enjoy the food and the atmosphere, rather than wolf something down in between museums. We can make sure you have the opportunity to try some of the best Pho, Bun Cha, Banh Mi, hot pot, unique foods and regional specialties like pork liver paste Banh Mi sticks, pork skin, and sour rolls, and to visit some of the best street vendors, family-run favorites among locals, or celebrated restaurants.
Not to mention the classic and unique beers, egg coffees, and desserts (let me already recommend the coconut popsicles at the most famous ice cream shop in Hanoi!). While everyone eats well on tours we arrange, if food is as important to you as it is to me, we’ll guide you to some delicious, interesting and fun experiences.
WHAT TO EXPECT
By now, you already know not to expect the structure and order that the US prides itself on. The city can be chaotic, cramped, busy, and a little noisy. Crossing the street is an experience in itself. Summers are hot, and a day pack is a necessity to carry water and other essentials. But the invitation is to let go of your own expectations, and step the flow of things, learning and experiencing it first hand. I find it easy going and natural.
You can also expect friendly people, wide smiles, and the younger generation wanting to talk with you just to practice their English and pass the time. Most prices are fairly inexpensive, the fruits are different, delicious and best purchased street vendors, and the foods fresh and natural. Beyond that, come with no expectations and you will be pleasantly surprised around every corner.