With the kids and my wife both out of school for the Christmas holidays, we were ready for a trip somewhere else within Southeast Asia. A few months back we looked around on travel sites, etc. and decided upon a trip to Vietnam; Hanoi to be exact. One major factor why we chose Hanoi was because I had a friend from college (whom I hadn’t seen in 16 years) who was living there and I figured it would be great to catch up and also get “the scoop” on the city from a local. So, after a few trips to Bangkok to get our visas straightened out we were finally in route to Hanoi on a Friday afternoon, the day before New Years Eve.
We arrived at the Ha Noi airport around 4:30pm and made our way through immigration to the taxi waiting area. We were immediately solicited by a gentleman offering to take us to our destination for $20 USD. I tried to put him off by saying we had to get money first and he instead directed us to an ATM and waited on us. We got our cash and tried to go elsewhere but he signaled to us that he had our ride ready. I guess our own politeness roped us in a bit. The gentleman who drove us was kind, speaking a little english, and he quoted us 480,000 VND (Vietnamese Dong) which was equivalent to about $21. We learned later to simply get a taxi with a meter vs. paying the flat fee. Either way, it was worth the convenience.
While looking around from within the taxi I noticed some differences from Thailand. The vehicles are driven similarly to the USA in the fact that they drive on the left side of the car and on the right side of the road. Vietnamese LOVE… LOVE LOVE LOVE… their horns. I feel like most drivers keep their hands stationed on the wheel to blow the horn every time a vehicle comes anywhere close to them. It was insane! People also drive VERY close to each other. A few times I swore that the handle bars of a motorbike or the jeans of a rider grazed the sides of the taxi we were in.
People who drive this a lot are so use to it that they simply flow in and out of each others paths in calculated and sometimes dangerous manners. Also, it could’ve been this particular day, but the smog was pretty bad when we arrived. After about 40 minutes we reached our destination, a coffee shop called Cong Caphe.
When we got out of the taxi, we were on the opposite side of the road from the coffeeshop. Crossing roads in the Hanoi takes a little bravery because you have to move slowly and not change pace and the traffic will weave and swerve around you. The four of us eased our way across and stepped inside the coffeeshop to meet up with my friend and his wife and grab a local favorite coffee.
After a quick coffee and a few moments of catching up, all six of us decided to go put away our things at my friend’s apartment and grab a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant. We headed to one of many “Bia Hoi Ha Noi” restaurants near his house which sat right across from Lake Ho Tay (West Lake). These restaurants make Bia Hoi which translates into “fresh beer”. This beer is a very light draft lager that is incredibly cheap, around 20K-24K VND. They make this beer every day and discard what is not consumed by end of day.
We ordered an array of sautéed morning glory, fried bok choy, fried and chopped chicken (head included), rice, etc. Ingredients in Vietnam I found to be very similar to Thailand however there was less fish sauce used (or i just didn’t notice it). This was a great first evening in Hanoi.
The next day we all had a quick breakfast and set out into town (the Old Quarter) to see various sites of the city. As I looked around at the scenery there were many interesting elements all combined together. The buildings sat tightly together, aged by the years, resembling something like Savannah, GA (where I was born). Similar to Bangkok, the industrial and natural settings were well inter-laden, with trees and plants dotted throughout each alleyway or street.
Street vendors with conical hats and sometimes bamboo poles over their shoulders were selling everything from two hanging baskets on either side of them. Gold jewelry, Vietnam tours, handmade clothing, spiritual adornments and Buddhas, zippo lighters, fresh fruits and vegetables, fried doughnuts, paper sculptures, pho, bun, french baguettes, coffee, massage, the list goes on and on.
The energy of the city is very vibrant with the constant movement of motorbikes, horns honking, pedal-taxis soliciting you, and vendors looking to make a deal.
You cannot go the Hanoi without witnessing some of the old structures and remnants of the Vietnam War or, American War, as the Vietnamese refer to it I believe. We did not make it to the Vietnam War Museum or the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison but were still able to see some sites dotted around the city. My friend took me to a location off the beaten path via motorbike (my first time on a motorbike). We came to a small polluted pond about the size of a swimming pool which held the remains of a B52 bomber shot down during the Christmas bombings of the Vietnam War.
It was eery to think that the structure had not been moved for so long and to think about the set of events that occurred that day. It was a quiet part of the city but well worth a visit if you had time. I also saw the lake where John McCain crashed and was pulled out of by the Vietnamese before he became a POW. There was even a figural sculpture of McCain’s body alongside the lake marking the location where he was pulled out and briefly citing the events of that day.
Most impressive was witnessing Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. It is a massive guarded structure which houses the embalmed remains of the revered Vietnamese figure. We did not go inside but viewing from the outside was striking.
After most of the day spent sightseeing, we decided to stop for a beer and some snacks in the middle of the Old Quarter. We had a fantastic view of the area as well as the lake.
They happened to be setting up a Heineken-sponsored stage for the New Years event that night. Massive!
We spent the rest of our evening chilling out and enjoying conversation. We had a great rooftop view of the city to ring in the new year!
The remaining two days of our time in Hanoi was spent trying different foods, experiencing the markets and shops, and touring a few temples and sites, etc. We saw the Thap Rua (Turtle Tower) on Hoan Kiem Lake (Sword Lake), Ngoc Son Temple (Temple of the Jade Mountain), The Presidential Palace, and many more I did not photograph and can’t remember the names of.
As far as food, we tried some local favorites like bun cha, bun bo nam bo, bun ga, bahn mi, etc.
I would love to return one day to experience more of this country!