Oh yes, the Ha Long Bay Hangover I posted a year ago was just a snippet of my drunken stupor after my trip to Vietnam three years ago!
Here’s a friendly travel guide published in The Freeman in 2012. Some of the information I have provided may no longer be relevant nor applicable today. After all, a a lot could change in a vibrant city like Hanoi in just three years. But of course, I’m yet to personally check on that—I’m planning to revisit it after my wedding next year.
When people ask me how my trip went, I always tell them that Hanoi was a city that robbed me of my usual love-at-first-sight travel euphoria. It was after all not a paradise of imposing skyscrapers or grand amusement parks; rather, it was a place that encourages immersion to be able to truly appreciate its rich culture and fascinating traditions… And I loved every bit of it.
It was raining slightly when we landed at Noi Bai Airport, Hanoi. “Feels just like Cebu,” was my first impression as I looked around not only observing the weather. The interior of the arrival area was simple. No sophisticated lighting or intimidating architectural structure. What it had was a cozy, warm feel to it.
With my Manila-based sister, I was set to stay in Hanoi for a couple of days to be with our other sister who had been living in Vietnam’s capital city for almost three years now. She works as a teacher at a recognized IELTS Review Center, along with other growing number of Filipinos. Vietnam is generally a non-English speaking country. And like many other nations, it has embraced the need to adopt the language, gradually welcoming skilled professionals such as our own.
Since it was past midnight when we arrived, there wasn’t really much to look at as we traveled the wide highways and made our way to Hai Bà Trưng, an urban district in Hanoi. With only the street lights illuminating, I couldn’t fail to notice the houses along the road. They were all tall and narrow. I would discover later on that most houses in Vietnam are designed that way-with at least three stories and a retail shop on the first floor. They say it’s because their property taxes are based on the width of the lot at the street line. The facades of the houses and buildings are mostly colorful and somehow French (Vietnam used to be a French colony) inspired, with some having pointed, castle-like roof lines.
But the uniquely structured houses would just be the beginning of the many wonders you’d experience if you were in what’s often dubbed as the City of Lakes.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Ho Chi Minh is almost synonymous with Vietnam. He was a Vietnamese Communist revolutionary leader who became prime minister and president of North Vietnam. Cameras are not allowed inside, but you will surely take mental snapshots of a hero’s remains cautiously preserved in this mausoleum.
Tip: The mausoleum closes at 11:00AM, so waking up late may not be a good option. Skirts/shorts above the knees and sleeveless, blouses of those with low necklines are not allowed inside.
Ho Chi Minh Museum. True to its name, the Ho Chi Minh Museum is dedicated to the late Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh and Vietnam’s revolutionary struggle against foreign powers.
Tip: It’s normally a full house at the museum, so the crowd is something you should be ready for.
Presidential Palace. We didn’t get inside (it is not open to tourists, except for diplomats or visiting foreign dignitaries), but with its French Colonial architecture, Hanoi’s Presidential Palace is a sight to visit. This yellow palace is cradled in botanical gardens with fruit trees and features the serene Carp Pond in its grounds.
Tip: The Presidential Palace is just walking distance from the Mausoleum.
One Pillar Pagoda. Built of wood on a single stone pillar 1.25 meter in diameter and designed to resemble a lotus blossom, a Buddhist symbol of purity, the One Pillar Pagoda is a historic Buddhist temple and regarded as one of Vietnam’s two most iconic temples, alongside the Perfume Temple.
Tip: For lack of concrete directions (and English speaking natives), we were not able to visit the pagoda. However, this is just walking distance from the presidential palace, so if you can find a good map with clear directions, that would be perfect.
The House on Stilts. In his last years, Ho Chi Minh lived in this modest and unassuming house but received state guests in the presidential palace, which is just walking distance from the house. Taking a quick tour around, I couldn’t help but be enthralled by the thought that one of the most admired men in history once lived in such a humble wooden home, pondering deep and contemplating on decisions that changed history forever.
Tip: When I was there, there were two lines for visitors to go around the house. You cannot actually get inside the rooms, so be sure to queue in the row closer to the house to be able to take more decent photos.
Water Puppet Theatre. If you are up for cultural arts, remember to grab a ticket for the Water Puppet Theatre at Hoan Kiem Lake area, Old Quarter. At only 100,000.00 VND or about 100.00PhP admission fee, this unique performance features puppets carved out of wood with a pool of water being the stage and a live orchestra in the background. With humorous twist, it tells of day-to-day living in rural Vietnam and folk tales told through generations.
Tip: If you can, reserve your ticket ahead so you can choose a good seat, ideally at the first or second row. Don’t worry, the live performance does not include splashing water to the audience.
Hoan Kiem Lake. While you’re already in Old Quarter, might as well not miss the chance to drop by the famous Hoan Kiem Lake where the Turtle Islet and the Turtle Tower could be found. Also known as the Sword Lake, it carries the city’s famous legend of the magic sword. Legend has it that thousands of years ago, a turtle, believed to be still living in Haoan Kiem Lake, gave a king a sword which he used to defend Vietnam against invaders.
Tip: The best time to visit Hoan Kiem Lake is between late in the afternoon to evening. The setting of the sun creates a dramatic hue to the calm waters. Colorful lights then slowly emerge as night falls.
Extra Tip: Aside from the famous Hoan Kiem Lake, there is also the West Lake, the largest lake in Hanoi, where you can hire a boat or dine at the floating restaurant.
Vietnam Military History Museum. Admit it, when you hear “Vietnam,” you almost always associate it with the war. This museum at Dien Bien Phu St. is a repository of Vietnam’s military history featuring war propagandas, photographs and documents from wars against China, France, and the United States. Aircraft, as well as a central structure built from the wreckage of French and American planes are also showcased in the grounds.
Tip: Read a little about the military history of Vietnam so you will be more captivated by this little glimpse of the past.
Landmark Sky 72 Observatory. Landmark Sky 72 is the tallest tower in Vietnam. At its top floor is the observatory where you can enjoy amusements such as 5D Cinema, LG 3D World, Art Link Gallery, and Alive Museum. Aptly named, the Alive Museum features artworks which allow guests to take part of through optical illusions and 3D paintings.
Tip: If you love wowing your friends on Facebook, definitely visit the Alive Museum. The photos you will be posting about it will keep your friends asking, “What did you? Where did you? How did you? Wow!”
Ha Long Bay. Not anymore in Hanoi, but indisputably a must-go when in Vietnam. Through a travel agency (in Hanoi or while still in Cebu), you can arrange a day trip cruise about 35.00 USD at Ha Long Bay. Translated as Descending Dragon, the bay tells an interesting legend of how a dragon once protected Vietnam. Displaying a panoramic view of nearly 2,000 islets-most of which are limestone-and home to an incredible floating village and to several mystifying caves-the largest of which is the Sung Sot Cave-Ha Long Bay has rightfully earned a spot in 7 New Wonders of Nature.
Tip: Check with the travel agency, an overnight stay package is also available if you feel that one day in paradise is just not enough.
Must-try Foods and Restaurants
Traveling through any country is never enough without going for its gastronomy. Hanoi is famous for its noodles (pho and bun), spring rolls (nem) of all kinds, and banh xeo, savory fried pancakes made of rice flour, water, turmeric powder, stuffed with slivers of fatty pork, shrimp, diced green onion, and bean sprouts. As for desserts, che is the most popular, a treat that resembles our halo-halo, and their popular Celano ice cream bar is a must-try if you’re a fan of Selecta Magnum.
Ngon restaurant is ideal if you love greens and spices. Ngon actually means delicious. Also try Sen restaurant, an eat-all-you-can place that features different dishes from oriental to western cuisine. Kichi-Kichi is also a good eat-all-you-can spot that highlights favorite Asian dishes placed in charming running platform in front of your table. Also try the restaurants or cafes located in the buildings of the Old Quarter area; they will give you a good view of the romantic Hoan Kiem Lake.
When you love shopping clothes just as I do, Hanoi will serve as a haven for you. It has long streets that cater to the shopaholic in you, such as Chua Boc, Ba Trieu, and Pho Hue. The items are really affordable, too. The two famous shopping centers are Vincom and Parksons. Also try the night market at the Old Quarter. But if you are looking for high end shops such as Burberry and Esprit, you may go to the shops located near Hanoi Opera House at Trang Tien Street.
Tip: Don’t ever forget to get yourself (or as pasalubong) a silk scarf, which can be bought in most shops along the streets. Vietnam is actually a silk city and produces one of the world’s best silk products.
Some useful Vietnamese words
As mentioned, Vietnam is not much of an English speaking nation, thus it would help a lot if you knew some words you might use often throughout your trip:
Cam on – Thank you
Bao nhiêu – How much?
Nước – Water
Thẳnggo – Straight
i trái – Go left
i phái – Go right
I wasn’t mistaken when I told myself Hanoi would feel like Cebu. Traveling daily in a cab and observing the motorbike – dominated roads – where even good looking ladies in fancy dresses race with other drivers-and side streets with often small food kiosks with low tables (think of our very own pungko-pungko), I didn’t feel very much away from home. But what made me love the place was its high regard for its traditions and culture and the locals who politely smile as if saying, “I don’t really understand most of what you’re saying, but please do enjoy what we have to offer. ♥