Backpacking from Bangkok, we could have chosen a relatively short and direct path to Hanoi. Instead, we opted for about the longest route you can feasibly do over land in Southeast Asia — taking us from Northern Thailand, all the way down to Ho Chi Minh City via the length of Laos and Cambodia, then traveling the length of Vietnam to Hanoi.
But good things come to those who wait, and we’re quickly discovering that Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, was definitely worth the wait.
|This article is part of a series of previously unfinished, unpublished posts from our 2012 backpacking journey through Vietnam. In April 2019, we’re returning to Hanoi with the kids, so look forward to future posts from Vietnam!|
We’ve been traveling on foot for several hundred miles and a couple of months now. The last flight we took was from Chennai to Bangkok in September. With the clock ticking down to our outbound flight from Shanghai, it was hard to pass up US$40 airline tickets between Danang and Hanoi.
An hour (and 800 km) later, we were in Hanoi! For comparison, it would have cost us the same to take the train — but would have taken 15 hours longer…
Since we had taken a domestic flight, our trip through the Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport was a breeze. We grabbed a taxi at the official taxi rank and made the 45 minute trip to Old Quarter, where our guesthouse awaited.
Hanoi Lucky Guesthouse
Guesthouses in Hanoi’s Old Quarter proper were either booked or more than we were willing to spend. Lucky for us, we came across Hanoi Lucky Guesthouse, a few blocks from the center of the action, and more centrally-located to Hanoi’s biggest attractions than anything deeper into the bustling tangle that is Old Quarter.
It’s always a great feeling to be pleasantly surprised with a US$16 a night room, and Hanoi Lucky Guesthouse fell squarely in this category. Somehow, we even managed to get the best room on site, the fourth-level street facing room with one of the largest balconies we’ve ever had to ourselves in a guesthouse.
The nighttime view of the flats across the street was also a pretty cool bonus. The narrowness and diversity of the buildings seem to define urban living in Hanoi…at least for the moment. There seems to be an awful lot of construction of high-rise apartments and condos happening around the city.
And, when we thought we couldn’t get luckier, they actually brought our included breakfast up to our room so we could sit outside and enjoy our balcony. We didn’t roll out of the guesthouse after breakfast, but it was certainly one of the better free guesthouse breakfasts we’ve had in Southeast Asia.
Our plan at this point is to meander through central Hanoi for the day before catching the night train up to Lao Cai to do some hill trekking and stay with a local family. We’ll pass back through Hanoi briefly before heading out to Halong Bay for a three-day cruise. We’ll then have a few more days in Hanoi to explore the city before making our way to Hong Kong.
The first stop of our visit is Hoan Kiem Lake, the modest yet very central body of water that divides the Old Quarter to the north from the French Quarter to the south.
A Day Around Hoan Kiem Lake
A lot of world cities have lakes, but Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem is one that’s just done right. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a better planned or implemented public space around an urban lake.
It’s mind-blowing how much thought must have gone into planning every square meter of the entire perimeter of Hoan Kiem. Shaded and inviting to all, the green space around the lake also blends nicely with newer construction while complementing the historic landmarks in and around the lake as well.
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A short walk from the lake down Trang Tien brings us to Hanoi’s grand old Opera House, built in 1911.
We check out the National Museum of Vietnamese History where Lori dons a traditional head-worn firewood carrier. Then, back down Trang Tien to L’etage Cafe for a couple of strong midday Vietnamese iced coffees with a nice view of the lake…
…and Uncle Ho.
Can’t go wrong with sweetened condensed milk and jitter-inducing espresso over ice.
There’s a ton to see and do around Hoan Kiem Lake, but Cau The Huc, the bright red bridge leading to Hanoi’s historic Temple of the Jade Mountain, might just be the lake’s most iconic landmark.
Apart from tourists, residents come to the Temple of the Jade Mountain to worship, but also play some hardcore Xiangqi.
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We leave the red bridge and return to Old Town, where we’re greeted by…
…rush hour! Me thinks a good time to find some Bia Hoi.
And what better place than Old Quarter’s “Pub Street”!
Later, we grab some dinner at highly recommended Quan Bia Minh and head to the train station to catch our 8-hour overnight train to Lao Cai. We spend four days in and around Sapa before heading back through Hanoi for a cruise on Halong Bay. A combined seven days later, and we’re back in Hanoi for a few more days of sightseeing.
Ho Chi Minh Museum Complex
Exploring Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake is fun and all, but what visit to Hanoi would be complete without immersing yourself in the life and times of Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam’s revolutionary leader? After all, there’s so much to immerse oneself in!
Perhaps most interesting among the lot is Ho Chi Minh’s stilted former residence. Heavy on nostalgia (and propaganda), it’s everything you’d expect in a museum complex dedicated to Uncle Ho.
Just to the south of Uncle Ho’s Lake is One Pillar Pagoda, also very much worth a look.
Seeing Uncle Ho’s old digs wasn’t good enough for Lori and me. Nope. We felt like we had to meet the man, himself. And, indeed, you can!
A short walk east brings us to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. Uncle Ho may have passed on in 1969, but his body remains preserved in this frightening-looking structure, for all the world to see — provided he’s not away for maintenance, as was the case with Chairman Mao during our visit to Beijing.
Suffice it to say our conversation with Uncle Ho was memorable, if a tad bit one-sided.
On our way back to the Old Quarter, we stopped by the Temple of Literature, which is actually far more eye-catching than the name lets on.
It’s Bia Thirty! Time for to get our Bia Hoi on.
An Em-Bia-sing Story
We had something of an embarrassing mishap related to Bia Hoi (or what we thought was Bia Hoi) during our stay in Hanoi.
For our first several days in Hanoi, we were quite astonished to eye countless locals (mostly older women) drinking what appeared to be Bia Hoi from sunrise onward. Apparently for these women, bia-thirty was any time of day, and they didn’t seem to be shy about it.
Vietnamese iced coffees seemed much more appealing to us at 9am than downing light beer so we continued to abstain from bia consumption until a bit later in the day. That is, until one of our last days in town when our curiosity got the better of us.
Following breakfast at our guesthouse, we passed a handful of women clutching their glasses full of golden goodness and decided it was time to join the party. One of the women produced a couple of small Bia Hoi stools and the ever-present plastic coolers of the local hooch.
Lori and I smiled to the woman as she poured the liquid into our glasses. We thanked her and proceeded to get right down to business. After all, it was already 8:30 in the morning!
Being the less patient of the two of us (certainly when it comes to beer!) I hastily grabbed the glass, raising it about halfway to my lips before releasing an agonizing yelp and nearly dropping the glass and its contents all over myself.
THE LIQUID WAS SCALDING HOT!!!
Right… Tea. Five months in Asia and that hadn’t crossed our minds.
I think what threw us both off was the uncanny resemblance to its delicious and intoxicating counterpart, but also the fact that all these women seem to grab the glass with their entire hand and gulp it as they would an ice-cold beverage like, well, beer! Can you imagine the callouses these women must have on their fingers (not to mention their entire digestive tracts) to accomplish such a feat?
Finally, I leave you with an evening taking in one of Hanoi’s most celebrated art forms…
Water Puppet Theater
There’s something about watching Water Puppet Theater in Hanoi that embodies everything we’ve grown to love about Vietnamese people over the course of our three-weeks traveling through Vietnam.
Words fail me, but watching a water puppet show from beginning to end just about nails it. So…if you’re ever in Hanoi and have the chance to catch some wet and wild puppetry, do it.
The daily shows at Thang Long Theatre might just be the most renowned in Vietnam, and that’s exactly where we went. Make sure you book in advance, and get as close to the stage as possible!
The evening we boarded our train to Lao Cai was a hot and sultry one, a gentle reminder that although it’s nearly December, we’re most certainly still in the tropics. Then, one morning, the seasons seemed to suddenly shift. The temperature dipped dramatically, and an unthreatening fog rolled across the region and lingered for our remaining time in Vietnam.
Initially, our decision to leave Vietnam for Hong Kong at the end of the month was made with a heavy heart. After the weather shifted, however, we knew it was time to get a move on.
We’ve got bus tickets from Hanoi to Nanning, China, where we’ll catch an overnight train to Guangzhou. From there, we’ll make our way by public transportation down to Hong Kong Island for the grand finale of our Asia honeymoon backpacking adventure.