City Guide: Hanoi

Hanoi is the craziest city I’ve ever stepped foot in. I consider myself a relatively well-traveled person but this city gave me instant culture shock in the best way possible. The only way I can explain my time in Hanoi is with the term ‘sensory overload’ because everything I saw and smelled and heard and tasted was like nothing I had experienced before.

 

SEE

SEE the Old Quarter via cyclo

A cyclo is a bicycle rickshaw that gives you an inexpensive tour of the city. It’s a great way to experience all of the crowded streets. The slower pace allows you to sit back, relax and really take in the colourful surroundings. Crossing streets and even just walking in Hanoi can be pretty hectic, so a cyclo ride allows you to notice details you may have missed while dodging traffic on foot. Being in the midst of hundreds of motorcycles makes the ride that much more entertaining. Don’t be alarmed if you see families of four all squeezed onto one bike, it’s a pretty regular occurrence here.

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SEE the streets that are dedicated to a single product. Some highlights are ‘shoe street’ ‘silk street’ and ‘banner street’. Everyone is selling something in Hanoi.

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SEE the social centre of Hanoi: Hoan Kiem Lake

This lake (also known as the Lake of the Restored Sword) has close ties to the Vietnamese legend of Le Loi. The area is especially beautiful around sunset and many Vietnamese people can be seen socializing, exercising or playing Jianzi, a type of hacky sack.

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SEE Ngoc Ha

Ngoc Ha is also known as the Flower Village where a large flower market is held each morning. The market closes at 10am so make sure to get there early. This beautiful location surrounds a small square pond that houses the wreckage of an American B-52 plane that was shot down during a Christmas bombing in 1972. Take advantage of exploring the side streets and markets around this area. These markets have fewer tourists and feel more authentic and local.

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SEE Hoa Lo Prison

This destination should not be skipped. There is so much history and heartbreak within the walls of this prison museum. And especially with a city like Hanoi, it’s important to acknowledge the past. The building was built by the French in the 1880s and its first prisoners were Vietnamese Revolutionaries. Later in the Vietnam War–or the American War as referred to by the Vietnamese–it was used to hold American POWs.

SEE the Hanoi Night Market

The night market takes place every Friday and Saturday in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. Take your time browsing the vibrant stalls.

SEE the Presidential Palace

The architecture at the Presidential Palace and all of the surrounding government buildings is pretty incredible. The grounds are easy to navigate and while strolling around there are many things to happen upon, for example, a traditional stilt house which belonged to Ho Chi Minh. I recommend hiring a guide for the day to explain the history of the Vietnamese communist government.

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SEE temples and historic buildings such as the Tran Quoc Pagoda, the One Pillar Pagoda, the Temple of Literature and the Bach Ma Temple.

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EAT

EAT Nom Bo Kho (papaya salad with fried beef) at Thanh Hai and take a seat with the locals on small plastic stools.

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EAT local delicacies on Ta Hien Street. Here, the dish of choice is Chim Cau Nuong (or grilled pigeon). If you’re feeling adventurous, order this and watch as your bird gets served, head still intact.

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EAT and drink at Café Pho Co. This is a beautiful spot to relax and escape the heat down on the city streets. The restaurant has winding stairs up to a balcony with tables and chairs where you have a beautiful view of Hoan Kiem Lake and nice cooling breezes. We came here to sample traditional egg coffee which is a dessert-like drink in Vietnam.

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EAT at Quan An Ngon restaurant. At noontime there is a great buzzing energy due to the fact that a lot of the business crowd comes here for lunch. The restaurant is basically comprised of a large central outdoor courtyard which is framed along the sides with little food stalls. There is also lots of indoor dining space. The premise of this restaurant is that you are eating an amazing selection of delicious street food but also have the convenience of a menu and table service.

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In the short time I spent in Hanoi, I learned so much about the city’s energy, people, food and history. It’s the type of place that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Eating in Hanoi was definitely something I had to get used to. There is no waste there when it comes to food. Everything that you order should be eaten. It’s disrespectful to leave anything behind. However, although many of the residents of Hanoi live in urban poverty, food is not just about survival… food is also about fun. That was something that was often stressed when we went out with locals. Eating is a very social activity and dishes like pigeon or foods that are super spicy are consumed for fun as well as flavour.

The Vietnamese eat very low to the ground on tiny plastic stools so that their knees are up nearer to their chests. Crouching is a typical Vietnamese pose and one that most are very comfortable in. Many people from rural areas grew up crouching while they ate. Our guide said that he could crouch comfortably for hours on end.

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Many store or restaurant owners in the city centre wash their cutlery and plates in the street over the drains. When I asked our guide about health inspectors he laughed. Be adventurous, immerse yourself in the culture, but know that upset stomachs are pretty likely. Bring some sort of medication for that–you’ll be glad you did!

The markets sell everything from fruit to meat to seafood. The local people don’t buy from big supermarkets. One of the locals told us that he wakes up at around 4am to kill a pig and drive into the city. Here he sets up his meat at the outdoor market where he rents a concrete slab to call his shop front. The meat gets cheaper as the day wears on and it sits out in the heat. Be prepared for the smells (not all good) that come from the local markets.

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There is a lot of obvious poverty in Hanoi but there is hardly any begging. In fact, I saw none of it while I was there. Our guide explained that everyone has food to eat and the Vietnamese people are some of the most generous I’ve met. Even the stray cats and dogs that filled the streets were all being fed. Everyone helps each other out, and in a city of over 7 million, the sense of community is greater than many small towns in North America. Despite the poverty and the many rules in place due to communist rule, I got the sense that the population seemed mostly happy. Of course… as travelers we only get a glimpse into the lives of the people who inhabit the places we visit. But the Vietnamese were some of the kindest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met.

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Everyone has their work to do in Hanoi but there is also a lot of free time. Some people don’t work every day. We came across a group of men who were sitting in one of the side streets. They invited us and our guide in to talk with them and relax and smoke (if we wanted). Every local that we interacted with was very approachable.

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A big thing that we noticed in Vietnam is the importance of age and how that is connected to respect. It’s one of the first things a person in Vietnam will ask so that they know how to communicate with you and conduct a conversation. They have different ways of greeting a person based on gender, age etc. Respecting your elders and ancestors is super important in Vietnam. Our guide explained that usually in Vietnam everyone lives under the same roof (the grandparents, parents, children etc.) and if the child wanted to do something or go somewhere he would ask his grandparents first, then move on to his parents etc. There is a chain of command.

In Vietnam karaoke is one of the ultimate pastimes. There are karaoke bars EVERYWHERE in Hanoi and our guide told us that most houses will even have their own karaoke machine. If you have time to go to a karaoke bar in Hanoi, you’ll be seeing what the locals truly do to relax and have fun.

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  • Be alert at all times when crossing the street. The driving is crazy.  After the streets of Rome and Cairo I thought I’d experienced my fair share of scary driving but Hanoi is on a different level. There are motorcycles and trucks weaving in and out of each other and overtaking constantly and the pedestrian crossings are non-existent. You just have to be smart about crossing the roads. Although you may want to dart across, it is actually safer to walk slowly. Motorcycles will know your pace and be able to weave around you. Our Vietnamese tour guide told us that the road laws in Vietnam are “for decoration” and that nobody pays attention to them. Families of four or five squeeze onto one motorbike and toddlers cling to their moms as they zoom past. It’s a different world and it’s exciting and entertaining but also a little dangerous. Make sure that you are always paying attention.

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  • Be wary of ice. We were told by our guides never to drink the ice anywhere unless there were signs saying that the ice was made with filtered water. A lot of the ice in Vietnam is made from tap water and this has the potential to make you very sick, especially if you are not used to it. My tip would be not to risk it and order your drinks without ice.
  • One busy tourist attraction in Hanoi was a Water Puppet Show. If you’re only in Hanoi for a short amount of time, my advice is to skip this one. It was a bunch of tourists stuck in a small theatre room with no AC, and although the performers were talented, I would have rather spent that time out exploring the streets.
  • Below is a helpful money guide that we used.

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For more pictures of my trip to Vietnam click here.

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