I really enjoyed walking around the Old Quarter of Hanoi. For me it had a totally different feel to other Asian cities at least in the heritage area. Small streets, old trees, busy but not too busy, tall narrow European style buildings and with the familiar yet so very unfamiliar Vietnamese use of the Roman alphabet.
Hanoi was my first of only two stops in Vietnam. I arrived in the morning from Indonesia and my hostel organised a cab ride to avoid any dramas. I stayed at Central Backpackers in the Old Quarter (USD$5 for 8 bed dorms and USD$15 for airport pickup) a few nights here and there. With next to no sleep I headed off to explore the city which seems to be a bit of a common theme for me now.
I couchsurfed in Hanoi too and through that I also made friends with a few very kind locals who showed me around the city on their motorbikes. Given that the Vietnamese language is so difficult to pronounce for an English speaker (nothing sounds like you’d expect it to) it was great to learn a few phrases, find all the good eateries and learn about their lives.
Talking with my hosts showed me how hard Vietnamese people work, it taught me about the pressures that they live under and the conflicts that their people have endured. Why is it that the less fortunate people who don’t have the luxuries of our stable western countries are always the most kind and generous ones? I’ve never had to fight so hard to pay the bill!
People here appreciate what they have so much more than many Australians I know and probably more than most of the tourists too! In any case, I really enjoyed the moments we shared and I hope I can repay the favour to these new friends someday.
What to Eat
Because it’s always more fun to start here. I have to say that I probably wasn’t all that adventurous because I didn’t try snake, dog (can’t eat man’s best friend) or snails.
A classic Vietnamese dish is the crab and grilled pork roll called Bún Chả. You’ll find an authentic one at Quán Bún Chả Hàng Mành (1 Hàng Mành) in the Old Quarter.
Hoa Quả Kem
Nothing is as refreshing in the hot May weather than a hoa quả kem (ice cream with fruit) at Tô Tịch. Tâm took me to Sinh Tố Hoa Béo (17 Tô Tịch) where we got one for just 30,000VND. It was so good that I came back the next day and got a custard milkshake for just 30,000VND from another shop just across the laneway.
Egg Coffee and Yogurt Coffee
Apparently, the Vietnamese way to drink coffee is with egg (ca phẽ trung) and there’s another variation with yogurt (sua chua ca phẽ). I went to Cà Phê Đinh (13 Đinh Tiên Hoàng) near Hoàn Kiếm lake a couple of times.
Many young Vietnamese frequent this place which has a nice balcony and a view of the lake. I quite liked the coffee and egg combo, but I’d only describe coffee and yogurt as drinkable (15,000VND each). My number 1 is still Melbourne coffee!
What Vietnamese eating experience would be complete without some phở. Rare beef noodle soup (phở bò tai) goes for just 45,000VND (chin is the cooked variety). You can also add a deep fried bread called quẩy which is a little bit like a donut. Dip and enjoy!
You can also get a dry variety called phở trộn for just 30,000VND which is also really good. With this kind of staple food I think you’ll pretty much be happy with the quality everywhere, but we went to Pho Gia Tunyin (49 Bat Dan).
Lola and I had this for breakfast before I headed off to Ha Long Bay. I think it’s a noodle soup with a crab or shrimp base with tomato. I could be wrong though!
Joma Bakery Coffee
If you’re missing some western comforts or maybe just want some aircon and WiFi you can head to Joma Bakery Coffee (22 Lý Quốc Sư). I rate the coffee here, but just watch out for the shoe scammer who hangs around out the front. He was there every time I went past and tries to gesture that your shoe is broken.
What he actually wants to do is put this little bottle of solvent on your shoe to actually ruin them and then get you to pay him to fix it. He was quite annoyed when I told him to sod off in all sorts of polite ways.
Trà Chanh and Sunflower Seeds
Young Vietnamese people can be seen all over the Old Quarter drinking lemon ice tea (trà chanh) and eating sunflower seeds.
Yến and I grabbed some for 15,000VND along Lý Quốc Sư next to St Joseph’s Cathedral. I have to say I have no skills for opening the seeds with my teeth.
You can also enjoy some along Nguyễn Đình Thi at Tây Hồ (West Lake) with some cheap drinks.
We also grabbed some cơm sườn (grilled pork ribs with pickled veges) and sữa ngô (corn milk) at Nhà hàng Cơm Sườn (47 Đào Duy Từ).
The same shop also sells a hot pot rice and with beef but I have forgotten what it was called. Both were tasty, but I’d have to say I prefer the hot pot which came with some kim chi like vegetables. Prices between 40,000-65,000VND.
Things to See
Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword)
The first stop was Cầu Thê Húc bridge and Ngoc Son Temple at Hoàn Kiếm lake. Together they are a very popular tourist spot and apparently a good place to meet people.
The legend of the lake is that a god from the lake gave the Vietnamese a sword to fight against the Chinese. After the battle was won, the sword was returned to the lake, hence the name. The lake is a popular spot for locals to hang out and it is good for a walk at night.
The Old Quarter
I really like the architecture and the character that decades of use, changing hands and changing purposes adds to the buildings of the Old Quarter. Old trees line the streets and tangle themselves amongst the power lines.
Funnily, I took a photo of this building near the lake, that ended up being the cafe that Tâm took me to later that afternoon.
The Hanoi Ceramic Road
Given that it’s 4km long, and according to Guinness World Records, the largest ceramic mural in the world, it’s probably best viewed from a moving vehicle. I got to see it while touring the city by motorbike. The mural runs along the main road that runs parallel to the river east of Hoàn Kiếm lake.
Tây Hồ (West Lake)
Hoàn Kiếm lake has a bigger brother Tây Hồ (West Lake). West Lake is a place for riverside restaurants and bars. I only really stopped here for some drinks and sunflower seeds by the lake, but you can also see the famous pagoda Chùa Trấn Quốc. Dress code at the places around the lake is a little bit more fancy than the requirements in the Old Quarter so just be prepared for that.
Museums and Monuments
Being the capital and a place rich with history, Hanoi has many museums and monuments. Though I can only say I visited Maison Centrale (30,000VND entry) to learn about the history of the French occupation of Hanoi and the imprisonment of American soldiers during the Vietnam War. Reality may have been a little skewed here, but it was worth seeing the other side of the story at least.
I also wanted to check out the Museum of Vietnamese History and the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution, but in the end I didn’t get it done.
A tourist map from your accommodation will help you find them all, but some of them like Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the Lenin Monument, the Vietnam Fine Arts Museum and the Temple of Literature (one of the oldest buildings in Hanoi) are a bit further out from the Old Quarter.
Chợ Đồng Xuân Markets
The markets are not far from the centre of the Old Quarter and the surrounding streets are also packed with interesting shops and sellers.
There are loads of places around the Old Quarter, but you’ll find them most concentrated and the most packed along Tạ Hiện. Cabs afterwards around the Old Quarter shouldn’t really cost more than 30,000VND so haggle, but play fair if it’s late.