Making the most of our proximity to South East Asia (until we can), we visited Hanoi – a 1000 year old city in Vietnam rich in history. French, Chinese and South East Asian influences are some of the several facets all running parallel to one another in this city that feels modern at one point, colonial at another turn and very much Asian overall.
The city is essentially made up of two quarters – the Old Quarter – with its chaotic traffic, roadside pho stalls that are a constant sight with its colorful plastic stools and shops overflowing with Vietnamese embroidery to lacquerware artifacts. On the other side of town lies the very distinct French Quarter – with its gorgeous architecture, high end hotels and relics from the French era – charming boutique shops and restaurants. The two quarters are so visually distinct and yet in close proximity of a few kilometers.
The Old Quarter
We chose to stay in the Old Quarter – in the thick of action. It is a labyrinth of small roads and alleys, dotted with very narrow and tall buildings – which I was told is a very Vietnamese way of construction. Even on the countryside, one would find buildings that are very narrow, with several stacked floors, even though they have the luxury of space. It is very much the similar to Delhi’s Malviya Nagar, Mukherjee Nagar etc. In many places it reminded me of Old Delhi too.
Staying in old quarter helps navigate easily to a lot of attractions, eateries as well as shopping. One of the key attractions in the Old quarter is the Hoàn Kiếm Lake and the Ngoc Son Temple sitting amidst the lake on a tiny island. Built in the 18th century, the temple is connected to the island by that famous red bridge – one of the most photographed attractions in Hanoi. The legend is that in the 15th century, King Le after a battle returned a precious sword to the genius tortoise in the lake and people still do believe that the sacred sword is buried somewhere at the bottom of the lake! The distant tower in the middle of the lake is also known as the tortoise tower.
Entry fee is VND 30,000 per person.
The other attraction is the St. Joseph’s Cathedral – a church built in 1886 and located on Nha Chung (Church) Street in the Hoàn Kiếm District. It is one of the first structures built by the French colonial government in Indochina!
Entry is free.
Another key tourist activity is to watch the Water Puppet Show which is located next to the Hoàn Kiếm Lake. It can be easily found. The show narrates a story of the lake and the legend of the golden turtle. It is quite a decent show. However, the only problem is the entire program is in Vietnamese language. So maybe it can be given a miss. Although children may find it quite interesting.
There are many shows and the duration is about 50 minutes and the tickets range from VND100,000 to VND 200,000 which is about USD 10 – 12.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Hanoi is also home to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where the embalmed remains of the great leader is preserved. The massive granite structure is next to the Ba Dinh Square – where President Ho declared the independence of Vietnam on September 2, 1945. The Mausoleum is closed on Fridays. Please check the opening hours before visiting. Visitors are expected to be quiet and show respect when inside the mausoleum.
Entry is free.
The complex also houses the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the One Pillar Pagoda.
Entrance fee for the Museum: VND 20,000.
This entire complex is very stroller friendly.
Temple of Literature
Temple of literature is not a religious place, rather it is a university built in 1070. The complex has five courtyards, gardens, a pond as well as the Well of Heavenly Clarity! From statute of Confucius to large drum and bell tower, the temple of literature shows how different dynasties and scholars have added to the university. The complex is very well maintained and clean. You can expect to spend about an hour here if you leisurely walk.
There are two types of tickets – standard and audio. I would highly recommend to take the audio tour so you can understand the history behind the temple. Ticket price: Adult ticket price is VND 30,000 and Audio tour would charge an additional – VND 50,000
Since it is a very old complex, it is not stroller friendly, so you need to carry your strollers in certain sections.
The charming and elegant French Quarter in Hanoi clearly has a rich French influence, especially its architecture. As we rode on our rickshaw from Old Quarter to the French Quarter, the crowd began to thin out and the ramped alleys gave way to wider roads. The architecture also significantly changed to more colonial French buildings – we passed by several foreign embassies, government buildings, luxury hotels, the Hanoi Opera house, beautiful boutique shops and restaurants. One can also stroll around the area for a better feel. Roads are much wider compared to the old quarter and there are pedestrian pavements which was quite convenient since we were with an active toddler.
Whoever has visited Hanoi would definitely mention at least a bit about the traffic! The notorious traffic literally doesn’t stop and it’s never ending too. Yet people manage to cross roads. How? Well you just figure out. If you have to cross roads here – which you have to – there is only one way – just keep walking. Show your intent that you really want to cross and just keep moving until you reach the other side! I was amazed by how the traffic doesn’t stop nor does the people who are crossing the roads. There is perfect coordination and harmony. Plus no honking! And of course my Indian road crossing skills came really handy here.
Well that’s all for now, and as usual some tips and observations from my Hanoi holiday:
- Currency can be confusing! Since the denomination can go up to VND 500,000! Here’s an example: a bottle of water comes for VND 15000! Well that is just about SGD1 / INR 50/ or about USD 0.70 cents. While a good dinner can cost upwards of VND 1,00,0000! When you convert to VND you end up being a millionaire and spend in millions too! Tip: Convert your money in advance, but be wary of getting confused with the denominations.
- USD is accepted: If you have US dollars bring them as a lot of places do accept USD.
- Vietnam Visa – I personally felt this is a real scam! If you are from one of those countries that require a visa to enter Vietnam, first you need to get a Visa approval letter online through an agency costing about USD 18 (there are many agencies making it more confusing). Once you get it you can now land in Vietnam and then pay another USD 25 for the actual visa on approval. It is a total rip off.
- Transport: I would highly recommend using Grab. This app works well in Hanoi like most other SE Asia. Plus, taxis are very affordable.
- Weather: Hanoi can be a bit cold during winters. You need to carry light woolens. Check weather forecast before you travel.
- Drink bottled water only. Tap water is not safe to drink, bottled water is the only safe option.