Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam, and the northern counterpoint to the booming metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south. Despite the end of the war and reunification of Vietnam in 1976, there is still a huge divide between the North and South – culturally, politically and economically. The northerners consider the southerners to be superficial and business-obsessed, whilst the southerners view the northerners as being too serious. There is also a big difference in the weather, with Saigon enjoying a tropical 2 season climate (dry and rainy) at a near constant 30 degrees, whilst the temperature in Hanoi drops to 15 degrees in the depths of winter. Hardly Arctic conditions, though you still see the Vietnamese shivering in big coats, hats and gloves!
We spent around 8 days in Hanoi, longer than we have spent almost anywhere else. We had originally planned less time, but decided to stay in a big city for Christmas so that we could keep in touch with family and find some western comforts. With so much time, we were able to explore much of the city on foot and came to know it reasonably well.
We visited most of the main sights; Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, the Flag Tower in the old citadel, Hoa Lo Prison Museum (where American pilot Senator John McCain was imprisoned during the war), Lenin Park and Hoan Kiem lake. All of these were interesting, but our highlight was the newly reopened Women’s Museum. This covered various aspects of women’s role in Vietnamese society, ranging from weddings to war heroics. The most eye opening was a documentary video about the street vendors, many of whom come from rural villages to the city for weeks at a time, selling wares on the street all day and living in squalid conditions to support their families and put their children through school. We certainly saw them in a different light after this, and tried to be more patient when being hassled by vendors on the streets.
Naturally we continued our food odyssey in Hanoi, keen to try the local delicacies. We gave mixed reviews – bun cha (pork patties in soup, with vermicelli noodles and greens on the side) was great, as were the ‘assemble-them-yourself’ spring rolls and the local varieties of bánh mì and pho. At the other end of the scale was corn with lard and dried onions (an accidental order), not good! Hanoi also has its share of local drinks to try, including egg white coffee. This is basically coffee meringue in a glass, and is amazing! We first discovered this in a cafe with a great rooftop view across Hoan Kiem lake. This place is almost impossible to find without inside information – there are no signs outside, you enter through the back of a silk shop ‘speakeasy-style’, and follow a series of rickety staircases to the roof. The other essential Hanoi drinking experience is Bia Hoi; home brew served up for 25p a glass, on miniature plastic tables and chairs in the street. These places are found across the city, and are packed in the evenings – a great spot to watch the world go by.
One evening we were fortunate to bump into a retired French couple, who we had met on our Ha Long Bay boat trip. Neither of them are English speakers, and so it was a great opportunity for us to try out our recently improved French. We went for a coffee together, and it was really interesting to hear their stories, particularly the husband who was Vietnamese by birth but emigrated to France after the war.
As mentioned, we decided to stay in Hanoi over Christmas, which was a really memorable experience. The Vietnamese do celebrate Christmas, though Christmas Eve is the main event rather than Christmas Day. All of the shops and hotels were all decorated with tinsel and trees, and the streets were lit up with festive lights. It was the first time either of us had spent Christmas away from home, and it was a strange feeling to be in a warm country away from family. We remedied this by treating ourselves to a few nights in a posh hotel, eating lots of delicious food and having a great Christmas Day lunch at a swanky western hotel restaurant.
Vietnam has been our favourite country so far in SE Asia – we have had an amazing time here, with so many varied experiences. Admittedly, receiving a visit from my brother and spending Christmas here made it even more special for us.
With the post Christmas blues, we are now preparing for a 30 hour bus journey to Laos. We’ve read some fellow travellers horror stories online (see here and here, admittedly the second one sounds like a bit of an idiot) and are fully prepared for the worst…
See you on the other side!