I arrived in Hanoi to a great weekend buzz. I actually ended up using the capital as a base to go in and out on other visits over a week or so, but I really liked it as a destination in itself.
At the weekend the city has a nice vibe to it. Some of the roads in the Old Quarter (the ancient area of the city, with some old Chinese influence and French colonial builds) are pedestrianised, with restaurants, bars and live music spilling out onto the streets. The night I arrived, I went out for some food, and ate in one of the main streets to soak up the atmosphere.
In the morning, I went up to the rooftop cafe in my hostel for my breakfast – and ran into the English couple I’d been with in Hoi An and Phong Nha. Not having decided where to stay they followed me to my hostel which was fun, so I had some friends! After some food we headed out on the free walking tour the Central Backpackers hostel puts on every day, showing us round the Old Quarter of the city. We were shown around some temples and the cathedral, plus statues of key figures in Vietnamese history. We stopped off for a traditional Vietnamese egg coffee (less gross than it sounds; it’s a whipped egg white topping that tastes like marshmallow fluff) and wandered around the main lake, Hoan Kiem. As well as the evening pedestrianised zones, they also close off to traffic the streets around the lake at weekends, for families to have picnics, do karaoke, kids to play etc. The city had a really nice buzz to it of the populace going about their weekend traditions – if you can swing it so your visit spans a weekend, it’d be worth it. The most amusing of the general lakeside entertainment going on was a man playing the flute with his nose, which really gave me the giggles.
After our walk and picking up a pork banh mi for lunch, we went to our first museum. There are many a museum in Hanoi if you’re so inclined (on war, revolution, the military, Ho Chi Minh, women, and ethnology to name a few), most of which come highly recommended. I didn’t have time to do them all, but picked a couple which interested me the most and did a bit of a museum crawl – most are in or very close to the Old Quarter so are walkable over a day or two depending on how many you want to visit.
We started with the Vietnamese Women’s Museum. It was an interesting visit, focusing on the role of Vietnamese women in society in different tribes/peoples through birth, marriage, work and war. Women are still expected to play quite traditional household and family roles, but are also often under pressure to make a living as a street vendor due to low incomes. There were also a number of women’s organisations in the Vietnamese struggle for independence, and some women’s units in the war with America. The museum was well done, with insights into different communities and the development of perspectives on women in the region through time.
We walked back to the hostel and had a cocktail (mocktail for me, of course) in the sky bar before we went and grabbed another good DIY bbq dinner.
On my other full day in Hanoi, sandwiched between Ha Long Bay and Sapa visits, I strolled up to the Ho Ch Minh mausoleum, where his body still lies. I didn’t get to go in as annoyingly, museums close for 2-3 hours over lunch (bear this in mind and look up opening hours when planning your visits!), so I just walked past and experienced the outside view. It’s quite a weird grey, boxy, Soviet-looking building, I suppose suited to a Communist idol! I then headed for Hoa Lo, a French colonial prison-turned museum. It wasn’t quite as harrowing in its photographic material as S21 in Cambodia or the War Museum in Saigon, but it was still quite a lot to take in – particularly the guillotine which was used as recently as the 1940s, and the tiny sections of sewer some prisoners used to escape the place. It was another experience that helped contextualise my visit to the country a little, so I’d recommend going to a museum or two to enhance your understanding of the culture around you.
Aside from museums, Hanoi has great food, nightlife and a nice café culture. Still banned from drinking I didn’t explore the neon delights that ‘beer street’ has to offer, but many of the hostels offer bar crawls which will take you there if you want to join a group. Food wise, head to Hàng Buôm street for some varied menus or ‘food street’, a little alley between Hàng Mã street and the main market, which has cheap and delicious local grub (during the day only). Apparently this is the only street in the Old Quarter which won’t charge you more for being a tourist!
As my last stop in Vietnam, the capital was good fun and rounded off my second country nicely. Next stop, somewhere also with French colonial history, but less developed and a little more rugged: Laos.
Until next time,
Number of strangers I’ve spoken to today: 7, including an older British guy from my grandparents’ town. He was a little on the strange side, but I was warming up to him for this reason, until he told me he thought it was incredibly weird that I had painted my toenails purple and left my fingernails unpainted. The two Argentinians in the room I’d been speaking to previously were having a good giggle in the corner whilst I tried to maintain a straight face.
Interaction was: unexpectedly intense. Who’d have thought I could have caused such offence with my nail polish habits?
One Woman and her Backpack x
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