We caught our first glimpses of Hanoi as we sped through the evening darkness towards our hotel. Immediately I was captivated by the city and its leafy streets stuffed with people, illuminated by street lamps connected by thick ribbons of tangled electrical wires. I watched the towering skyscrapers and colonial houses go by and longed to step into the inviting orange glow of the cafes and explore the snaking laneways. By the time we reached our hotel, Hanoi had already stolen a piece of my heart. Although we spent just six days in the city altogether, Hanoi was without a doubt one of our Vietnam highlights.
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Why we Heart Hanoi
It’s no secret that I love cities in general, but there’s a certain something that sets my favourites – London, Melbourne, Rome – apart from the rest. The appeal comes from a mixture of uniform city features; a central river, large shiny buildings contrasted with old cobbled streets and historical sites, green parks and good restaurants, cinemas and transport links. After nearly four years of living in London and a previous five in Bristol, nothing feels more like home to us than a big city. However, to really capture our hearts, a city also has to have a strong sense of cultural identity and a distinct feel to it; it has to have unique stories and themes running through the veins of its streets, buildings and people.
Hanoi has both the generic features of a big city as well as its own unique personality, which explains why we fell so in love with it. We felt at home exploring the city’s pretty lakes and parks, the familiar modern areas and streets full of restaurants, shops, people and vehicles; a continuous churning river of activity and life. We also found that Hanoi had a special, unique heart to it, comprised from a mix of Asian and more specific Vietnamese features; massage parlours, street food eaten on clusters of tiny stools, majestic pagodas and creaking cyclos, traditional water puppet shows and a sea of motorbikes. Part of Hanoi’s unique personality is also derived from its French colonial history, which is visible in the architecture of the old quarter and St Joesph’s cathedral.
Things to do in Hanoi
A combination of feeling energised by the city and having just spent a month in slow-paced Laos sent us sightseeing crazy while we were in Hanoi and we experienced our first taste of Vietnamese culture in water puppet shows, museums and historical buildings. We whizzed around the main Hanoi attractions with a fervour not seen since the first months of our trip; in particular we spent a lot of our time exploring museums in Hanoi, which counted as the best we’d experienced since leaving New Zealand and Australia. Amazingly, all this cost us very little, as you can see below – here’s what we got up to during our stay in the city:
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum – it might seem a bit of a morbid outing but I think visiting the Mausoleum is a must; it helps you understand just how much Uncle Ho is loved and revered in Vietnam. Visit early as the mausoleum is only open between 8am and 11am Tuesday to Thursday; dress modestly and be prepared to surrender cameras and mobile phones when entering. Strict soldiers guard the site and you’re expected to maintain silence and act respectfully while viewing Ho Chi Minh’s body.
Women’s Museum – this was my favourite museum in Hanoi and I could have spent all day there. There are whole floors dedicated to different aspects of women’s lives; marriage and birth, work and street selling, festivals and beliefs and the most interesting; women communist fighters. We learnt all about how women played a massive role in the American War. Many women, some just teenagers, took active combat roles; I was particularly struck by the story of a 14-year-old who was executed by the French. If you only go to one museum in Hanoi, make it this one.
Cost: 30,000 VND, (£0.87) per person.
Presidential Palace Complex – the complex is worth a visit, especially since it’s located right next door to the mausoleum. We were impressed by the picturesque yellow Presidential Palace. You can walk around the serene grounds, see the mango-tree lined path where Ho Chi Minh did his morning exercises, view his famous wooden house on stilts and catch a glimpse of the Pillar Pagoda.
Cost: 25,000 Vietnamese Dong (VND), (£0.72) per person.
Ho Chi Minh Museum – it may have been the most bizarre museum we visited in the whole of Vietnam but it was also pretty memorable. The second floor of the building is pretty standard; filled with photos of Ho Chi Minh and some communist party history. The third floor however is the real treat, showcasing abstract art representations of Ho Chi Minh’s life and work; including all kinds of sculptures and interactive displays.
Cost: 25,000 VND, (£0.72) per person.
Hoa Lo Prison Museum – we got our first taste of Vietnamese war history at this excellent museum. The Hoa Lo prison was first used by the French to incarcerate Vietnamese communist fighters but was later used to hold American soldiers and pilots, including John McCane. The museum offers pretty harrowing descriptions of what life in the prison was like, including the torture methods routinely used and cramped cells where death-row prisoners were held. While we heard much in the museum about the ‘American puppet government’ and ill treatment by French colonialists, there was a whole room filled with videos and photos describing how well the Vietnamese treated their American prisoners, which definitely stank of propaganda.
Cost: 20,000 VND, (£0.58) per person.
Water Puppet Show – we squeezed into the central theatre to watch an hour-long performance of this traditional Vietnamese form of entertainment. Puppeteers manipulate models of people and animals on a stage of water; the performances are set to music and tell traditional Vietnamese folk laws and tales.
Cost: 60,000 VND, (£1.75) per person.
Literature Temple – the temple rests at the site of Vietnam’s first University and displays some beautiful architecture; there’s not much to the temple but the surrounding gardens are nice to stroll through.
Cost: 20,000 VND, (£0.58) per person.
Army Museum – this was the only attraction I probably wouldn’t recommend in Hanoi; it’s a bit old and run-down, consisting mainly of war weapons, tanks, planes and maps. The museum is hard to make sense of if you don’t read Vietnamese as there aren’t many English translations; the War Remnants museum in Ho Chi Minh City was ten times better.
Cost: 40,000 VND, (£1.16) per person.
Where to Stay in Hanoi
We don’t often promote hotels or guesthouses on our blog but if you’re visiting Hanoi we highly recommend staying at Hanoi Posh Hotel – just to be clear, we’re not affiliated with Posh in any way, we just loved our stay there. From the moment we arrived at Posh, staff leapt out to grab our bags and from then on were keen to help, giving us extensive directions, tips and recommendations. They went above and beyond to negotiate a partial refund for us from a travel company after we had a bad experience on our Halong Bay cruise and they drove us to the train station and walked us right into our sleeper carriage when we left at no extra charge.
In addition to this, Posh is located in the picturesque old quarter near Hoan Kiem lake and is within walking distance to many of the main sights. Our room felt like luxury to us (especially after a month in Laos), it was spotlessly clean with a big comfy bed, fridge and TV – there was even a tub and hairdryer so I was able to have a bath and blow-dry my hair for the first time in nine months! One of the best things about Posh was that it only cost us £8.50 per night and included a great breakfast of fruit, toast, tea and coffee as well as either pancakes, eggs or muesli. When we return to Hanoi one day we’ll definitely be checking into Posh again.
Have you been to Hanoi; did you love it as much as we did?