The first stop on our Vietnamese adventure – and what an introduction to Vietnam! Its true what they say about the traffic – I have never seen so may bikes in my life (with cars being horrendously expensive to import they are definitely a minority) but more importantly, and unlike cars, when crossing the road the bikes/scooters will go around you – put your hand out to the side facing traffic and walk confidently across the road. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but is actually quite safe.
We stayed in the old part of the city, a 10 minute stroll from the Hoan Kiem lake and loved wandering around the skinny roads, sampling the many cafes and exploring. It was also a great base for the many museums Hanoi had to offer and some beautiful temples. One thing that was a little bit of a culture shock was somewhat pushy nature of shopkeepers/restauranteurs. They can be persistent… but they mean no harm, and its something we quickly learnt to accept.
Where we stayed
Overall, everything was pretty good: good location, within walking distance of everything, free map from reception, ample and varied breakfast, multiple wifi routers (one for each level) so that if one failed you could access one of the others, large LCD TV in the room, fridge, hair dryer, safe (did not have batteries), kettle and (for the most part) good A/C.
As mentioned above, Hanoi in particular, but is most places in Vietnam, the local are pushy – and the hotel staff are no exception. When you spend the majority if your time in Hanoi saying ‘no thanks’ to people as you’re walking round to have to continue when in the hotel can (and did) become annoying. Additionally, the hotel was a little on the noisy side – staff & guests – but this could be the same in all hotels.
But, on the whole good. If they could back off the selling (I know it’s all a part of Vietnam but…) this place would be outstanding.
Where we ate
Small cafe’s are king! With unlimited options for Pho, look for where the locals eat and don’t be afraid of the small stools on the floor setup. We did sample some recommended restaurants with varying degrees of success:
New Day Restaurant OK, but not Great”
We went to Newday on our first night as recommended by our hotel. The place was packed as we arrived, which is always a good sign, but we were assured there was space and led into the back room and seated on a table for two with one single traveller. As a couple we felt a bit awkward but put it down to the Vietnamese way… We later thought that they had presumed we were a group as we arrived at the same time and the single girl had spring rolls and left. As she was paying the waitress made a joke about her not being able to afford a full meal which I thought was extremely rude and in poor taste.
The menu had quite a few dishes to choose from and it all looked promising but we were disappointed with the portion size as the dishes arrived and were only given a small bowl of rice to share – the waitress said she would top it up if we needed, but never did.
The food was quite pricey, and even though in Vietnam you seem to pay extra to see a menu in English and eat in nicer surroundings we didn’t feel the food or restaurant lived up to the price tag.
The chef may have had a bad night (even though we did order vietnamese) and I suppose our uncomfortable seating arrangement didn’t contribute well to our meal, but even still, the whole thing, price, surroundings and food was just OK and nothing special.
Pho 10 – Good Pho but not the best
Having read this was the best place in town for Pho we decided to give it a try, and although it was good, it could have been better.
The broth was amazing, and although I’m not too big a fan of beef, I did enjoy it. What I was slightly unimpressed with were the condiments: the chili was whipped away within a minute of the pho being put down, the lime arrived on a very dirty plate and there were no bean sprouts to be seen.
On top of that the table didn’t look like it had been wiped since the shop opened that morning, and it’s the little things like that that make the difference. I’m not expecting pristine cleanliness but even the street vendors wipe their tables and wash their plates.
It was 35,000 vnd for the cheapest 4 options from their 10 item menu (all beef variations) up to 50,000 – 60,000 vnd for other items. I’m glad we went to try it, but I’d stick with street vendors.
LadyBird Restaurant – Amazing food at great prices
We had been wandering around the old quater for some time looking for Cha Ca (Vietnamese Fish with Turmeric & Dill) and had originally gone to the restaurant that was named after it, but thought at 170,000 vnd it was overpriced for its location and surroundings. After (quite a bit) more walking and feeling exhausted we happened upon the Ladybird Restaurant quite by accident – but what a find.
Great range of menu choices both Vietnamese and western (if you’re hankering for something a bit more like home) but quite frankly there were so many Vietnamese dishes that looked and sounded amazing that we didn’t even get to the western section of the menu.
All dishes ranged between 35,000 – 70,000 vnd and were generous portions served with steamed rice.
Big bottles of beer and soft drinks were both 15,000 vnd.
The waitress was a bit pushy asking us to order appetisers and extra drinks, and seemed quite angry when we didn’t want anything, but we were used to the ‘upsell’ after being in Hanoi for 4 days.
However, nothing could detract from the food, it looked amazing and tasted even better. I’d go as far as saying it was one of my favourite meals in Vietnam.
Highly recommend the Ladybird Restaurant and wish we had found it sooner on our trip.
Related: Vietnam is a fascinating country – check out these Interesting Facts about Vietnam to learn more!
What we did
Staying in the Old Quater, it was hard for us to miss the hustle and bustle of the square kilometer space that is the heart of Hanoi that has been wonderfully preserved over the years. The streets are small – and sometimes themed/named after the industries that occupied them in a bygone time – think jewellery street, cotton street, herb street etc. Most have been replaced with modern commercial shops and there is a wonderful mix of old and new ranging from a store dedicated to silk, next to a store dedicated to lights and lanterns (very pretty) next to a (bizarre) shop dedicated to giant teddy bears. Wander around and soak it all in.
Temple of Literature – One of the better temples in Hanoi
Founded in 1070, the Temple of Literature is the home of Vietnam’s first university and well worth a visit. Wander around beautiful gardens, courtyards and pools with multiple temple buildings, pagodas and walkways.
We particularly enjoyed the bell and drum towers at the very back of the complex.
Water Puppet Theater – Interesting but glad we didn’t pay for first class seats
I enjoyed watching this traditional Vietnamese form of entertainment, originally performed by farmers to entertain themselves when the rice paddies flooded.
The puppets were quite primitive and the movement on the water a skill to perform but nothing special to watch; for me it was more about being a part of a cultural experience enjoyed by the Vietnamese. The traditional musical instruments were interesting to watch, but a lot of the singing was lost on me.
I did find the small pamphlet next to the door as you went into the theater quite helpful for identifying the different performances, and was available in multiple languages.
Finally, the theater itself and seating space is small – it was not built for westerners but worth putting up with for 30 mins or so.
Tickets were 100,000 vnd for 1st class (nearer the front) and 60,000 vnd (nearer the back) but I’m not sure where the split in the rows is made. We were sat on the back row and didn’t feel it detracted from the performance at all.
One Pillar Pagoda – worth a pic if you’re in the area
As the original had been destroyed (the original was built between 1028 and 1054 – but it had been destroyed and rebuilt several time, most recently in 1955) it felt a little less authentic. As the symbol for Hanoi, It is worth a quick picture between the palace and the museum with some nice shaded seating areas if you arrive during lunch break.
Old City Gate
OK, so the gates have lasted through much conflict and that in itself is a reason to walk past, but not a reason to linger.
Enjoy the markets around and avoid the traffic!
West Lake – lovey view
Great views over the water and pleasant walkways around the outside, however we were disturbed to see many dead fish floating on the surface near the edges.
Through further research we discovered the government blamed villagers upstream for dumping rubbish into the water which poisoned the fish – this didn’t seem to bother many local people who were fishing and casting their lines amongst the dead fish though!
Such pollution and it’s consequences took a bit of the shine off the natural beauty of the lake.
Chua Tran Quoc – Beautiful Pagoda
There are signs in English explaining the pagodas history, and is a great place to watch locals and tourists alike as they make their way around the grounds.
Also, great views of the (West) lake.
That RuPa Tower – Lovely structure in the middle of the lake
Although you can’t get out to it, That Rupa has a peace and tranquility that you can sense from anywhere around the lake.
Lovely to sit and gaze at during the day, but make sure you make the effort to go and see it when it’s lit up at night for a great photo.
St Joesphs Cathedral – a mini Notre Dame
I presumed that the gates around the steps were to stop people congregating, but armed with info that you could access the church from the side we set off walking to the left of the building in search of the door.
The plaque on the gate said that mass was held twice daily but on approaching the doors we saw a sign that said please do not enter. Walking round to the far side of the church we found an open door and taking a sneaky peak could see extensive restoration and ‘sprucing’ going on with a strong smell of paint.
It was a shame we couldn’t look inside properly but the sight of a ‘mini notre dame’ in bustling Hanoi was worth the 15 minute stop.
Note that you can cross the bridge and take photos without it costing a penny – you buy your ticket at one side of the bridge and show it to the person on the other side as you go into the temple itself, but there were plenty of people on the bridge who didn’t want to spend the money but still wanted their holiday pic and this didn’t seem to be a problem at all.
Ho Lao Prison – One of the best museums in Hanoi
Having only heard reference of the prison from the detained US Pilots and information surrounding them, learning about its primary creation by the French and it’s purpose was eye opening and informative.
Some of the exhibits were eerie, understandably with the number of Vietnamese that were tortured and killed there, and it is a credit to them that they have preserved a small portion of the prison to illustrate their struggle, where a lot of the land has been sold to commercial business.
However, where the information about what the French did to the Vietnamese was at the ‘hard sell’ end of information, and I have no doubt and am not doubting that atrocities were committed there, the small part of the museum dedicated to the detention of American pilots seemed to be a lot more sugarcoated and slightly at odds to most of what I had read about their detention prior to my visit.
I found the whole experience interesting and well worth the visit, but as with all museums (particularly in Vietnam) go with an open mind.
Haon Kiem Lake
Lovely and shaded to walk around during the day, perfect for a stroll in the evening or after dinner.
Great to watch the locals engaging in yoga and thai chi in the cooler hours, and great opportunities for photographs of the temples (Ngoc Son & That Rupa) at any time.
Make the effort to stroll around, it’s so relaxing to be on the leafy walkways while the frenetic Hanoi traffic circles around the lake, you almost forget the noise.
Opera House – Good Looking Building to take note of as you walk by
Great for a spot of people watching before visiting the museums located behind.
Vietnamese Women’s Museum – Interesting yet sometimes vague
I found the museum intriguing and at first enjoyed looking at the exhibits and learning about the role of women. However, on reaching the women in war section I quickly became desensitised as the exhibit didn’t really give any information about women on the other side or the ones that worked outside the Viet Cong or women’s general role in society. All there was was a series of pictures of Viet Cong female members, their rank, how many they killed and how they died etc. It seemed to be a top 20 female army commanders exhibit rather than one examining the role of women in the war.
The other floors showed exhibits about family life, wedding rituals (which coming from a different culture I found interesting) and the role of women in religion (which although I read every bit of info I still felt a little lost on) as well as a bit about traditional crafts, farming and agricultural roles of women in villages.
I found some of the details throughout the museum to vary from vague to non-existent bordering on propaganda so on open mind is definitely needed for this one.
The best bit about the museum was a short documentary about the role of women as street vendors, and I felt I learned more about their plight and everyday life in society than anything else in the museum.
Military History Museum
As one of 7 National Museums in Vietnam, this is one of the largest – its located in the same area as Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, it’s not hard to miss with the giant flag tower and collection of weaponry at the front of the main building. It has war machinery from Vietnam and China alongside captured US and soviet made planes and helicopters. The yard out the back is quite extensive and you are able to climb inside some of the helicopters for a close up look.
The museum itself if quite dark and a little dry in subject matter, particularly in the exhibits behind the main building, but it serves as a reminder to the atrocities of war.
Than long imperial city – (citadel)
Located between the Mausoleum and the Military History Museum, the Citadel is a collection of structures, palaces and ruins of a bygone era and civilization. Its a really nice, quiet place to walk round, with great photo opportunities, and away from most of Hanoi’s tourists.
Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
This was on our itinerary and although we visited the outside of this magnificent structure – and were lucky enough to see the changing of the guard (a ceremony that would rival its equivalent at Buckingham Palace (UK)), we missed out on going inside as we were not fully up to date with the erratic opening times (8am-11am Tue-Thurs, Sat & Sunday – last entry 10.15am – but double check with your hotel when you are there and note that for a couple of months of the year Ho Chi Minh is shipped off to Russia for maintenance.)
If we went back – I would make sure we went in. If you arrive and it’s closed make sure you check out the One Pillar Pagoda & the Military History Museum.