I last visited Hanoi with my brother in 2012 and remember not really liking the place: it was busy and outside of the airport, a whole queue of people seemed to wait to try and rip you off in one way or another. With this expectation, Sue and I hopped on the short flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi anticipating a couple of nights just dealing with staying in Hanoi before we were due to head to Halong Bay. My expectations couldn’t have been more wrong…
Falling in Love
Right from the moment we landed at the new (since 2015) Noi Bai airport, the whole experience was very different. The airport has had a new terminal built which has improved things so much from the dreary terminal and disorganised immigration I remember. It’s no surprise that the airport received an award for World’s Most Improved Airport from Skytrax (it was starting at a pretty low base but the new terminal really is very nice)!
Last time the moment you came out of the airport arrivals hall you were greeted by a throng of people trying to hawk you a taxi ride. This time though, it was a simple case of finding our transfer and we set off to our hotel, the Silk Queen Grand Hotel. On arrival, the staff couldn’t have been more welcoming and in our room, to help celebrate our honeymoon was an impressive towel arrangement and a whole cake (which Sue just about managed to stop herself eating straight away!!).
We freshened up and wandered into the town to get some dinner.
A Vibrant City
Perhaps we just didn’t go to the right parts of the city last time but this felt like a different place. It was still busy, and you still had to watch in ever direction for scooters (even if you were on the pavement!) but it just felt different. There was a real buzz to the place and as we approached the night markets on Hang Dao we were getting more and more drawn in.
It might have helped that we felt like millionaires after drawing out cash (one GB Pound is worth about 30,000 Vietnamese Dong)!
We followed the Lonely Planet’s recommendations and headed to La Place next to the stunning St. Joseph’s Cathedral. It’s a great place with the traditional Hanoi building style – a long tall building with very little frontage (taxation used to be based on the width of your property). We climbed up the staircase and enjoyed our meal on a rickety balcony overlooking the cathedral.
After dinner we headed back onto the streets around the Night Market and Haon Kiem Lake. At weekends here the streets are shut off from traffic (although naturally the odd scooter still gets through!). This allows all the locals to congregate to do pretty much anything they fancy – we saw various groups from middle age women synchronised-dancing to Frank Sinatra to young teenagers jamming together with their guitars and kids playing uno or giant Jenga! The night was topped off with an amazing performance by a group playing Lady Gaga with an electric violin lead.
Our new love affair with Hanoi continued the next morning when we set off to walk around the lake and were constantly accosted by groups of children learning English. It was really special to be able to spend a few minutes chatting with them so they could practice their English whilst we learnt a bit more about their lives too.
An Eclectic City
We had planned for one whole day in Hanoi before we headed off to Halong Bay so we decided to wander around the city to try and get a bit more of a flavour for the place. It’s a huge city with a lot of sights so we set off towards the Ho Chi Minh Museum.
Hanoi is a mad city and everywhere you look there are scooters or cars and there’s seems to be little adherence to any form of highway code (other than the rule that you need to beep your horn at least once every ten seconds). It makes wandering around the city both an exciting adventure (every time you cross the road feels like you’ve completed some form of extreme sport) and terrifying nightmare (every time you think you’ve got the knack of it, you almost get run over by a scooter, bike or bus!). It really is incredible the crazily small gaps that the Vietnamese will get a scooter through, it doesn’t matter if there’s just enough room for a bike and there’s people sat down in the road – they’ll get it through!
We stopped for a quick bite to eat and coffee and realised we were by one of Hanoi’s quirkier tourist attractions, the Vietnam Military Museum. This museum/piece of propaganda does tell an interesting (if slightly one-sided) view of Vietnam’s history in particular it’s independence from first China, then France and finally the Vietnam War (or American War as they call it). The highlight of the museum is definitely the left over planes, guns and tanks from the wars which they have on display.
Ho Chi-ed Out
After this grounding in Vietnamese Propaganda, we thought we were adequately prepared to hit the Ho Chi Minh Museum. We didn’t quite make it though as we were distracted first by the impressive Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. You can only get in to see Ho Chi Minh’s embalmed body in the mornings and alongside having to queue, the whole concept seemed a bit morbid to us so we’d decided to skip that! However, we did decide to check out the square that surrounds it – it’s quite imposing as you can see in the pics below and you have to make sure you don’t stray outside the (not hugely obvious) lines marking where you can and can’t step. So how we found ourselves going from this into gardens surrounding the old Presidential Palace where you can see where Ho Chi Minh lived, where Ho Chi Minh lived, the cars Ho Chi Minh was driven in and Ho Chi Minh’s favourite place to go walking.
Frankly after all this Ho Chi Minh memorabilia we were pretty Ho Chi Minh-ed out so the museum was canned and we headed to out for dinner instead!