Hanoi was the first city we visited in our 1 week trip to Vietnam. It was my second Indochina experience and I initially thought it would be somewhat similar to the cool, relaxed vibe of Siem Reap. Obviously I soon realised that Hanoi and Siem Reap could not be more different. In general, I found the country very unique and unlike her Indochina neighbours despite socialism being their common style of governance. Hanoi has a somewhat ‘strict’ energy – things are running quite fast and hard and people are not waltzing around with curious smiles as they try to get to know you. There is so much history in the architecture and the propaganda machine is palpable. Here are some of our experiences.
As befitting the price, it is not a luxury property with luxury facilities, but it certainly makes up for it by really going 150% with service and extra touches like fresh flowers and laptop in the room, and a very useful heater/light in the bathroom. Upon arrival you are made to feel very welcomed and staff bends over backwards to ensure that your needs are met with a smile. A driver picked us up from the airport to the hotel and also back to the airport at a reasonable cost. The location is also ideal – right in the heart of the old quarter and three minute walk to the Lake Hoan Kiem. All the main sights can be done on foot e.g. Hanoi Hilton, even Ho Chi Minh complex, the Opera House etc. We were happy we chose this place because the location was ideal and because the service and extra touches made by the hotel staff. If you are looking for an inexpensive place to stay mainly to see the city and not linger around the hotel, then this is a highly recommended choice.
- Old Quarter Hanoi: It would be an incomplete trip without either staying in the Old Quarter or spending alot of time there. This is where the main lake is, the shopping (for nice art pieces, silks and lacquer) and central to the many main sights (e.g. Opera House, St. Joseph’s cathedral & chilling by the lake).
We also got ourselves some art for the house from D&C Art Gallery. A rice field of green and the beautiful streets of Vietnam with local ladies dressed in their traditional outfits. A friend noted that Vietnamese paintings often had only silhouettes of a people’s back, and we started to realise that too… wonder if there is any reason for it!
- Hoa Lo Prison – Important part of history – Wanted to understand what the Vietnamese people had been through in terms of foreign occupation and of course understand how past armed conflicts are presented in various narratives. It was a good learning process of how victor’s justice plays itself out and how yet again, there are no real good sides or bad sides to geo-politics, just which values are you more affiliated with.
- Ho Chi Ming Presidential Palace and Masoleum – What’s a trip to Viet Nam for if we don’t try to capture a little snippet of HCM. Very well preserved. Don’t miss it if you’re in Hanoi. The Mausoleum however was somewhat… more austere. There were uniformed soldiers everywhere and presenting yourself in the most obsequious manner is expected should you want to visit Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. My husband was told off by guards who thought he was putting his hand in his pocket (he wasn’t) and we saw another visitor shouted at because he had on a cap (that’s not allowed, apparently??). Admittedly, it left me with an uncomfortable aftertaste – as I mentioned in other posts, there is an unbearable suffocation that comes with being within a police state which really makes me want to flee. I also struggle to reconcile how the elevation of leaders and cult personalities happen in a regime that is meant to stand for equality of all people.
- Can Go Vietnamese Restaurant – The view of the lake and greenery was very beautiful and the restaurant was quite stylishly done. Service too, was generally good. Sadly, the most unfortunate aspect was the cuisine. We had gone there pinning all our hopes of Vietnamese cuisine on this restaurant and tried to limit our food intake during the day to save ourselves for the nigh. We ordered spring rolls, chef recommended fish in passion fruit sauce and squid with lime and chilli. Portions were appalling, presentation was underwhelming, and the taste was truly unremarkable. I am not a food critique but I’ve been in enough variety of restaurants to understand that that was not inspiring. Come for the view and maybe some coffee and desert but not for the food.
- Hanoi Social Club – We only ordered cafe late and croissant, which was average, so probably can’t comment too much on the food served. But it was a nice cafe at a well situated pocket of the old quarter, decked in vintage deco and interesting art. It was the first place we went to after arriving in Vietnam as we got in pretty early at about 9 a.m. and thought we could start our sightseeing after dropping off our things at the nearby hotel by injecting some fuel to our engine here. Service was perfunctory though not particularly warm or inviting. We recommend it as a convenient, stylish and atmospheric location to start your day at the Old Quarter.
Hanoi I find was very different to most of South East Asia, different to the rest of Indochina and in fact different even to Ho Chi Minh City. It has clearer influences from China, and a still lingering anti-West hangover (understandably). There are so many historical sites to visit and sadly as we were moving on to other parts of Vietnam we didn’t visit Halong Bay but if we ever return we would certainly give that a try. I can’t say that it’s my favourite city in the region as I don’t find it aesthetically very interesting (for me, anyway), nor are the people super-friendly but I definitely enjoyed learning and absorbing her very distinctive vibe. I would recommend it as a place to visit in Asia mainly to capture all of the diversity that this part of the world has to offer politically, socially, culturally and architecturally.