From art to food, history and spas, Australian traveller Lance Richardson points out many reasons to visit Hanoi.
The Hanoi traffic is an alarming introduction to the Vietnamese capital, though locals are acclimatized to the chaos. Visitors should be wary of hiring a motorbike straight off the plane – instead, jump on the back of a taxi bike for a thrilling tour through the Old Quarter and a crash-course in road rules. A good rule of thumb: when you can walk across the street without flinching, only then is it time to contemplate a rental.
Museum of the Revolution
More propaganda can be found in the fascinating Museum of the Revolution on Tong Dan Street. Charting liberation movements from 1858 to 1945, there’s next to no explanations accompanying anything. But the assorted objects offer a curious window onto an alternative reading of significant 20th-century events, including a small padlock supposedly used by Australian workers to lock the parliament building in support of the Vietnamese revolutionary movement.
The infamous “Hanoi Hilton” – dubbed thus by American prisoners during the Vietnam War – was constructed by the French in 1896 over the top of Phu Khanh Village. Its history is long and grisly, only selectively recounted in the several rooms that remain of what was once a much larger site. Cells occupied by life-like shackled mannequins are particularly evocative, the soundtrack accompanying a guillotine and a grandiose shrine to “patriotic prisoners” less so. Like the Museum of the Revolution, a full understanding of what happened here requires additional reading.
Besides the motorbikes, few things define Vietnam like the food. To visit the country without hunkering down on a footstool for a bowl of “pho ga” (chicken noodle soup) is like visiting Italy and abstaining from pasta. There are plenty of restaurants aimed at tourists in Hanoi – skip them. Find a vendor on the footpath and follow a few rules. Choose from the food you can see, not from a menu. Offer a fixed amount of money before asking for the price, thereby heading off the inevitable overcharge.
The French influence
The French colonialists left more than an infamous prison and several guillotines: they left a Vietnamese baking culture that has, over the years, permeated Australia through its immigrant communities. Numerous bakeries in the Old Quarter sell a familiar line-up of almond bread and baguettes (and the famous “Vietnamese sandwich“). For interest, compare these offerings to traditional pastries called “banh”, which are glutinous rice mixed with various savoury ingredients, wrapped in leaves and boiled in a square or moon shape.
For the more adventurous gourmands, a short drive out to Le Mat, the “snake village”, delivers an unforgettable meal. Choose an attractive snake, haggle a price, then sit quietly as your selection is flayed at the table, its blood and bile dripped into shot glasses filled with rice wine. Men should swallow the heart (for virility). When the dishes arrive, chew very slowly (for snake bones). Yes, it tastes like chicken.
Tea, coffee and rice wine
There is so much liquid in Vietnamese food it sometimes seems like locals never need to drink but these three exceptions can be found nearly everywhere. Tea is particularly popular, with lotus tea a specialty. Coffee comes in several types, with “Ca phe sua da” a delicious shot over sweetened condensed milk served with ice. Rice wine, with an alcohol content of 18 percent to 25 percent, should be treated more like vodka. It is impolite to refuse if you are a dinner guest. Or a breakfast guest, actually.
The heart of the Old Quarter is Hoan Kiem (Returned Sword) Lake, which, despite its toxic green colour, offers a pleasant respite for pedestrians from the frantic game of Frogger that constitutes the rest of the traffic-heavy area. The 18th-century Ngoc Son Temple, on Jade Island, can be reached via the beautiful Huc Bridge but another lesser-known haven is Balcony Bar, overlooking the lake from its first-floor nest of fairy lights on Le Thai To Street.
Seen in their original setting of 11th-century villages around the Red River Delta, “the puppets that dance on water” would have seemed a spectacular and magical display of human ingenuity. In the tiered theatre on the edge of Hoan Kiem Lake, the musicians and puppeteers look bored and slightly bemused by the modern addition of fog machines. A final sequence, in which a carp is transformed into a graceful dragon, makes it worth the US$3 admission fee.
Vietnam’s first university and a monument to scholars, the Temple of Literature was built in 1076 and is featured on the back of the VND100,000 banknote (US$4.50). Though it has been reconstructed numerous times over the centuries, the Confucian mainstay preserves a classic architectural style with a citadel, courtyards and large lake. It remains one of Vietnam’s most popular historical sights.
National Tuong Theatre
A government company founded in 1959 and situated in the Old Quarter, the Tuong Theatre aims to preserve traditional styles of acting, dancing and music, such as Nha Nhac, a musical genre designated an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2003. The theatre offers performances every Thursday and Friday night, combining five scenes from Tuong plays (with English subtitles).
Vietnam Women’s Museum
An unexpected gem, this recently renovated institution examines Vietnam through the lens of its female population, including their war efforts, participation in the struggle for independence, marriage customs and traditional dress. One notable exhibition features photographs taken by poor Hanoi street vendors, trained to use a camera so they could document the process of setting up businesses in Soc Son district.
Everything in Asia is cheaper, right? It depends. “Non la” (conical hats) and army caps with the iconic red star are affordable souvenirs and fakes are everywhere. For genuine Levis, Adidas, Gucci or North Face, however, prices aren’t significantly different to those in Europe and Australia. For the real deal, try the Cho Hang Da market.
Just when you think the Old Quarter couldn’t possibly hold any more stuff, it surrenders Hang Giay and Hang Dao streets to a seemingly infinite line of illuminated orange stalls every Friday and Saturday night. Much of the material on sale is an extension of the surrounding shops but the festive atmosphere is infectious. Think wallets, Buddhas, plush buttons and wall lights shaped like teapots. You can even find greetings cards with a pop-up Sydney Opera House.
Karaoke may have originated in Japan, but its blend of shamelessness and self-abandon is universal in appeal. It seems like every moderately sized city in Vietnam has its fair share of karaoke parlours, even if the government considered a karaoke dancing ban in 2009 (linking it with drugs and prostitution). In Hanoi, try Cua Dong Street in the Old Quarter. Be careful of hidden costs, though, and ask for a room inspection before agreeing to pick up the microphone.
Sleeper trains to Lao Cai
When the urban jungle of Hanoi proves too exhausting, a good salve can be found in the form of an overnight sleeper train heading north to Lao Cai, gateway to Sapa and its indigenous mountain villages. Each carriage on the train functions as an independent company, with differing levels of quality and service. Prepare for a bumpy ride but the destination is worth the trip.