My dear friend MP came to visit me in Vietnam for the New Year and I jumped on the occasion to see a little more of the country in her company. We had lots of fun, ate new street food and saw beautiful scenery. One of our main stops was the capital city of Hanoi, where we spent a few days and made it our base to see a few things in the North. Here’s a quick city guide of things I've enjoyed over there.
Where to stay
We made it a point to stay in the Old Quarter to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the city. There are lots of great little budget hotels in the area. We stayed at the Little Hanoi Diamond, who had just undergone re-branding. It’s budget, clean, has very friendly service, breakfast is included and tea and coffee are served all day, free of charge. Very nice with that chilly January weather we had!
Where to eat
For lunch, make it a point to try the local Hanoi specialties served in the street restaurants. The best ones are specialized on just a few dishes, which makes it easy to order, even if you don’t speak the language. My favorite thing to eat over there is Bun Chá (grilled pork meat in broth served with side of rice noodles). A great clean spot is Noodle and Roll. We went twice for lunch!
Where to stop for coffee
You’re in Vietnam, you must stop for coffee often! There is an omnipresent coffee culture here. The delicious local stuff is made from Robusta coffee beans (as opposed to the Arabica we Westerners are used to), is dripped into the cup from an aluminium filter and is served hot or with ice. Do as the locals do and order it with a dash of condensed milk. We went to Paris Deli in the French Quarter and to Moca Cafe, next to the St. Joseph Cathedral.
What to see
Walking around the Old Quarter provides you with at least a day of discoveries and shopping. Stop by the Dong Xuan market if you are in the mood for a hard bargain. Watch out though, it’s PACKED in the afternoon and the Vietnamese will not hesitated to push you to get their merchandise through the aisles!
An out-of-this-world experience is to go see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in the morning. You are led through a square, very USSR-Communist-like concrete building where you end up in a Chamber, with the embalmed body of General Ho Chi Minh, the country’s hero who died before he saw the Reunification in the 1970s. It’s guarded by four soldiers, and you must keep walking along while contemplating it. Very weird experience, and worth the detour.
Also, a walk around the Hoan Kiem Lake can be nice. Take the opportunity to go towards the French Quarter to see the Opera House, the high-end designer boutiques and the historical Hôtel Métropole, which opened in 1901 and is a hallmark of French Indochina, now under the Sofitel brand. A corridor next to the lobby is dedicated to its history and famous patrons. Charlie Chaplin stayed there!
Where to shop
Every street in the Old Quarter is specialized in producing different items. The Bat Dan street boasts many shops selling sewing supplies, buttons, and haberdashery items in general. Perfect for your DIY fashion needs. Also, Hang Trong street, next to the St. Joseph Cathedral, has many shops selling beautiful reproductions of old propaganda posters and prints. All over the Old Quarter, look out for shops with a sign saying “Made in Vietnam”. They sell overstock from many factories around the country producing clothing for Mango, Zara, H&M, Forever21, BCBG Max Azria, Banana Republic and much more.
Where to go for a day trip
I have gone to see Halong Bay from Hanoi, which is a few hours away by bus. Many 2- or 3-day cruises are offered, but you can choose the day-trip option. I think a cruise is best for summertime, whereas the visibility is not the best during wintertime and the weather is cold and humid, which made us pick the latter. My favorite experience outside Hanoi was hands-down the trip to the Perfume Pagoda. It is located two hours away from the capital. The bus drops you off at a pier, where a small boat rowed traditionally by women take you upstream for one hour to a first pagoda. You then take a ski-style cable car up the mountains to the Perfume Pagoda, which is located in a cave. Breathtaking views.
We had a lot of fun, even if the nightlife is non-existent (read illegal)! The cooler winter temps made for a nice change from the South of the country! Check it out, it's a budget-friendly capital with lots of character. What's not to like?
All pics by MP.
All pics by MP.