Jan 4-7, 2015
Exploring the Northern Capital of Vietnam - Hanoi
Location: Hanoi, Vietnam
The Epic Ride to Hanoi
The epic 26-hour sleeping bus ride from Luang Prabang (Laos) to Hanoi (Vietnam) was numbing to say the least. It was dark and drizzling when we arrived Hanoi. After a few difficulties getting our bearing at the bus terminal, we finally got under way by riding a moto-taxi then a XeBuyt (local bus) to the flower market where we were to be picked-up by Tuyen's Hanoi friend. She would be our gracious host for the duration of our Hanoi trip.
Hanoi is cold at this time of year. We had to bundle up. Our shire was a skip away from West Lake, the biggest lake within Hanoi. With its 18km circumference, you see the more established 5-star hotels (Sheraton and Hotel Inter Continental) and high-priced condos along its shoreline. It's an ideal place to jog or bike around, fish or just mood away with the lake's misty drape.
Exploring Hanoi by Bike
For the most part, Tuyen and I explored Hanoi on a bike, stopping here and there for what seems like something interesting. We biked around the lakes, visiting other neighborhoods and just stopped for food whenever we see a crowd of locals lining up to what looks like a popular place. Hanoi is where you find the best street food which is common knowledge in Vietnam. The internationally famous Pho rice noodle soup has its origin here in Hanoi.
Old Quarter is the closest thing to Bangkok's Khaosan Road. The backpacker havens are here - tour agencies, dorm lodging, bus ticketing, cafes and eating places. The streets are narrow and the structures are old. Up to now, Old Quarter remains the enclave of family-run businesses who specialize in particular trades for generations.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam. A place is always better appreciated when you know the series of events in its history that shaped the people and culture to what it is today. Hanoi's history dates back to as early as 1010 as the political center of Vietnam. But let's fast forward to...
- 1802 - the Nguyen Dynasty unified Vietnam moving its capital from Hanoi to Hue. Hanoi played a lesser role
- 1873 - the French occupies Hanoi reducing the Nguyen kings' role as ministerial figureheads
- 1940 - the French flee as Japanese forces occupy Hanoi during WWII
- 1945 - with the defeat and withdrawal of the Japanese, Hanoi became the seat of government for Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh government
- 1946 - with the Japanese gone, the French tries to take back Hanoi from the Viet Minh government. This started a 9-year war between the communist forces of Ho Chi Minh and the French
- 1954 - the French suffers defeat from the communists at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu prompting the signing of the Geneva Accords at the Geneva Conference (1954), giving North Vietnam its independence with Hanoi as its capital. This divided Vietnam between the communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam at the 17th Parallel. This also ended French involvement in Indochina. The US was not involved in the conflict yet but it sent military advisers to South Vietnam.
- 1964 - the US alleged that North Vietnamese forces torpedoed US destroyers in an unprovoked attack at the now infamous, "Tonkin Gulf Incident". This was the start of the American military intervention into the Vietnam War that would last another 9 years. Hanoi was heavily bombed by the US. Decades later, Robert McNamara, then Secretary of State, admitted that the Gulf of Tonkin incident never happened. In short, the incident was the US's pretext to go into war.
- 1975 - the US suffers defeat from the communists and withdraws completely from Vietnam. North and South Vietnam are unified under the communist rule
- Modern Day - Hanoi has been annexing adjacent districts, commune and provinces in its expansion program. It is undergoing a rapid expansion boom with skyscrapers altering the city's landscape. It may soon eclipse Ho Chi Minh City as Vietnam's largest city.
Cham and her Family
Our stay in Hanoi could not have been as comfortable if not for the kindness of Cham and her family. They provided us a place to stay and support for much of what we needed - bicycles, maps, taking us for breakfast and eats. They even invited us to dinner at their new place serving us Hanoi cuisine that cannot be bought in restaurants. Tuyen is lucky to have such generous and giving friends. To Cham and her lovely family, I am grateful.
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Reader Comments:Jx Baliza
(6 Jan, 2015) eat at chaca la vong restaurant. the best. have fun in vietnam!
Van Cong Vien
(6 Jan, 2015) Good luck to you...see you
(6 Jan, 2015) hello Git!! you look great!
(Feb 3, 2015) Travelling light
Next stop: Boat Cruising on Halong Bay
Hanoi (city), Vietnam
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Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) to Old Quarter, Hanoi by Bus
The airport is about 30kms away from the Old Quarter so it could be pricey if you cab it. For budget travelers, there is the air-conditioned tourist bus #86 which starts from inside the airport when you walk out the door and takes you all the way to Old Quarter for only VND35k, 30 mins.
NOTE: if you use Google Maps, it will tell you that you have to walk 1km to catch the #86 bus along the main road - this is wrong!
FYI / Tips
- Hanoi's Old Quarter is the backpacker area like Bangkok's Khaosan Road. The tourist establishments (hotels, restos, travel/tour agencies, cafes) are interspersed with local traditional businesses
- Grab XeOm or moto taxis are abundant
- street culture is alive and kicking at the Old Quarter. Family-owned and managed shophouses who have been doing their trade for generations are still around. Old Quarter hasn't been touched by shopping malls yet.
- best place to exchange foreign currency is with the jewelry/gold shops (see list on map). Worst place are the tour shops/hotels.
- BEWARE of resto tourist traps. Usually, they sell only one meal like Bun Cha. No menu, no prices. They are crafty in herding unsuspecting tourists (you will notice no local eats there) and serve them the Bun Cha without asking them (because it's the only thing they sell). You'll just be jolted when you receive the bill. I was had for VND 90k!
Things to do, Places to go in Hanoi
- Old Quarter - this is old Hanoi where family-owned business flourished with its specialty trade. The streets are narrow and busy. Nowadays, it's the center for backpackers visiting Hanoi
- lakes - Hanoi is littered with many big lakes, some of them have numerous pagodas along its bank. West Lake is the largest with an 18km circumference, ideal for joggers, hobby fishing and just finding quiet time
- Tran Quoc Pagoda - the oldest Buddhist temple in Hanoi lying on its peninsula by West Lake
- Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum - it's a massive marble structure housed inside an expansive park with manicured gardens
Vietnam FYI / Tips / Dos and Don'ts
- Vietnamese smokers used to smoke in air-conditioned establishments, air-conditioned buses packed with people including women, children and babies. But this habit seems to be changing now.
- Vietnam ranks almost the same as Thailand and Cambodia for cheap price. Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia cost more
- internet speed is generally fast and reliable but during important events like Tet holiday, election, etc., it slows down
- Vietnamese generally do not speak or understand much English. It will be a challenge.
- only Vietnamese Dong is accepted as legal tender (change your dollars into Dong)
- best to dress appropriately, not revealing too much skin (Saigon is an exception - the ladies there set the trend in very short shorts)
- remove your shoes when entering a home or place of worship
- ask first before taking someone's picture. If they say no, don't persist or offer money
- best to carry your hotel's business card with you when going out. You can just show it to the cab driver or XeOm driver if they don't understand English
- leave your valuables, passport, travel tickets, etc. with the hotel's safety deposit box
- when lying down, don't point your feet or the soles of your shoes to anyone or to a family altar
- carry only enough cash for your needs that day
- don't lose your temper in public - Vietnamese people are warm, generous and polite. They look down on people who lose their composure
- don't take pictures of military installations
- refrain from taking videos of minority people until permitted to do so
General Travel Tips
- avoiding scams - as a general rule, I ignore the touts or anyone I don't know who call out to me. The calling comes in many forms - "Hi! Where are you from?", "Excuse me! Excuse me!", "Where are you going?". I don't look them in the eye and I remain non-verbal with them. If you reply to them, you just gave them an 'in' to hound you. In order not to look rude, I smile and wave the 'not interested' hand to them, without looking at them.
- power bank - hand-carry your power bank. Do not check it in. You can be called in when you are already inside the plane to go all the way to the loading dock so you can personally remove the power bank...and chances are, you'll have to surrender it to them. And you might delay the plane departure!
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