Why you Need to Visit Hanoi, Vietnam

Why you Need to Visit Hanoi, Vietnam
I’m lucky to be able to say that I am well traveled.  I’ve navigated the narrow alleyways in Marrakech and floated through the islands of Greece.  I’ve been paragliding in Colombia and scuba diving in Hawaii.  And while I haven’t seen it all, I feel relatively unfazed by culture shock.  Yet here I found myself on the other side of the world, covering my head, saying a prayer, and screaming bloody murder while I made a run for it across the bustling streets and I was… well, shocked.
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam, yet it is far more traditional than the larger, and more cosmopolitan, southern city of Ho Chi Minh. The run down and relaxed Hanoi is often overlooked by tourists as simply a transit to the rice paddies of Sapa or the gorgeous waters of Halong Bay.  And while I’m sure Sapa is great and Halong Bay is stunning, Hanoi’s got it’s own splendor if you give it a chance.
Hanoi, Vietnam 
Hanoi is magical in a way that only a true nomad can appreciate. The sights, the smells, the food, the absolute chaos, the tranquility… it’s all at once miserably overwhelming and perfectly beautiful.  I fell in love with the people and their quickness to laughter. I was enthralled by the history and religion.  And the food? Nothing will ever compare. Hanoi was a city I wanted to return to before I had even left.


Where to Stay
I recommend staying at the Hanoi Elegance in the old quarter.  It is a chain of boutique hotels that offer impeccable service and accommodations for an affordable rate.  Great locations, wonderful staff and an impressive complimentary breakfast spread had me hooked.

For a five star hotel experience I recommend the Sofitel in the French quarter.  You will not feel any Vietnamese culture here, but you will find this hotel to be a French colonial sanctuary.

What to Do
I recommend setting up a local tour guide (cost will be around $35/day) with the front desk when you arrive.  Without one, you will not be able to cross the street and therefore stuck exploring only the block that your hotel is located on.  No really, you need to be taught how to cross the street here.  It’s pandemonium.  Picture 1 vespa with a family of five clutching on zipping through hundreds of other vespas carrying an equal load of people/random objects (saw someone on the freeway with a 8 foot rug on the back of her bike).

Start at the Ngoc Son Temple to pay your respects to Confucius and lost loved ones. From here walk along the tranquil Hoan Kiem Lake, keeping your eyes peeled for rare turtle sitings.

Ngoc Son Temple

Head to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum to descend into the frozen cellar where Ho Chi Minh’s corpse spends 7 months out of the year (for 3 months he takes a vaca to Switzerland for preservation).  This area is heavily patrolled with guards who enforce the no photography, no talking and no bare shoulders policies.  From here you can stroll through his humble home and surrounding gardens. Having a local guide here is invaluable – you will get a much more raw story than what the pamphlet provides.

Off to the Temple of Literature to visit the nations first University and pay homage to, you guessed it, Confucius.  Make sure to rub the turtle and bird statues for good luck.

Moving on to the Military Museum. For me, I wanted to be in and out of here as quickly as possible.  My father and uncle were both in the Vietnam war… and I am all to aware of the lasting aftermath of agent orange and land mines on the current population.  The place shows the dark reality of extreme torture in some areas and in others glorifies how well the U.S. were treated at the nicknamed “Hanoi Hilton”.  One room houses John McCain’s uniform, which was kept after his plane was shot down and his imprisonment began.

Museums and temples, check.  Now on to the pulse of Hanoi.

Spend your afternoon exploring the streets of the Old Town.  In years passed, each street name denoted the artisans or handicrafts occupying that address.  Now, the street signs don’t exactly still line up, but you will start to notice some kind of organization amongst the chaos.  You might be covering your face from the sparks of metal fabrication before taking a right down a street overflowing with every imaginable paper mache replica meant as offerings for the deceased.   Another street might be home to electronics and another will be selling dogs, cats, and turtles.  If you’re not on the brink of an anxiety attack, then make your way into the Dong Xuan Market – where $20 could buy you enough food for a month, 3 pairs of shoes, and a knock off watch.

The little old lady in yellow.  No Fs.

To decompress, head to the French Quarter for old warm charm and – thank Buddah – wider streets that are easily navigated.  The French Quarter is home to elegant hotels, 5 star restaurants and the grand Opera House.

Still riddled with shock from Old Town?  I can’t promise a Thai Massage will necessarily relax you, but it will clear your mind.  You will see massage parlors sprinkled throughout the city.  Take your shoes off and indulge in a mini spa day for less than your typical starbucks order costs.

Once you’ve regained some sense of self, you’re ready for the pubs in Old Town.  Grab an ice cold beer and park on a minuscule plastic bench with the locals.

What to Eat!!!
You’re going to need to keep your tour guide around or employ a new one to help you navigate the street food utopia you’ve found yourself in.  But basically, you should fast for at least a month before your trip to Vietnam so you can absolutely gorge yourself when you arrive.

There are a few rules. The best places are the ones with the lines.  These narrow garage door storefronts will generally serve 1 or 2 dishes, and that’s it.  But that’s all they need.  Some of the soups have been using the same broth for years (one even for 100 years!). The chefs just keep adding to it each day. Also noteworthy to mention that the chef is often an elderly woman, working tirelessly, 7 days a week.

1. First things first.  You’ll have to try one of Hanoi’s many coffee variations. Cafe sua da is made with condensed milk, and is the most popular version, but I prefer the coffee mixed with frozen yogurt.  Yum.  Picture below was take from the upstairs lounge of Cafe Giang.

2. Roll your own spring rolls of heaven (that can’t be the Vietnamese pronunciation). You have never tried herbs before going to Vietnam.  They are so incredibly fragrant and fresh – and just bursting with flavor.  For these rolls, you place a piece of deep fried rice paper stuffed with fish or meat atop a large flat piece of fresh rice paper.  Go crazy with the herbs, choosing a few – or all – of your favorites. Top with tangy fish sauce. Roll. Bite. Transcend to heaven. Wash it down with a hanoi beer, and do it all over again.

3. Rice noodles, or bun, is a staple here and you will find plenty of varieties from crab to deep fried spring roll bun For me? I’ll take those same fresh herbs from the spring rolls, simmered in aged broth with pork belly, ginger, garlic and spices.  The one pictured below is mind blowing delicious.  It’s called Bun Bo Nam Bo (Address: 67 Hang Dieu)

4. Pho.  Needs no explanation. Just be prepared to indulge with abandon.

As so on and so forth. Truth is the food coma and language barrier kept me from getting a good grasp on the names and ingredients of everything I tried.  What I do remember with vivid clarity is my taste buds exploding in pure bliss.

 

In Closing 
Hanoi isn’t for everyone.  It’s easy to be caught off guard by the dirty and impoverished streets and the crumbling facades. Not to mention the misuse of police power can be downright frightening.  But I don’t know..  something about it.. it just did it for me.  I left a bit of my heart in Hanoi with the easy to smile, beautiful people who inhabit it’s whimsical streets.

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